Many undergraduate courses require students to write a dissertation in their final year. The exact length and specifications varies between departments and universities, but as a rough guide, these are in-depth pieces of work between 8,000 and 10,000 words long. Sometimes it is possible to submit work in an alternative format, such as website or video. Natalie Lancer from NatalieLancer.com and MyUniApplication explains how to tackle your dissertation.
The dissertation is probably the hardest and most rewarding part of your course. This is your opportunity to showcase your interest, knowledge and skills of analysis, not only to your tutors who will mark the work, but to potential employers, who will be interested in these skills too. Your dissertation is an excellent example of your work and originality. If possible, choose a topic with an eye on both your course requirements and what potential employers may find interesting.
You will be assigned a dissertation tutor and will have individual tutorials to discuss the title and structure. You will also be able to submit chapters for them to read and offer feedback on, which you can improve if necessary. Make sure you are clear from the outset how much time you are allocated and how far in advance they would like work submitted. It is up to you to get the most from your tutor. Your tutor will have had much experience in supervising dissertations and may have lots of tips as well as knowledge of what works and what is achievable within your time and word limit. They will also advise how to apportion your words to each section.
One of the hardest parts of the dissertation is deciding what to write about. Over your undergraduate course you have been exposed to new ideas and frameworks within your discipline, and you may be encouraged to explore these further or to apply them to a topic of your choice. It is a good idea to keep an ‘ideas list’ going over the course of your degree. Every time you come across a concept that makes your want to find out more, if only you had the time, write it on this working document. When you come to thinking about your dissertation, you can refer to this list and decide which of these topics to ‘work up’. ‘Working up’ means coming up with a way to analyse the topic, a structure and a direction. Your tutor will help you with this, but to get started see the box below and write down your responses to the headings.
In your dissertation you should be presenting a lively, logical, creative and well-researched argument. In order to do this you need to have read lots of relevant articles and books. Your tutor may start you off and suggest some reading material, but after that it is up to you to use an academic search engine such as Google Scholar to find relevant articles. Both the finding of relevant articles and the reading of them takes time and cannot be rushed. Use the abstract (summary) at the top of each article to check if it is really relevant and worth reading. Keep a log of everything you read and brief notes about the paper. There are many internet based tools that can help you do this which are worth learning to use as it will save you time in the long run, such as EndNote and Zotero. Your librarians will help you with this and your university will provide free versions to use (some of them are free anyway).
Once you have got your head round what the main academics say about your topic, you can decide what approach you should take to designing your study. This is where your tutor will be invaluable. If you are undertaking empirical research (gathering primary data), you need to get ethical approval from your university. You can start writing the Introduction, Literature Review and Methodology before you collect your data. Once you have analysed your data you can write the remaining chapters: the Analysis, Discussion and Conclusion. Break the writing into chunks and set yourself time specific achievable goals, such as “I will have written the Introduction by next Tuesday”. Plan out the whole dissertation to make sure you have enough time to read, write, analyse and proofread.
Unlike essays you may have written in the past, it is advisable to use heading and subheadings to help your reader navigate around your dissertation. Your university will have strict formatting guidelines, such as which academic referencing style to use, whether the work should be double-spaced, the font size and how it should be bound, if at all. Furthermore, there are academic rules to follow such as indenting quotations if they are more than 20 words long to which you must adhere. There are strict rules on plagiarism and dissertations have been failed if they are in breach of these rules. Basically, if you are quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s ideas then you must put their names in brackets afterwards. Remember, we are interested in how you are using existing ideas and bringing them together in your unique way to shed light on your particular subject matter. Formatting takes time, so make sure you build this in to your planning.
Your work needs to be carefully proofread. The best person to do this is you. After you write you last draft, put it away for a couple of weeks. Look at it again with fresh eyes and you will clearly see any mistakes. Plan your writing to allow yourself two weeks to spare at the end. Presentation is important, and gives your work a professional feel – remember you are showcasing your work to employees too, so it is worth spending time on this. Find out how to submit your dissertation and make sure you don’t leave it until the final day, just in case the internet crashes, or you lose your computer. Finally, make loads of back ups of your work everyday on different memory sticks so that if your computer fails, you have not lost your work.
Natalie is the founder of MyUniApplication. She can discuss your university and career options in one-to-one sessions and give you expert guidance on your dissertation and job applications. For more information, contact Natalie Lancer on 01923 85 0781 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. www.myuniapplication.com
Working up your dissertation – Write down your responses to the following and you will have a structure to your dissertation in no time!
The Title – don’t worry too much about this at the beginning. Just use a working title – you can always change it. The title should make clear what the dissertation is about in a short and pithy statement.
Introduction and Aims – this should explain what your dissertation is all about. In your introduction you should establish the boundaries of the research, e.g. are you focussing only on Wind Farms in the UK or in Scotland? Explain your purpose, aims, your approach and the significance of the research clearly. You may have specific questions that you are answering or you may be exploring a topic. Explain the structure of your dissertation and an overview of the contents of each section.
It is useful to have a literature review chapter. You will get marks for both breadth and depth. You need to demonstrate that you understand what you have read and why it is relevant to your dissertation and argument. Maybe you can pick holes in other people’s work to show how you can adopt a critical academic stance?
You will need a chapter on methodology and methods. Have you used a qualitative (descriptive) or quantitative (numerical) methodology and which exact methods have your used, e.g., interviews, questionnaires? How did you choose and design these? Could you have used another method, in hindsight, would that have been more or less useful?
You will then present an Analysis and Discussion of your findings. How do the findings result to the literature review. What new information or new stance have you brought to light? This is where we really hear your unique voice and can see what you have contributed to academic scholarship in your area.
The conclusion is where you pull it all together. You explain how you have met your original aims, the strengths and limitations of the research and possible avenues for further research around this topic.