How to write an excellent dissertation

How to write an excellent dissertation

The aim of this article is to provide you with some useful guidance and tips on writing an undergraduate or master’s level dissertation.

What exactly is a dissertation?

The OED defines a ‘dissertation’ as ‘a long essay on a particular subject, especially one written for a university degree or diploma’. Although the content varies according to the particular discipline, it typically presents the outcomes of research you have conducted on a specific topic. In writing your dissertation, you should formulate your arguments based on your research and present your own ideas and suggestions.

Preparation

Preparing and writing a dissertation involves much hard work. The first step is to discuss the project with your tutor or supervisor, who will guide you in selecting an appropriate topic. You should then design and conduct your research, which of course will involve a substantial amount of prior reading. Writing a dissertation is time-consuming; therefore, you should construct a plan and timetable from the start. 

This should allow for the research, the writing of the dissertation which may involve several drafts, getting it proofread, edited, or paraphrased as required, and then getting it printed and bound to a professional standard. The work will probably take more time than you anticipate, as there will inevitably be various delays and unexpected interruptions. You should therefore allow for this in your plan in order to avoid any panic as you approach the submission deadline.

Writing your dissertation

Once you have decided on your topic and completed your research, it is time to begin writing your dissertation. The first step is to familiarise yourself with the style guide and other requirements of your university. This will include the font type and size, the referencing system, the number of words required, and other factors. You then need to plan the layout of your dissertation; the title, list of contents, abstract, introduction, main body (which will cover several chapters), conclusion (including recommendations), and a reference list. The dissertation may also include pictures, diagrams, and tables.

The overall purpose of a dissertation developing an original argument

The dissertation must present original arguments and be your own work, and you must demonstrate to the examiner that you have used your analytical skills to present your arguments by citing evidence. You should NOT repeat any material that you have used in previous pieces of work. The work should be well written, without spelling, grammar, or typing errors. In addition, it is essential that your dissertation is clear, concise, and logical, and that sentences are neither too long nor too short. The following sections provide more detailed information and advice on each component of the dissertation.

Title page

This is the first page of your dissertation and typically states the title of your work, the author, the qualification to which the dissertation contributes, and the university/college responsible for supervising the work. Most institutions will have formal requirements with respect to how this should be laid out and the exact wording to use, so make sure you are familiar with these and adhere to them!

Acknowledgements

This short but vital section offers you, the author, the opportunity to convey, in your own words, your gratitude to those who have assisted and supported you in your work. This may include your supervisor(s), technical staff, gatekeepers, participants, family, friends, or even your pets!

Abstract

Although this is presented at the beginning of your dissertation, it is usually written last (because by then you will know exactly what you have covered). It is basically a short 200-250 word summary of your research that conveys to the reader in precise terms the contents of your dissertation. It is also the first thing other scholars and students will read when they are searching for research on a particular topic (as indeed you will have done when conducting your literature review). 

Its importance therefore cannot be overstated. In terms of structure, the abstract should concisely summarise the background to the research (why is it important?), its primary aim, the methods that were employed (and with whom ‒ if relevant), the principal findings, and the conclusion(s) drawn. You will also need to put the title of your dissertation at the top of the page. At the end of the abstract, it is standard practice to include 4-6 keywords that reflect the content of your study ‒ these will be picked up by databases when other scholars are searching the literature for research in a similar area or which uses a similar approach, so bear this in mind when you make your choice!

Contents

Like any book, this is an essential part of your dissertation that enables the reader to see at a glance what it contains and where particular information can be found. On the right-hand side it should list, in chronological order, all the chapter headings as well as level 2 and level 3 sub-headings, with the pages on which they can be found listed on the left. The particular style you use is up to you, but whatever you choose, ensure it is readable and, above all, accurate! 

To achieve this and to make your life a lot easier, using an automatically generated contents table in Word is recommended, as this can be updated at the click of a button to reflect any changes you make whilst writing/editing, as well as any changes in page numbers that may occur should you move text around or delete/add text. Once you have completed the contents table, you will need to present separate lists of all the tables and figures contained in the dissertation. It is vital to make sure these are numbered accurately, the headings are correct, and that the page numbers match those in the text.

Introduction

The aim of this short segment, which sometimes forms part of the opening section of the literature review, is to set the scene for the dissertation in a more general sense. In essence, it establishes the need for this topic to be addressed. This could be framed in terms of a broader societal problem, a particular clinical need, the need for enhanced productivity in the workplace, or a current or emerging social/health issue (the COVID pandemic being a prime example). In writing this section, ask yourself the all-important question: Why does this research matter? Although brief, when written well this section provides a compelling start to your dissertation that entices the reader to engage more deeply with your work.

Literature review

This is an extremely important section as it is the one that establishes the context and provides the rationale for your research. Having introduced the topic and identified its importance, you now need to present a review of the existing work that has been carried out in the field. In so doing, you will also need to consider the different theoretical frameworks that have been employed and the different methodological approaches adopted. 

There may be a substantial amount of content to cover, so you will need to ensure this section is concisely written and well-organised throughout. There are a number of ways you can organise your review; for instance, you could structure it in terms of theoretical frameworks, methodological approaches, core topic areas, or areas of debate/controversy ‒ it all depends on the aim(s) of your research. Whichever approach you choose, avoid simply presenting a list of studies as this will be dull to read and it will be difficult for the reader to know how the different works you present link together.

A second, crucially important, element to remember is that your aim is not simply to describe the studies you review, but to critically evaluate them. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What do they add to the field? More broadly, what are the merits/demerits of particular theoretical/methodological approaches? 

Looking at the field as a whole, you should also identify areas that have been omitted. What are the gaps in the existing literature? By viewing the work through a critical lens, you will be in a position to articulate the rationale for your research. For instance, you may be seeking to fill a particular gap in the literature, try an alternative methodology, or extend an existing theoretical framework. Having decided what you are going to do, you then need to specify this in clear and precise terms. 

You need to first state the overarching aim of your research, and the objectives that enable you to achieve this. You will then end the section with a precise statement of the exact research questions you are going to answer, and/or the hypotheses you are going to test. Having done so, you are now in a position to move on and explain how you went about this task.

Methodology

Having formulated your research questions and/or hypotheses, the all-important next step is to explain to the reader how you conducted your research. This chapter is likely to consist of a range of subsections, the length and content of which will vary depending on the topic and the nature of the approach adopted. First, it is usually important to state the exact form the research took; that is, its design. 

For example, it could be an experimental within-participants design, a cross-sectional survey, or a participant observation study. Following this, you will typically move on to discuss who (if anyone) took part in the research in a ‘Participants’ section. This will provide details as to the number of people who took part, from where they were recruited, whether they were allocated to particular groups (randomly or otherwise), and any demographic details that may be of particular relevance to the study, such as their occupation and age range. It is also common practice to give the gender balance of your sample. 

In the next section, you should then explain how you went about recruiting your sample. In quantitative research, this may involve the use of cluster sampling, stratified sampling, or simple random sampling. In qualitative research, this may involve the selection of a particular group of people (purposive sampling) or simply the use of a convenience sample. Whichever method you have selected, you will need to justify why you chose it given your research questions/hypotheses.

The next section then presents the materials used in the research to collect your data. This can take many different forms, and could include the use of interview guides, a survey (existing or adapted), or different types of experimental stimuli. You will need to provide sufficient information so that any future researchers could replicate your study, and explain how you have developed/created/adapted the materials you employed. In tandem with this, you will need to explain the purpose of these materials ‒ what type of data did they generate and what did they enable you to test/investigate/assess? 

This provides a further justification for the particular approach you have adopted in your research. To avoid presenting too much detail, you can simply give relevant examples from your interview guides, items from your questionnaires, and so on. Full details of such materials should be provided in the appendices.

The next section then details the ‘Procedure’ employed, so that any future researcher can follow what you did and replicate your study. This is best presented as a step-by-step in-depth description of how you carried out the study, including the reasons for any decisions made along the way or any unforeseen circumstances that forced you to modify your approach. T

here is no need to go into minute detail, but make sure you do not omit anything important that had a substantial impact on your findings. Following this, you should present a section on ‘Ethical Considerations’ detailing how you obtained ethical approval for your research (and from whom), and the particular considerations you addressed that were pertinent to your study. This is likely to cover issues such as obtaining informed consent, maintaining confidentiality/anonymity, and ensuring participants came to no harm. 

Explain what you did to handle such considerations appropriately. Finally, you should then present a ‘Data Analysis’ section which describes the approach taken to analyse the data, which could include descriptions of the statistical tests employed (and an explanation as to why these were appropriate), or an outline of the qualitative analysis that was conducted, such as a thematic analysis, discourse analysis, or an interpretative phenomenological analysis. More detail on how such analyses were performed (and the outcomes) can then be provided in the Results/Findings chapter.

 

Results/Findings

Having collected your data, this is the section in which you spell out in detail the analyses you performed and what you found. This section can be lengthy, so it is essential that you organise and structure your findings in a clear, coherent, and logical way that aligns with the objectives and overarching aim(s) of your research. To assist you, make use of appropriate headings and subheadings throughout. If you research is quantitative in nature, you are likely to be presenting the outcomes of statistical analyses (usually referred to as ‘Results’). This will include any relevant treatment of the data (e.g. dealing with missing data/outliers) descriptive statistics which capture the nature of the data, and inferential statistics that determine whether the hypotheses you made are (or are not) supported). 

Do not drown the reader in a mass of numbers, they need to be able to see the wood for the trees so you will need to be selective in the material you present. Wherever possible, use tables to summarise data, and illustrate your findings through the use of graphs and charts – this really helps the reader to understand what you have found. 

However, make sure these are labelled correctly in accordance with the referencing system you are using, and DO refer to them in the text, otherwise the reader will wonder that they are for. Ensure that you present the results of tests in the appropriate way (by referring to a recommended handbook of statistics) and avoid the inclusion of irrelevant data that do not shed any light on the research questions. Clarity is key! Supplementary material such as SPSS output should be included in the appendices.

If you study is qualitative in nature, then you are likely to be presenting a substantial amount of textual data in the form of themes/subthemes, discourses, or emerging theories (usually referred to as ‘Findings’). Whatever analytical approach you have adopted, you will need to walk the reader through the analysis step-by-step, demonstrating how it has led to the findings you have identified, and thus whether the interpretations you make and the conclusions you draw are justified. Again, do not drown your reader in data, be selective in what you present – only include that which is relevant to answering your research question(s). 

To illustrate your findings, you will need to include relevant extracts from the data so that the reader can judge for themselves whether your interpretations are warranted. Do not simply include large chunks of data and paraphrase what participants have said. Data are not a substitute for analysis; you need to extract the meaning of participants’ words and consider their implications in terms of wider, divergent, and perhaps conflicting themes. Full transcripts of any interviews and focus groups with participants should be included in the appendices. Above all, you should be aiming to tell a ‘story’ that captivates the reader and reflects the nuances of what you have found. Thus, strong organisation of the text and clarity are paramount.

If you have conducted a mixed methods study, then you are likely to be presenting a mix of qualitative and quantitative analyses. Word constraints are likely to be an issue, so you will need to be extremely selective in the material you present ‒let your research questions and/or hypotheses be your guide. Another important issue to bear in mind is that you will need to show how the two sets of analyses link together (think about why you conducted them in the first place). Do the findings corroborate each other, add new dimensions to the insights gained, or conflict/contradict each other? If the latter, then you can reflect on why this is so and what this means in the discussion section. Finally, do not end this section abruptly – conclude with a sentence that signposts the reader to the ensuing discussion.

Discussion

The discussion section should strive to fulfil the following aims. First, you should summarise your key findings (do NOT regurgitate large sections of the results/findings) and determine whether and how they have answered your research questions. Following this, you should consider what the findings mean in relation to the existing literature and/or theoretical models ‒ do they corroborate what is already known, build upon it, or perhaps even challenge it. 

The next step is to then assess the implications for current practice or research in this area. However, to temper you claims, you will need to evaluate the strengths/limitations of your study. What worked well, and what could/should be done differently? All research has weaknesses, so you will be given credit for identifying these and understanding how they could be addressed. Onn the basis of this, you can then make sensible and appropriate recommendations and suggestions for future research. This reflects the dynamic nature of research and indicates to the reader that you can identify where your work is situated within the wider literature, and what the next steps should be in this field.

Conclusion

Although guidance may vary, you will be expected to end your dissertation with an appropriate conclusion, whether this is a stand-alone section or part of the discussion. It should be short (one or two paragraphs) but informative. It should NOT include any new material, nor should it repeat sections of the discussion. The aim is to succinctly state the destination your research has led you to (given your research questions) and the implications of this for current theory, wider practice, or the impacts on society/particular groups of individuals. Have you resolved a particular debate/issue or has your work raised more questions than answers? Strive to end your work on a dynamic note, it is the last thing an examiner will read so you want to show you have understood what you have done and what it means.

References

Having written your dissertation, your final task will be to prepare a full list of the references you have used throughout your dissertation. The style and format you employ will depend on which referencing system have been asked to adhere to, common formats being APA, Harvard, Chicago, and OSCOLA. Accuracy is key, so make sure you refer to the most up-to-date version of the correct style guide throughout. Although this is a time-consuming process, it is essential to get it right; examiners take a dim view of a poorly referenced dissertation. 

One of the most common mistakes made when writing a reference list is to omit references you have referred to in the text or, conversely, list references you have not referred to in the text. Examiners do check this! The best strategy is to therefore compile a list of references as you write your dissertation, and then focus on ensuring accuracy when you construct your final list at the end. Two additional points: make sure that you have used the correct style for your in-text citations, noting in particular the use of ‘&/and’, and ensure that your reference list, if it is not numbered, is presented in alphabetical order.

Some pitfalls to avoid

1. Failure to present an argument

You may have researched your topic well, given all the required citations, and written your dissertation in perfect language. However, if you have not presented your argument or included original writing, you will have done no more than repeat the information obtained from the research.

2. Lack of evidence

When presenting your argument, it can be easy to state your own opinion without any evidence or justification. Therefore, always support your arguments with evidence.

3. Plagiarism

Universities are very strict on the use of plagiarism, which could have serious consequences. You should never make the work of others appear to be your own. The work and opinions of others should be presented in your own words and always be cited.

4. Misquotation

Sometimes you will need to give direct quotations from other scholars. These should always be in quotation marks and the source cited. Do not attempt to paraphrase or edit such quotations as this will be regarded as a misquotation. For this reason, you should ensure that you make the quotation accurately without any typographical errors.

5. Reporting figures and statistics inaccurately

If your dissertation contains tables and statistics, you should ensure that all the figures used are accurate.

6. Inconsistent abbreviations

Ensure that any abbreviations you use are applied consistently throughout. On first mention, the relevant name/theory/organisation, etc should be written in full with the corresponding abbreviation in brackets. Do not use abbreviations in your abstract. If you have used an extensive number of abbreviations, then you may wish to include a list of terms and their corresponding abbreviations immediately before the contents page (this especially applies to scientific papers)

7. Inconsistent paragraphing and spacing

The key here is to be consistent. The style guide published by your institution will advise you as to the use (or not) of indents at the beginning of paragraphs and the number of spaces (if any) to leave between paragraphs, sections of the text, figures/tables and the text, and whether each chapter should start on a new page. Failure to do so will give the impression of sloppiness and can be very distracting, annoying, and confusing for the reader.

8. Confusion over US/UK spelling and the use of single/double quotes

Refer to the appropriate style guide to find out whether you should write in US or UK English, and then ensure you adhere to this throughout. In UK English, all quotations are presented in single quotation marks, with double quotation marks used for quotes within a quote. In US English, the reverse is the case.

9. Misuse of tenses

Using the right tense can often be quite challenging, and requirements may vary according to the discipline, so ensure you consult the relevant section of the style guide before writing up your work. As a general rule, you will use the past tense when writing about anything that has already been done and completed (this will apply to most of your dissertation), the present tense when discussing your results and referring to tables and findings, and the future tense when offering recommendations and suggestions regarding new lines of investigation. You may find the following advice useful in guiding you as you write your dissertation:

Get your tenses right in your thesis/dissertation

Above all, be consistent and accurate, as the misuses of tenses can be misleading and extremely confusing for the reader!

 

Style Guides

To reiterate, all universities issue style guides and general advice for writing dissertations. Ensure you consult the relevant guide and follow its recommendations to the letter.

 

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