A lot of people think that writing a dissertation is like writing a longer version of an essay. Certainly, you’ve got an introduction, main body and conclusion. However, if writing an essay is like building a cottage (something cozy, small, and relatively easy to construct), a dissertation is like building the Taj Mahal – they’re both buildings, but the Taj Mahal would be a much greater task, requiring much more time, effort, and skill.
You may love the idea of writing a dissertation at first – like the Taj Mahal, it’s something that will stand the test of time and be a testament to your academic skills. Once you get started, though, you’ll face a lot of challenges, and your life will change over the weeks and months of hard work it takes to sculpt your words. You may even feel like giving up. But a half-built Taj Mahal isn’t very pretty. Take a breath, keep calm – there’s always a solution.
Choosing a dissertation topic sounds easy. You’ve been given the chance to write about something you like, or at least something you feel is worth studying. It’s not like most of the essays you may have written before, which came with titles already attached.
A dissertation proposal is where you outline what your final dissertation is going to be like. It’s meant to persuade your peers that the title you’ve chosen, and the subject you’re writing on, is interesting enough to be studied, and that you’ve got the ability to do it in a way that’s not been written about before.
Dissertations are structured rather differently from essays and more akin to academic books (though, not textbooks).
Dissertations are normally expected to be original research of scholarly quality, but the meanings of “original” and “scholarly” can vary with discipline and level.
Some dissertations contain primary research such as laboratory studies, surveys or a case-study conducted by the author. Others present a sequential argument from which a conclusion is deduced, such as a point-by-point critique of an author’s work. Especially at lower levels such as BA, many dissertations consist of secondary research (drawing new conclusions from already published primary research), or even tertiary research (assessing existing secondary research, such as surveying the impact of an author’s research in the literature).
Every dissertation includes one or more substantive chapters, an introduction and conclusion. What else it contains can vary by discipline and level.
Your department should provide instructions for the format of the title page. It normally includes your name and student ID, department, degree level, dissertation title and date of submission.
Sometimes required for higher-level degrees, an abstract is a short (250-750 word) summary of the entire thesis. Your department should specify if an abstract is required and what length and format it should be.
Although placed at the front of the dissertation after the title page or abstract, the contents page is usually written last in the dissertation; it lists the starting pages for the different sections.
The introduction should explain the basic outline of what you are doing in the dissertation, why you have chosen this topic and how the dissertation is structured. It is common for introductions to situate the dissertation briefly in the wider field or in relation to contemporary issues, and for it to lay out what will be done in each chapter or section. The introduction should close with a paragraph leading smoothly into the main body of the dissertation. Some but not all authors write the introduction after the substantive chapters are written.
This is mandatory if the dissertation consists of primary quantitative or qualitative research, but may not be needed in dissertations in theory subjects or focused on secondary or tertiary research. The importance and size of this section varies with discipline and with the method chosen. As well as setting out the method used, this section should also explain why it has been chosen in preference over other methods, and how it was deployed in the substantive research. Also remember to discuss any questions of research ethics which arise. Some (particularly qualitative and secondary) dissertations will also include a separate theory chapter, which is similar to the method chapter and sets out the theories used to interpret evidence.
Again usually mandatory for primary research and some other topics, a literature review surveys the current state of the literature on the dissertation area or areas, and explains why the dissertation is original and fills a hole in the literature. It should be an in-depth study of the field/s of literature related to the dissertation and how it has informed or is corrected by the dissertation. It is often the first chapter written. In the case of theory dissertations and secondary/tertiary research, the substantive chapters may engage in ongoing dialogue with the literature, in which case a separate literature review chapter may not be necessary.
The main body of your dissertation is comprised of sequential substantive chapters. The number of chapters varies according to the length of your dissertation but the average is from three to five. The idea of the chapter structure is very much like the paragraphs of an essay in that each should address a different aspect of the dissertation you are presenting in your dissertation but never lose sight of the main argument. In quantitative research, the chapters usually consist of a presentation of the research hypothesis and its operationalisation, followed by a presentation of the outcomes, followed by one or more chapters interpreting the outcomes. In other dissertations, it is common for each chapter to deal with a different sub-topic within the overall topic, such as a different case-study, a different set of interview questions or different grounds for comparison of cases. The substantive chapters form the main substance of your dissertation and it is important to show careful use and interpretation of evidence, engagement with and modification of relevant theories in light of your findings, and analysis (not simply description) of any data generated.
Obtain and be aware of style limitations as early as possible. Many departments require that the final dissertation be submitted in a specific style such as Harvard or Oxford Referencing .
Your conclusion should summarise the points made in the argument and provide a synthesis of thought on the main thesis. You should identify possible limitations or gaps in the dissertation, attempt to pre-empt objections and counter-arguments, and situate your findings in the broader literature. The best conclusions also give some indication as to where future research on the topic discussed might lead. In some disciplines, it is also appropriate to point out possible “real world” applications and implications of your research. A conclusion can also open out onto areas which have been bracketed in the main body for reasons of length. For instance, in a dissertation devoted to criticising a body of work, the conclusion could suggest what other bodies of work might be more appropriate, or how you might want to reformulate the field in line with your findings.
The bibliography should begin to be compiled the day you begin to research your dissertation and should never be left until the last minute. Ideally it should evolve as your dissertation does and even when you are making notes you should record sources consulted. Again, remember to check your institution’s style guide for referencing. It is advisable to check your thesis when it is finished, to make sure that no cited items are missing from the bibliography.
Some dissertations require appendices containing additional information referred to within the dissertation such as letters, photographs, maps, charts and diagrams. This is particularly likely in dissertations which perform primary research, in which appendices might include for example a sketch of the area in which the case-study was performed or tables of unanalysed primary data.
Be sure to give yourself time for the thesis to be bound, which may require a day or more. This is the last stage of thesis production, and once bound, your thesis will look an impressive, professional piece of work.
Dissertation Writing Tips
There are three main considerations when you’re writing a dissertation.
Time Management. You’re going to be working on a very substantial piece of work to a deadline, so you’ll need to be able to organise your time carefully. You should aim to finish in plenty of time, so you can proof-read and redraft where necessary. Make a timetable for your life from now until your deadline. Write down all the things that you need to do in your life (e.g., doctor’s appointments, weddings, rows/make-up sessions with your partner, etc.) and use the gaps to write your dissertation. You’ll also benefit from giving yourself mini-deadlines – plan when you want each part finished.
Specific Knowledge. If you want your dissertation to be as good as it can, you need to acquire an in-depth knowledge of your subject area, as well as the dissertation process. Peer-reviewed articles, conference reports, unpublished dissertations (check your university library) and research books will be a huge help.
Research Skills. Even with detailed knowledge, you may get frustrated by the sheer amount of research. You should build on your existing skills, as well as be persistent, able to self-motivate, have an eye for detail, and be able to think creatively and independently.
Without doubt, the above will give you a good starting point. But you shouldn’t leap straight in – your Taj Mahal won’t stand on incomplete foundations.
The first thing you need is a subject area. Ideally, this should be something you have a strong interest in. It’s always a bonus if the subject hasn’t been studied in-depth before. At the very least, you should ensure that your ideas are different from what has already been written in the subject, so you’ve got room to think creatively and put forward strong, original arguments. You may also want to sketch out your ideas in a rough draft, to make sure your arguments are solid before you proceed with the main writing.
Building Your Work
Now you’ve got a plan and spoken with your supervisor (who hopefully approved your work), you need to start your more detailed research. You should use every type of source at your disposal – books and journal articles from your university library, records from city or town archives, electronic copies of books and journals from the internet, past dissertations, everything you can lay your hands on. Your university library should have access vast databases of information, and by reading articles in journals you’ll be able to follow up-to-date debates between critics. You may also find gathering your own data helpful, depending on your subject – use things such as questionnaires, comprehensive field-notes and case studies.
Once you’ve collected your data, you need to analyse it. This will help you ensure that, rather than only mentioning one line of enquiry, your dissertation will be able to compare and contrast different points of view, determining which argument is the strongest.
Putting in Some Style
A dissertation differs quite extensively from an essay in language. Whilst an essay can get away with simpler turns-of-phrase, a dissertation will need to be very clear, concise, and, obviously, academic. It may seem counter-productive to be concise; after all, a dissertation has a much higher word-count than a standard essay. A dissertation, however, has to deal with a lot more information – you may find yourself writing several chapters, whereas in an essay you would deal with the same things in just a paragraph. Because you’re going into more detail and depth, and because the reader has more material to read, it’s vitally important that you keep your language and style focused, concise and sharp. Be sure to read the dissertation guidelines thoroughly to make sure other aspects of style (e.g., use of charts, tables, etc.) are followed closely.
Checking the Joints
You’ve finished the writing – but don’t hand it in just yet. Even though you’ve built the Taj Mahal (or written your dissertation), you still have some work to do to make sure it’s not just a cardboard cut-out.
Set aside your work for a week or two, and then re-read everything. You need to proofread thoroughly, and at the same time make sure your arguments still hold firm – now you’ve distanced yourself from your own work by a fortnight, you can start to test your assumptions and arguments to make sure they’ve been written as well as possible. Make any amendments you need to, be honest with yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for advice!
Writing a dissertation is hard work; but it needn’t be stressful. Be sure to take your time, checking through everything to ensure it’s as strong as it can be. It may seem difficult, but all the hard work and effort will ensure that you write as strong a piece as possible, and you’ll improve your overall academic skills tremendously. If you cut corners, your writing will reflect this – but do things properly, take your time, and follow the advice above, and your work will stand the test of time.
Just like the Taj Mahal!
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