Writing the Dissertation1
By the time you start to write the first draft of your dissertation, you will probably already have accumulated a wealth of notes, scribbles and ideas. Planning is essential, but do not be hesitate to draw up new plans whether it is a brief abstract of your dissertation as a whole, or a detailed breakdown of a particular chapter. This section looks at effective planning, which should be a continuous process that intensifies during the writing of your dissertation and not something that fades into the background.
Do all dissertations look the same?
At one level, yes. They will have to:
- Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer.
- Review the literature in the field relating to your question.
- Engage in independent research in addressing this question.
- Justify whatever methods you choose to undertake your research.
- Present and discuss your findings, whilst demonstrating how they relate to your original question.
Do all dissertations look the same? This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Kevin Bonnett
- Malcolm Todd
- Shawna McCoy
- Christopher Christopher-Dowey
Case Study 12 Making sure your dissertation doesn't get on top of you
Producing a 'working title'
Insofar as the preparation of the dissertation is a process of investigation and discovery, the precise scope of your study may well only emerge as you become closely involved in a detailed review of the literature. At this early stage, your title may be a provisional one that you will revise later. Your dissertation supervisor may advise on the title in order to help you find and define the focus of the dissertation.
You should examine articles in scholarly journals for examples of appropriate titles for a study of this length.
Starting to write the dissertation
Supervisors have different ways of working and you will, to some degree, need to negotiate your approach to supervision style. For example, your supervisor may advise you to write a short proposal or abstract, say of about 300 words, in which you set out as clearly as possible what you intend to do in the dissertation. The value of this exercise is that it requires you to focus and articulate your thinking. It may be that you will be able to summarise the exact nature and scope of your study, in which case the proposal can serve as guide to refer to as you write the main chapters of the work. Alternatively, it may make you aware of gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and show you the areas that need further thought and research.
It is useful, therefore, to write the proposal and to retain it for reference and revision. It helps to attempt such an abstract even if your supervisor has not suggested that you write one. However, practice varies, and your supervisor will advise you on how to proceed. As you continue to write the main chapters of the work, you may find that your initial plan has changed. This means that when you have completed the chapters that form the main body of your dissertation you can return to the proposal and revise it as much as you need, to form the introduction.
It is highly advisable to draft a plan of the dissertation. There is a lot in common between different dissertations regarding the structure and although you do not need to stick slavishly to a standard plan, such a plan is very helpful as a template to impose some order on what may seem an unmanageable task. Here is an indicative structure that might help you with your initial plan.
The field of study, the research question, the hypothesis (if any) or, more generally, the research question that is to be investigated. It should also include a summary of the contents and main arguments in the dissertation.
The Literature Review
Usually, this comes immediately after the introductory chapter. This may be more than one chapter, but should certainly be written in sections. This should include previous work done on the field of study and anything that you consider to be relevant to the hypothesis or research question and to its investigation. It will include a large number of references to the literature in your chosen area.
This section should include an account of the research questions and/or hypotheses to be investigated, relevant methods of investigation and an argument for why you think these methods are the most appropriate ones for the question and for your circumstances. You should consider the benefits of your chosen method as well as identifying any disadvantages and how you overcame them. Ethical issues and the ways in which you dealt with them should be noted. This section should also discuss any variations from the original fieldwork plan, and should conclude with a reflection on the experience of doing fieldwork.
This section should present the main findings of your research together with an account of the strengths and weaknesses of your data relative to your research question/hypothesis. You may also wish to include an evaluation of any difficulties you encountered in collecting and analysing data, together with an assessment of how this affected your plan of research.
Here you can provide an assessment of whether and how well you were able to answer your research question and/or confirm/reject your hypotheses.
This chapter must relate the findings to the theoretical/policy discussion in your literature review. You should NOT introduce any new literature at this stage.
Conclusions and recommendations
An overall assessment of what you found out, how successful you were and suggestions for future research.
Beginning work on the main body of the dissertation
Once you have produced the proposal and discussed it with your supervisor, you may want to write the first draft of a chapter of the dissertation. When you hand in this draft, you should arrange a tutorial to receive your supervisor's verbal or written comments and suggestions on how it may be improved. You may, for example, produce a draft introduction setting out the issue, together with a literature review which covers what, if any, treatment of the topic has gone beforehand. You may also wish to draft those sections of the methodology chapter that cover the methods that you wish to use, together with a justification for why you think those methods are best.
Revising sections after receiving the supervisor's comments
When you have received your supervisor's comments on the draft of any chapter, you should revise that particular chapter immediately. Prompt revision is easier than letting things drift, and you should do it while the advice of your supervisor is fresh in your mind. This will also avoid building up a backlog of work that needs to be revised, which can be discouraging. Having the material on a computer disk will enable you to do revisions efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Be sure to back up all your work on a floppy disk, CD, or memory stick.
Organising your time
Depending on the credit rating of the dissertation, the amount of time you devote to it should be equivalent to the time you would devote to a taught course with the same credit rating; that is, seminar and lecture time plus time for private study.
Findings from our Research
In our research we found that students often did not think about the credit rating of their dissertation and actually spent more time working on it than they should have! They saw it as such an important part of their degree that they wanted to put more into it:
It [the dissertation] took up more of my time ... Once you get into it, you have to out in the effort. It’s 8000 words, plus there’s so much to do. When you’re doing it, it seems so much more that the rest of your work (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p341).
However, this can have a detrimental effect on your other modules - one student said ‘I did the dissertation and left the other work’ - don’t make his mistake. All the modules in the final year are important.
You will find that once the final year begins, the weeks go by very quickly, and you will need to organise your time well from the start so that the ongoing preparation of your dissertation continues alongside work for the taught units you are studying. Once you have a workable plan it is much easier to plan the work in sequence and to set yourself targets for the completion of the separate parts (see the section on Getting started with the Dissertation). Allow plenty of time for final revisions after your tutor has seen a complete draft.
If you are taking a dissertation over two semesters, you should aim to spend the equivalent of one full half-day per week working on your dissertation during each semester of your final year if it is worth 20 credits - nearer twice that amount of time if it is a 40-credit dissertation.
Deadlines for producing drafts
You will decide with your supervisor precisely when to produce drafts, but if you are taking a dissertation module over one academic year then by the end of the first semester you would normally expect to produce a proposal or abstract and a first draft of one or two chapters. You would then produce the drafts of the remaining chapters and complete the process of revision and writing-up during the second semester.
In the second semester, when drafting the remaining main chapters of the dissertation, you will follow the practice established in the first semester of submitting the drafts to your supervisor for comments and advice. You should take advantage of the period between the first semester and the start of the second semester to write a draft of a chapter, and you should plan to have produced first drafts of all the main chapters by at least four weeks before the submission date (also allowing for any vacation periods when staff may not be available).
If, however, you are taking the dissertation module over one semester, you will need to adjust this time frame accordingly.
Writing the introduction
The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature. Having completed the work on the main substance of your dissertation, you should have a much clearer idea of its nature and scope than you did when you wrote your preliminary abstract or proposal. The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature.
It is important, however, to write the introduction as though you are setting out on a process of investigation. You need to emphasise the exploratory nature of your work. You should also avoid anticipating the discoveries and conclusions that you have made in the course of your investigations. So, you might simply say that you have identified certain common features in the relevant literature, or a particular issue that it deals with, and that your dissertation will examine the literature closely in order to demonstrate the relationships between treatments of the issue in the sample texts. When you have completed the main body of the work and your tutor has commented on your complete draft, you may well wish to revisit the introduction to take into account your findings and your tutor's comments on their significance.
Writing a literature review
Your dissertation is a substantial piece of written work that ideally should conform to a number of academic conventions. One of the most important of these academic conventions is the literature review. In short, the literature review is a discussion or 'review' of secondary literature that is of general and central relevance to the particular area under investigation.
Often students ask how long a literature review should be. This is a difficult question given that the total length of your dissertation might be anything from five to twelve thousand words. Obviously your supervisor may be able to give some indication of the approximate length of your literature review. However, don't become pre-occupied with word length, the main thing is that your literature review should capture the general and specific aspects of the literature of your subject.
Why is a literature review necessary?
The literature review is an important device in your dissertation as it performs a number of related functions:
- It demonstrates to whoever reads the dissertation that the author of the work has read widely and is aware of the range of debates that have taken place within the given field. It provides the proof that you have more than a good grasp of the breadth and depth of the topic of the dissertation - your dissertation gives you the opportunity to show off how clever you are! The literature review is a great place to start, because it should demonstrate that you know what you are talking about because you have read everything that is relevant to your dissertation.
- It can provide the rationale for the research question in the study. This can be done by highlighting specific gaps in the literature – questions that have not been answered (or even asked), and areas of research that have not been conducted within your chosen field. In this way the literature review can provide a justification of your own research.
- It can allow you to build on work that has already been conducted. For example you might adopt a similar methodological or theoretical approach in your work to one that exists within the literature, yet place your actual emphasis elsewhere. In this way you are building on work that has already been conducted by adopting similar strategies and concepts, yet focusing the question on something that interests you.
- It helps to define the broad context of your study, placing your work within a well defined academic tradition. Poor dissertations often fail to relate to broader debates within the academic community. They may have a well defined research question, yet without placing this question in the appropriate context, it can lose its significance. The literature review therefore can add weight to your question by framing it within broader debates within the academic community.
How do I 'do' a literature review?
Writing a literature review is not as simple as at first it may seem. What follows is a step by step guide on how to go about conducting and presenting your literature review.
1. Generate a list of references
The first stage of your literature review is to collect a list of literature that is relevant to your study. You have already seen in the section Help with Finding Literature and Research how you can get a list of useful references.
2. Make sense of your reading
Once you have a list of references for your dissertation, you now have to access and read this material. This is time consuming because you will be reading a large amount of material. Once you start you might find that some literature is of little relevance to your study. This is something that many researchers and dissertation students go through and is often a necessary part of the process. It is better to read something that is not central to your dissertation than miss something that might be an important and relevant contribution to the field.
Make notes about the central themes and arguments of the book, chapter or article. These notes can then be incorporated into the finished version of your literature review. Try and get a sense of the theoretical perspective of the author, this will be of use when you organise and present your literature review. Also, emphasise the way in which the piece of literature you are reading seeks to set itself apart from other literature. Importantly, start to think critically about the piece you are reading; ask: what is this person trying to say and why? How is it different from the way others have dealt with this issue? This critical component is very important as it demonstrates that you are engaging with relevant literature in an appropriate manner and that you can discriminate between different perspectives and approaches that exist within your chosen field.
3. Organisation and presentation
Once you have generated a large number of notes around your reading you might start to feel overwhelmed by the literature. In terms of the organisation and presentation of your literature review, it is worth dividing your review into two main areas: general reading and literature that is of central importance. You will also need to further divide the literature into specific areas relevant to your study for e.g. theories and concepts; policy analysis; empirical studies and so-on. What follows are some general guidelines on how you might do this.
It will be clear that some of the reading you have done is of more relevance than others. It is important, however, that you do not discard the less relevant work; instead this can form the broad background of your discussion of the more relevant literature within your field. For example you may mention different authors that have dealt with a question related to your field but may not be central to it. Highlight these in broad terms, state how these works have impacted on your particular area. You need not go into great detail about these more general works, but by highlighting these works you are demonstrating your awareness of the scope and limits of your study and how it touches upon other areas of study.
Once you have discussed the range of literature that is only of general interest to your study, you can then go into more detail on the literature that more sharply focuses on the questions that are of interest to you. Devote more detail to these particular works as they are more important to your topic. Indeed they may highlight the gap in the literature that exists that you seek to fill; they may provide the basis on which you seek to build, or they might be works which require some critique from your particular perspective.
When you have divided your literature review into general works and works of central importance, you should also further divide the literature into sub-categories. By further dividing your literature in this way, you are adding more organisation into your literature review by providing specific sub-categories of relevant literature.
For example in the general works section of your literature review, you might want one sub-heading on the main theoretical debates, one on empirical studies and maybe one on policy. With reference to the more central literature, you could organise this more important reading in a similar way. For example, if relevant, you could have a section on competing theoretical perspectives; a section on the main findings of important empirical studies; a section on policy implementation and its impacts. See the table below.
Breakdown of Literature Review
Detailed analysis of theoretical and conceptual debates
If appropriate you might also want to divide your sub-headings further.
One final note on the more central literature is that this more focused analysis can also serve to bring your empirical or theoretical work into sharper focus. In this sense you are prefacing your work and how it relates to other academic studies by your discussion of it in your literature review. One thing to remember however is that just because you talk about an author's work in your literature review, doesn't mean you never mention it again in your dissertation. In the discussion section of your study you will necessarily relate your findings to those central studies that you have highlighted in your literature review.
When you have written your literature review, this is not the end of the process. Throughout your dissertation process, you will come across literature that is of relevance to your area of study, do not ignore this material, you can always add more literature to your review as you come across it.
Finally, make sure that you keep a record of all your references, even the ones that have been of little use. This will help you organise your bibliography and reference list. You may even need to go back and look over something that you looked at earlier in your studies that may have more relevance than you first thought.
Writing the Methods section
This must clearly identify the epistemological (i.e. your stance on what should pass as acceptable knowledge) basis of the study and demonstrate a good working knowledge of the methods to be employed. It should include good coverage of the process of the fieldwork and indicate how the analysis was undertaken. As well as covering the ethical issues it should also contain an element of reflection on the research process.
Writing the Findings section
Many students confuse findings with discussion and it is important to keep them separate. The findings are often presented in charts and tables (even from qualitative data). Verbatim references to participants' comments are particularly helpful. It is important to ensure that findings are truly analysed, rather than described. Finding ways of cross relating the findings is therefore important.
Writing the Discussion
Traditionally, the discussion links findings to the literature presented in the literature review.
There are arguments for extending the coverage of literature in this section but only in exceptional circumstances. The discussion should be precisely that: an opportunity to raise the different voices of interest in the research question and to explore the findings in the light of the literature and different perspectives within it.
Writing the Conclusion
The main chapters of your dissertation will have focused on particular topics or issues. For example, each chapter may have focused discussion on a particular text. Alternatively, you may have structured your work so that each chapter is devoted to discussion of a particular aspect of your overall topic. The conclusion offers the opportunity to review your work as a whole, to identify the points of comparison and contrast the various texts you have examined, and to show that, in the process of your study, you have developed a more precise, critical understanding of the way they deal with your topic. This is also an appropriate place for you to point to the limitations of small-scale research of this kind and to indicate possible avenues for researchers to address the issues in the future.
Before you submit the dissertation, you should check that the final version of the title is an accurate reflection of what the dissertation is about and, if not, change the title.
The process of preparing your dissertation for submission begins with a careful final drafting of all your chapters and sections. Here you have the opportunity:
- To ensure that your argument is clearly developed from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.
- To check the accuracy of your spelling and punctuation - do not rely on spellchecker software!
- To make sure that your sentences are well constructed and that you are expressing yourself clearly, precisely and fluently.
- To ensure that you have not contradicted or repeated yourself.
You need to check that your quotations from and references to both primary and secondary texts are clearly and consistently identified according to the conventions of the HARVARD referencing systems (or whatever system your department requires). There is more about this in the section on Plagiarism. You will check that your bibliography is properly presented and contains all sources cited throughout your work.
Guidelines on presentation
You should refer to the guidance provided by your own department, but in general you should think about the following:
- Your dissertation must normally be typed or word-processed on A4 paper.
- Your own text must be double-spaced.
- Indented quotations must be single-spaced.
- The pages of the dissertation must be numbered.
- It must have a title page.
- It must have a table of contents.
Submitting the completed dissertation
The completed dissertation should be submitted in the form set out by your department. If there are no formal styles, submit the dissertation in a format that makes it easy for the examiner to handle - avoid complicated spring-back or ring-backed files.
- Abstracts of sections and of the dissertation as a whole will help to focus your writing and direct your thoughts.
- Set yourself deadlines for drafting chapters. Agree these with your supervisor if you think that will motivate you.
- Depending on the rules and regulations of your own institution, give your supervisor drafts of chapters as you write them, and try to be responsive to criticism. Revise chapters as soon as you get them back.
- Read through each completed chapter. Check that your argument flows logically.
- Even if you write the introduction last, write it as if you have yet to find the answers to your questions. Don't give away the ending!
- Finally, check that the title refers accurately to the finished dissertation. If it does not - change the title!
- Follow some basic rules:
- Type or word-process your dissertation - do not write it out.
- Use double line spacing for your own writing.
- Use single line spacing for indented quotations (and footnote these!)
- Number the pages.
- Include a title page and a table of contents.
- Remember to adhere to any format stipulated by your department.
- IMPORTANT: Check how many copies your department requires.
- How long is your dissertation going to be?
- Have you mapped out the content of each of your chapters?
- In what order will the content flow best?
- Is your evaluation doing its job? Likewise, is your conclusion suitably conclusive?
- Is the order of the chapters logical and coherent, will it make sense to the reader?
- Are the beginning, middle and end clear?
- Do your sentences and paragraphs make sense?
- Do you know someone else who can proof-read the dissertation for you?
- Have you allowed enough time to proof-read properly?
BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 26 - Doing a research project
DENSCOMBE, M. (2003). The Good Research Guide for Small-scale Social Research Projects. Maidenhead, Oxford University Press, part III
HART, C. (2000). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Imagination. London, Sage
Writing up your dissertation:
Conducting a literature review:
1. © Dr Malcolm Todd (Leeds Met), Ian Baker (Sheffield Hallam University), Professor Chris Winch (NCU), Andy Pilkington (NCU), Dr John Steel (University of Sheffield), Dr Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)
A key part of your dissertation or thesis is the methodology. This is not quite the same as ‘methods’.
The methodology describes the broad philosophical underpinning to your chosen research methods, including whether you are using qualitative or quantitative methods, or a mixture of both, and why.
You should be clear about the academic basis for all the choices of research methods that you have made. 'I was interested' or 'I thought...' is not enough; there must be good academic reasons for your choice.
What to Include in your Methodology
If you are submitting your dissertation in sections, with the methodology submitted before you actually undertake the research, you should use this section to set out exactly what you plan to do.
The methodology should be linked back to the literature to explain why you are using certain methods, and the academic basis of your choice.
If you are submitting as a single thesis, then the Methodology should explain what you did, with any refinements that you made as your work progressed. Again, it should have a clear academic justification of all the choices that you made and be linked back to the literature.
Common Research Methods for the Social Sciences
There are numerous research methods that can be used when researching scientific subjects, you should discuss which are the most appropriate for your research with your supervisor.
The following research methods are commonly used in social science, involving human subjects:
One of the most flexible and widely used methods for gaining qualitative information about people’s experiences, views and feelings is the interview.
An interview can be thought of as a guided conversation between a researcher (you) and somebody from whom you wish to learn something (often referred to as the ‘informant’).
The level of structure in an interview can vary, but most commonly interviewers follow a semi-structured format. This means that the interviewer will develop a guide to the topics that he or she wishes to cover in the conversation, and may even write out a number of questions to ask.
However, the interviewer is free to follow different paths of conversation that emerge over the course of the interview, or to prompt the informant to clarify and expand on certain points. Therefore, interviews are particularly good tools for gaining detailed information where the research question is open-ended in terms of the range of possible answers.
Interviews are not particularly well suited for gaining information from large numbers of people. Interviews are time-consuming, and so careful attention needs to be given to selecting informants who will have the knowledge or experiences necessary to answer the research question.
See our page: Interviews for Research for more information.
If a researcher wants to know what people do under certain circumstances, the most straightforward way to get this information is sometimes simply to watch them under those circumstances.
Observations can form a part of either quantitative or qualitative research. For instance, if a researcher wants to determine whether the introduction of a traffic sign makes any difference to the number of cars slowing down at a dangerous curve, she or he could sit near the curve and count the number of cars that do and do not slow down. Because the data will be numbers of cars, this is an example of quantitative observation.
A researcher wanting to know how people react to a billboard advertisement might spend time watching and describing the reactions of the people. In this case, the data would be descriptive, and would therefore be qualitative.
There are a number of potential ethical concerns that can arise with an observation study. Do the people being studied know that they are under observation? Can they give their consent? If some people are unhappy with being observed, is it possible to ‘remove’ them from the study while still carrying out observations of the others around them?
See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.
If your intended research question requires you to collect standardised (and therefore comparable) information from a number of people, then questionnaires may be the best method to use.
Questionnaires can be used to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, although you will not be able to get the level of detail in qualitative responses to a questionnaire that you could in an interview.
Questionnaires require a great deal of care in their design and delivery, but a well-developed questionnaire can be distributed to a much larger number of people than it would be possible to interview.
Questionnaires are particularly well suited for research seeking to measure some parameters for a group of people (e.g., average age, percentage agreeing with a proposition, level of awareness of an issue), or to make comparisons between groups of people (e.g., to determine whether members of different generations held the same or different views on immigration).
See our page: Surveys and Survey Design for more information.
Documentary analysis involves obtaining data from existing documents without having to question people through interview, questionnaires or observe their behaviour. Documentary analysis is the main way that historians obtain data about their research subjects, but it can also be a valuable tool for contemporary social scientists.
Documents are tangible materials in which facts or ideas have been recorded. Typically, we think of items written or produced on paper, such as newspaper articles, Government policy records, leaflets and minutes of meetings. Items in other media can also be the subject of documentary analysis, including films, songs, websites and photographs.
Documents can reveal a great deal about the people or organisation that produced them and the social context in which they emerged.
Some documents are part of the public domain and are freely accessible, whereas other documents may be classified, confidential or otherwise unavailable to public access. If such documents are used as data for research, the researcher must come to an agreement with the holder of the documents about how the contents can and cannot be used and how confidentiality will be preserved.
See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.
How to Choose your Methodology and Precise Research Methods
Your methodology should be linked back to your research questions and previous research.
Visit your university or college library and ask the librarians for help; they should be able to help you to identify the standard research method textbooks in your field. See also our section on Research Methods for some further ideas.
Such books will help you to identify your broad research philosophy, and then choose methods which relate to that. This section of your dissertation or thesis should set your research in the context of its theoretical underpinnings.
The methodology should also explain the weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to avoid the worst pitfalls, perhaps by triangulating your data with other methods, or why you do not think the weakness is relevant.
For every philosophical underpinning, you will almost certainly be able to find researchers who support it and those who don’t.
Use the arguments for and against expressed in the literature to explain why you have chosen to use this methodology or why the weaknesses don’t matter here.
Structuring your Methodology
It is usually helpful to start your section on methodology by setting out the conceptual framework in which you plan to operate with reference to the key texts on that approach.
You should be clear throughout about the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to address them. You should also note any issues of which to be aware, for example in sample selection or to make your findings more relevant.
You should then move on to discuss your research questions, and how you plan to address each of them.
This is the point at which to set out your chosen research methods, including their theoretical basis, and the literature supporting them. You should make clear whether you think the method is ‘tried and tested’ or much more experimental, and what kind of reliance you could place on the results. You will also need to discuss this again in the discussion section.
Your research may even aim to test the research methods, to see if they work in certain circumstances.
You should conclude by summarising your research methods, the underpinning approach, and what you see as the key challenges that you will face in your research. Again, these are the areas that you will want to revisit in your discussion.
Your methodology, and the precise methods that you choose to use in your research, are crucial to its success.
It is worth spending plenty of time on this section to ensure that you get it right. As always, draw on the resources available to you, for example by discussing your plans in detail with your supervisor who may be able to suggest whether your approach has significant flaws which you could address in some way.