Writing a dissertation


A successful dissertation needs careful planning and resourcing before you even start to write.

By the time you have reached the stage when writing a dissertation is a requirement or an option for you you will already be very familiar with academic writing conventions. You will have been writing essays that require an academic style, Harvard referencing and a high level of analysis and critical thinking. The primary difference between a standard undergraduate essay and a dissertation is simply the length and depth of engagement. With that in mind it is important to pick your topic with care and plan it carefully.

Checklist Guide

  • Picking your topic: Many dissertations can run into trouble simply because the topic has not been chosen carefully. If you have decided that a dissertation is for you then it helps to pick an area that is of genuine interest to you. Remember, you will have to live with this project for a whole academic year so you will need to get on well with it. Having a passion for your topic will help sustain your interest over the course of your research, especially towards the end when you may be flagging and losing motivation. In many ways picking a dissertation topic is like choosing a romantic partner, going for one that looks pretty on the face of it may go disastrously wrong when a few weeks into the relationship you find that you actually have nothing in common, nothing to talk about and are desperate to break-up.
  • Be realistic: It is very tempting, when coming up with a dissertation topic, to go a little crazy and try and include everything that you are interested in, this is a clear recipe for disaster. A dissertation is not your life's work, even a 100,000 word PhD thesis is nowhere near everything that you will ever be able to say on a topic. One of the secrets to a successful dissertation is knowing how to limit the scope of the project so that you maintain control and keep your research focused. Consider, for example, a dissertation on cats. You may be very keen on cats and excited about every aspect of their lives. With this in mind you decide on a dissertation project entitled "Cats of the world a study of their lives and behaviour". You begin your research by typing "cats" into Google and immediately break the internet. You visit the library and search for every book and article they have on cats and return home with a mountain of textbooks that you have no chance of reading in the time available and so you give up and go and attempt something more doable like iron your socks.
  • Establish a research focus and methodology: As with any task deciding exactly what needs to be done, how, when, with what and in what order is vital to the successful completion of an academic dissertation. There are a number of possible research foci and approaches that can help you structure a successful piece of research and selecting the one or ones most appropriate to your topic can mean the difference between a tightly argued and well-presented dissertation and a messy collection of randomly selected information on a vague theme. Consider these for instance:

The question – what problem are you trying to tackle?

The themes – select key themes to provide focus, don't try and tackle everything,

The time  – pick a time period, don't try and cover the whole history of something.

The location – Often it is best to select a single geographical location rather than the whole world. Limit your research to the UK for example.

The important thing is to work smart – identify what and how you plan to deal with your project before you try to gather resources and information.

So, returning to our cat project example, rather than attempting a dissertation on the almost impossible topic of "Cats in the World" you could narrow the topic and bring the research into greater focus with a title like this:

"A Study of cats with special reference to the territorial behaviour of Siamese cats in the UK during the period 2000 to 2010"

  • Writing up: In writing up your dissertation the same advice apply as that given in the essay writing section of this web site.   In brief you need organise your work in this way:

Introduction – make sure you spend plenty of time explaining exactly what you are planning to do and how you plan to do it. If you cannot express this clearly and simply then the chances are you do not have a firm grasp of your project and will need to think it through again.

The Main Body – Make sure that you write in a proper, formal academic style using paragraphs for each new point. Provide clear evidence for every point you make, avoid making unsupported claims and assertions. Make sure you reference your work thoroughly indicating throughout what you have studied to gain your insights and information. Remember you are being judged on the quality of your research – what and whom you have studied – as much as on what you personally have to say.

The conclusion – Make sure that you end up with an opinion of your own, tutors want to see that you have a voice of your own that has been informed by your research.

Final Comments

A dissertation need not be as intimidating as it might first appear. The skills needed to complete a successful dissertation are those you have been developing during your undergraduate essay writing assignments. The size of the project and its duration means that greater care needs to be taken in the planning and organisational stages to insure that you keep your research focused and in control. Regular meetings with your Dissertation supervisor are a must to help keep you on track.