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1.03 How to write a dissertation

Your topic : Planning and research : Structure of dissertation : Content and style : Referencing

The advice given here is very general in nature: you must always check with your supervisor and with course documentation what the specific requirements are on your course.

A good dissertation will:

have a clear objective, based on a well worked out thesis or central question.
be well planned and widely researched.
show that the student has a good grasp of relevant concepts and is able to apply these in their own work.
include analysis, critical evaluation and discussion, rather than simple description.
contain consistent and correct referencing.
be structured and expressed in an appropriate academic way.
show your tutors that you have learnt something on the course and have been able to use this to produce a well    argued extended piece of academic work.

A mediocre dissertation will:

have a very general or unclear title.
be poorly planned, with a narrow field of research.
rely heavily on source material, with little or no attempt to apply this to the student’s aims.
be mostly descriptive.
contain little or no referencing, perhaps in an incorrect format.
be poorly structured, with possible plagiarism of source material.
not convince your tutors that you have learnt much.

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Some tips on how to produce a good dissertation

Your topic

Start thinking early on about what you would like to write about. Consult as soon as possible with your supervisor for advice on the expected scope of your dissertation. Remember that you will not simply be writing about “IT in Primary Education”, but instead will be focussing on specific aspects, perhaps trying to solve a problem, querying currently held beliefs, or arguing a particular case or “thesis”. Your final title may instead be something like:

A computer for every pupil?
A critical analysis of the over-reliance on Information Technology in current UK primary education.

This title will therefore probably need to be refined over the weeks before you agree the final version with your supervisor.

Planning and research

Your dissertation is a major commitment and will be a long way to deciding your final award. It is obviously very important, therefore, to plan meticulously.

Work out a timetable and stick to it. You really have no excuse to leave things to the last minute. There will always be problems: difficulties in obtaining books or materials; delays in receiving replies to letters or questionnaires; temperamental printers and floppy disks; mysterious dissertation-eating dogs. You must allow for these, however: none is an excuse for not handing in your work on time.

In consultation with your supervisor, draw up an initial reading list, making sure that this is wide-ranging, relevant and as up-to-date as possible. Approach this reading with specific questions in mind; if not, you will waste a lot of valuable time reading irrelevant information.

If you’re going to include some sort of survey or questionnaire, make this as wide as possible, but remember that companies and organisations are swamped with this sort of thing and the response rate will probably be very disappointing.

Most of your writing will probably need redrafting several times, and you must carefully proofread everything you write, or perhaps get someone else to do this for you. Any revisions needed will of course take time, as will the binding of your finished dissertation, if this is necessary.

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Structure of dissertation

As stated, you must check with your supervisor and with course literature what the required structure is, as there are many variations. A basic framework would be:

Title page (See Guide 1.25)
Title, your name, course name, date, name of supervisor

Abstract
(See Guide 1.31)
One paragraph summarising the whole dissertation

Acknowledgements
(See Guide 1.27)
Thanks to those who have assisted you

Table of contents
(See Guide 1.26)
Chapters and/or sections & sub-sections with page numbers

Table of figures

If appropriate

Introduction
(See Guide 1.23)
A presentation of your question/problem/thesis, with a brief outline of the structure of your work

Main body/discussion

The facts, evidence, analysis, evaluation and discussion. All very well structured: arts/social sciences tending towards paragraphs; sciences/engineering towards sections; business a mixture of the two.

Conclusion/findings
(See Guide 1.24
Where you bring it all together, stating very clearly your answer to your central question and if appropriate making recommendations, suggestions etc.

Bibliography
(See Guide 1.14)
A complete list of your sources, correctly formatted.


Appendices

Any information not central to your main text or too large to be included:
for example, complete questionnaires, copies of letters, maps etc.

Other sections you may be asked to include could be terms of reference, procedure, methodology, executive summary, literature review or recommendations.

Avoid footnotes, unless you’re using a numerical referencing system. Avoid too many brackets. Use bold and italics sparingly and consistently. Avoid underlining. Avoid using “etc.”

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Content and style

Your dissertation is a piece of academic work; an intellectual achievement. You are not expected to produce something completely original, but instead, to should show understanding of key issues and theories; evidence of thought and insight; critical analysis and evaluation, and a demonstration that you have been able to research a topic within your professional domain and present your findings appropriately. Simple description is not enough, and will result in a low mark.

You should write in an appropriate academic style, avoiding colloquialisms, contractions, phrasal verbs and vagueness. You do not need, however, to use long, over-formal vocabulary: you should aim at all times for clear and concise expression.

You should normally avoid too much personal language (“I”, “my” etc), although opinions on this vary. As a rule of thumb, only use it when you are describing what you actually did and when you are expressing personal opinions, probably in your conclusion. Don’t refer to yourself as “we” unless you are describing some sort of groupwork, and don’t refer to yourself as “the author”: it’s pompous and confusing.

Avoid using “he/she”, “her/his” etc. The best way to avoid this and still be non-sexist is to make the subject plural whenever possible. (For example, “Teachers should always be in control of their class”.)

In your conclusion, don’t start undermining your work by apologizing for poor results or complaining about lack of time. Always be positive. If there were problems, analyze these objectively in an appropriate place. Any research has weaknesses; they’re part of the process.

Sentences should be well-punctuated, complete but not over-long. Paragraphs should be adequately developed, withnormally at least five or six sentences. You should use linking words or phrases to guide your reader through your writing. Make sure all figures are integrated into your text and referred to.

And remember to consistently and correctly make references to your sources.

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Referencing

Acknowledgement of your sources is a vital and integral part of the academic process. If you do not do this, particularly at dissertation/postgraduate level, you could be accused of plagiarism.

By the time you do your dissertation you should be very clear on how to do this. If not, check with course tutors or in course literature what the preferred method is (normally at Birmingham City University it is the “Harvard Method”) and make sure you know how to use it. It can be a complicated area, but there are many guides and staff to help you (us, for example).

Little or no referencing and a short bibliography indicate little research carried out, a generally un-academic approach and maybe even copying from source material.

Extensive referencing and bibliography indicate wide research, a correct approach and the use of these sources as evidence to back up the student’s argument.

 

Links to further resources on writing dissertations

University of Wales Institute Cardiff
Southampton University

 


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Steve Gould
Last updated: 4 January 2011

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