You usually need to write a dissertation or research project in your final year. This is a major piece of work that is typically between 5,000 and 12,000 words.
You'll need to spend time preparing, researching and writing your dissertation. Most subjects encourage you to start your dissertation research before the end of your second year. You should start thinking about dissertation ideas before you leave university for the summer.
How dissertations are different to other assignments
Cottrell (2003, p. 201) describes the differences between dissertations and other university written assignments by comparing dissertations to reports. A dissertation may have many features of a report (including an abstract) and usually requires continuous prose in most sections. Both require analytical and critical reading and writing, and new material or approaches that you've created to test out theories, hypotheses or methodologies.
Cottrell explains the differences between dissertations and other academic assignments as:
- Independence in respect of the nature and scope of the work.
- Personal commitment and involvement in the task.
- Time and task management to structure progress.
- Self-management and motivation to keep going.
- Literature searches are more extensive.
- Presentation; grammar, punctuation, binding all need time and attention to detail.
Whilst these clearly apply to other forms of written assignment, it is the extent, scope and depth that characterise a typical dissertation.
What does the dissertation process typically include?
Barnes (1995, p. 117) offers a possible sequence of activities to produce a dissertation:
- Decide on a topic that interests you.
- Try several working titles.
- Formulate your main research question and working title.
- Discuss the ethics and methodology of your research with a lecturer.
- Set up the project; making appointments to interview (if appropriate).
- Gather and analyse the data.
- Construct a timeline for writing and editing a basic draft.
- Check with a critical friend/colleague or supervisor.
- Write final draft and proofread.
- Print final copy and submit in time.
There are variations to this sequence, dependent on the exact nature of your subject and any specific decisions made by your department or faculty. It's useful to draw up a timeline based on your project. This could be in the form of a Gant chart, especially useful for business projects.
What help is available?
Consider the resources for your course and department. Published details of your dissertation requirements probably include guidance on structure, presentation, your academic teaching team, and specific arrangements for supervision.
Your faculty librarian can help you with aspects of research including sourcing primary literature and referencing. Read more at the library website.
The Academic Skills Unit (ASK) can offer you additional support through group or 1:1 tutorial sessions on subjects like critical thinking, writing, note-taking techniques and time-management.
Cottrell, S. (2003). The Study Skills Handbook (2nd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave
Barnes, R. (1995). Successful Study for Degrees (2nd ed.). London: Routledge
Top tips for dissertations
These tips are general pointers that will apply to most dissertations. For more discipline-specific advice it is essential to consult course and unit handbooks and your assigned dissertation supervisor, as well as attending any lectures and seminars on research and dissertations.
Start thinking early about possible topics, and read through departmental guidelines carefully. Good dissertation choices usually arise from lots of reading, talking and thinking about areas of your subject that you find interesting. You can change your mind several times before finalising your aims. Keep your supervisor informed.
Keep full records of all your reading. Referencing tends to be marked very strictly in dissertations, and you can save yourself a lot of time and effort if you assemble the reference list / bibliography as you read, rather than leaving it until the very end of the process. (You can easily delete any sources that you do not ultimately use.)
Don’t be too ambitious. It’s usually better to research one very specific idea thoroughly than to attempt to tackle a big theme (or many ideas) and not be able to treat it (or them) in depth.
To help you focus your thoughts and devise hypotheses, research questions and objectives, think of answers to this question: what would you like your readers to understand by the end of the dissertation?
A dissertation is a major undertaking. Create a timetable that allows you to meet deadlines without putting yourself under unnecessary pressure. Make back-up copies of your drafts as you go.
Create clear research objectives and then choose appropriate methods that will (hopefully!) enable you to meet those objectives. You could even draw up a table for yourself to link each objective to possible methods.
Before selecting particular research methods, think carefully about how you will analyse (i.e. get results and meaning from) the data that you want your methods to give you. If, for example, you think that interviews might be a suitable method for one or more of your objectives, stop and think about how you are going to summarise and present interview data.
You should be able to justify every choice you make in your dissertation. There should be good, academic reasons for your choice of focus, of reading, of methodology, and of analytical techniques. Know why you did things the way you did, and make sure your reader knows why too.
Don’t worry if you don’t find out what you thought you would. Unexpected results are normally just as valuable as (and sometimes more valuable than) those you anticipated.
Remember to consider the limitations of your research. You are expected to think carefully and write fluently about the reliability and validity of your findings.
Plan for plenty of time to edit and proofread your drafts, and remember to allow time for binding, if that is a requirement.
Feel proud of yourself. This will probably be your first ‘publication’, and one day a future student may well read and reference your work for their dissertation.