Writing a Dissertation
The aim of the dissertation or thesis is to produce an original piece of research work on a clearly defined topic.
Usually a dissertation is the most substantial piece of independent work in the undergraduate programme, while a thesis is usually associated with master's degrees, although these terms can be interchangeable and may vary between countries and universities.
A dissertation or thesis is likely to be the longest and most difficult piece of work a student has ever completed. It can, however, also be a very rewarding piece of work since, unlike essays and other assignments, the student is able to pick a topic of special interest and work on their own initiative.
Writing a dissertation requires a range of planning and research skills that will be of great value in your future career and within organisations.
The dissertation topic and question should be sufficiently focused that you can collect all the necessary data within a relatively short time-frame, usually about six weeks for undergraduate programmes.
You should also choose a topic that you already know something about so that you already have a frame of reference for your literature search and some understanding and interest in the theory behind your topic.
There are many ways to write a dissertation or thesis.
Most universities and colleges provide very specific guidance to their students about their preferred approach.
This page, and those that follow, are designed to give you some ideas about how you might carry out your literature review, and then write each of the various sections of your dissertation in the absence of, or in addition to, any specific guidance from your university.
Organising your Time
However organised you are, writing your dissertation is likely to be one of the most challenging tasks you have ever undertaken.
Take a look at our pages on Organising your Study Time and Organisation Skills, as well as Project Management Skills and Project Planning, to give you some ideas about how to organise your time and energy for the task ahead.
Like an academic paper for journal publication, dissertations generally follow a fairly standard structure. The following pages discuss each of these in turn, and give more detailed advice about how to prepare and write each one:
- Research Proposal
- Literature Review
- Results and Discussion
- Conclusions and Extra Sections
Particularly for master's programmes, your university may ask for your thesis to be submitted in separate sections, rather than as a single document. One breakdown that is often seen is three-fold:
- Introduction and/or Research Proposal, which should set out the research question that you plan to explore and give some ideas about how you might go about it. If you are submitting it as a research proposal, it will be fairly sketchy as you won’t have had a chance to review the literature thoroughly, but it should contain at least some theoretical foundation, and a reasonable idea of why you want to study this issue;
- Literature Review and Methodology, which are often combined because what you plan to do should emerge from and complement the previous literature; and
- Results and Discussion, which should set out what you actually did, the results you obtained, and discuss these in the context of the literature.
You will probably have an overall word count for the total dissertation or thesis. If you are required to submit in sections, ensure that you have left yourself enough words for the Results and Discussion. It is easy to get carried away with the literature review.
As a general guide, use the marking scheme to show you the approximate split for the word count. For example, if the introduction is worth 20%, and each of the other two submissions 40%, for a total word count of 10,000 words, the introduction should be at most 2,000 words, and each of the other two around 4,000 words.
If you’re submitting your dissertation as a single piece of work, and not in separate submissions, you may find it easier not to write it in order.
The introduction may be the last part you write, or you may wish to rewrite it once you’ve finished to reflect the flow of your arguments as they developed.
One of the best ways to write a dissertation is as you go along, especially the literature review.
As you read each reference, summarise it and group it by themes. Don’t forget to reference it as you go!
You should be used to referencing by the time you write your dissertation but if you need a refresher then see our page: Academic Referencing.
Dissertations and academic articles used always to be written in the third person, and in the passive voice; as an example, you might write ‘An experiment was carried out to test…’
However, many journals have now moved away from that convention and request first person and active voice, which would require you to write ‘I carried out an experiment to test…’
Check with your university about their requirements before you start to write.
If you cannot find any guidelines, then ask your supervisor and/or the person who will be marking your thesis about their preferences. Make sure that the voice and person are consistent throughout.
Whatever style is preferred, aim to keep your language simple and jargon-free. Use shorter, simpler words and phrases wherever possible. Short sentences are good as they are easier to follow. Any sentence that runs to more than three lines needs to be cut down or split.
Phrases to avoid include:
|Due to the fact that…||Because|
|In addition||Additionally (or also)|
|In order to||To|
|In the first place||First|
|A considerable number||Many|
|Whether or not||Whether|
Remember the Golden Rule
K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple, Stupid
The Role of your Academic Supervisor
The role of your supervisor is to supervise your work. It is not to do it for you, nor to tell you how to do it.
However, their academic reputation is bound up in the results of the students that they supervise so they have a vested interest in helping you to get the best possible marks. You should therefore not feel shy or embarrassed about asking them for help if you get into difficulties, or if you need some advice.
Academics tend to take a highly personal approach to supervision. Some will be prepared to spend a lot of time with you, talking about what you are planning to do by way of research and your emerging findings. Others will have very little contact with you, apart from being prepared to read a draft of your dissertation.
It’s worth spending a bit of time building up your relationship with your supervisor (have a look at our page on Building Rapport for help). It’s also worth discussing and clarifying with them exactly what they are prepared to do to support you, and in particular practical details such as:
- How often are they prepared to meet with you during your research?
- How quickly will they respond to emails asking for advice and/or guidance?
- How much time do they need to review drafts of work?
- How many drafts of your work are they prepared to read? University guidelines usually say ‘a first draft’ but many academics are prepared to read a preliminary draft to check that you are on the right track, and then a more polished version.
- Having reviewed a draft, will they send you comments by email, or would they prefer to meet to discuss it?
One final piece of advice about your supervisor: if you don’t get on, then change supervisor. But do so as early as possible. Nobody wants you or your supervisor to struggle with the relationship, but they won’t be very sympathetic if you’re asking for a change a month before your deadline.
Formatting and Templates
If your university has a required format for a dissertation, and particularly if they supply a template, then use it! Start your writing straight into the template, or format your work correctly from the start. There is very little worse than cutting and pasting your work frantically into a template 10 minutes before your submission deadline. Templates are designed to make your life easier, not harder.
You will also need to format the references in the university’s preferred style. It is easier to do this as you go along. If the format is MLA, APA or Chicago, you can use Google Scholar to format it for you: search for the article title, then click on ‘cite’. This will save you typing out all the names, and can also be used, with minor tweaks, for other formats. But beware: it’s not always right! If it looks odd, check the original source.
You’ll need to give yourself plenty of time to proof-read your work, to make sure that you haven’t made any stupid errors, and that it all flows correctly. This is likely to take longer than you think. You’ll also need to do this when you’re fresh, not last thing at night when you’re tired.
If possible, try to find a friend or fellow-student in the same position with whom you can swap dissertations for proof-reading. Fresh eyes are likely to spot errors much more effectively than those who already know what it should say.
The international language of academic publishing is English and many universities require their students to publish their dissertations in English. If your first language is not English, this is going to be a problem because your English will almost certainly not be up to the task. You have two choices about how you approach this:
- You find a native English speaker, perhaps a fellow student, who is prepared to read your thesis for you and help you improve the English (preferably for free, or at least for the price of not much more than a meal and a few drinks); or
- You pay an editor to do the work for you. This will not be cheap; the going rate for high quality academic language editing is about $7 per 250 words. You can find professional language editors via the websites of publishers of academic journals such as Emerald and Springer.
You will need to ensure that you build in sufficient time to allow someone else to read over your work. Nobody, not even if you are paying them, is going to want to stay up all night to edit your work because you left it too late. Many will also prefer not to work at weekends. Allow at least two weeks for professional language editing.
A Note on Plagiarism
DO NOT PLAGIARISE
If you are found to have plagiarised you will be heavily penalised and will probably lose your degree.
Ways to avoid being caught out inadvertently include:
- Never copy and paste from a journal article. Always summarise it in your own words, which also helps to make sure that you have understood it.
- If, for the sake of time, you want to copy and paste specific sentences which sum up the argument particularly well, always put them in quotation marks in your summary, with the source, so that you will remember that they are direct quotes and need to be acknowledged as such.
See our page: Academic Referencing for more information.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Develop the skills you need to make the most of your time as a student.
Our eBooks are ideal for students at all stages of education, school, college and university. They are full of easy-to-follow practical information that will help you to learn more effectively and get better grades.
This page sets out general advice on issues connected with writing a dissertation, also known as a thesis.