Dissertations have become an increasingly important component of Higher Education over the past few years, and are often included in third level undergraduate work, as well as forming an important part of any Masters level programme. Dissertations provide you with an opportunity to work independently, at length, on a topic that particularly interests you. It is also an effective means of research training, which helps to develop advanced intellectual skills such as evaluation, analysis and synthesis, as well as management skills. This guide gives advice about how to approach, undertake and evaluate your own dissertation, so that you can make the most of this challenge.
Using this guide
The following advice is made up of four parts:
The dissertation: an overview What is a dissertation?
How to manage your supervisor
The importance of time management
Selecting and researching your topic Choosing a topic: the hunt for an idea
Conducting a literature search or review
Researching and exploring the topic: methods and methodologies
The importance of having a ‘thesis’ and evaluating it critically
Managing your notes
Creating an appropriate structure for the dissertation
Maintaining academic principles: ethics, referencing and intellectual honesty
accuracy and elegance
Being your own critic
Using a checklist to evaluate your own dissertation before you submit it: using your tutor’s assessment criteria
1.0 The Dissertation: an Overview
As preparation for a more detailed consideration of various aspects of dissertation preparation, in this section we review what is meant by the term ‘dissertation’. We also suggest how to ‘manage’ two key resources, your supervisor and your time.
1.1 What is a dissertation?
Before you begin to think about possible topics for investigation, make sure you are clear in your own mind about what a dissertation is. You will be familiar with the principles of essay writing, the most common form of academic writing, but it is worth reviewing briefly what an essay is really designed to do, and looking at how a dissertation may echo but also differ from a standard essay.
Different subject disciplines may emphasise different features, but, broadly speaking, an essay is a continuous piece of writing, arranged in clearly demarcated paragraphs, in which an argument (a clear line of thought) is developed, in response to a central question or proposition (thesis). The line of argument is supported by evidence you have acquired through research, which you are required to analyse, and which supports or contradicts the various perspectives explored in the course of that argument. The essay then reaches a conclusion in the final section, which pulls together the threads of your argument, supporting, qualifying or rejecting the original thesis.
It is worth bearing in mind that an academic essay is not a piece of writing designed to reproduce information available elsewhere, but something new and expressive of yourindividual abilities to analyse and synthesise.
In addition, the process of academic writing will, of itself, help you to learn, by enabling you to work with concepts and information relevant to your subject, and thereby developing your intellectual skills. For a more detailed examination of this topic have a look at the Writing Effectively Guide.
A dissertation follows the fundamental principles of academic writing, but bear in mind the following key points.
It is anextended piece of writing, usually divided into chapters.
Make sure that you know the lower and upper word limits acceptable for your dissertation, and what that will look like in terms of word-processed pages.
Be sure to find out whether you should be following a particular sequence of chapter headings – for example, introduction followed by literature search followed by an experiment or a survey and/or an analysis of your research - or whether you are expected to devise your own sequence and structure.
It containsadetailed exploration of evidence. The evidence referred to may comprise evidence from published texts, for example if you are exploring the literary texts of a particular writer, or it may consist of primary data gathered by your own, first-hand research, for example a sociological study of attitudes to gender roles based on research methods such as interviews and questionnaires.
You are required to be clear about thenature of the methodology you will use for gathering the evidence – why are you collecting data or analysing evidence in that way rather than in another way? This can be a difficult area and there is a separate section on it in 2.2 below.
It must be underpinned throughout by awareness of theory – your argument should be placed within the context of existing theory relevant to the subject.
It has to be presented in a professionally finished manner. Your tutors should give you precise details about the format, layout and stylistic requirements of your assignment. Make sure that you know exactly what these are.
Please remember that the contents of this guide are generic and that it is important to ensure that you adapt them to meet the particular requirements of your discipline.