What is a Dissertation?1
A dissertation or final year project, as a form of assessment differs from other module assessments. The expectation is that you, the learner, take responsibility for your own learning and that you produce a literature review, you choose a method for undertaking a study, write up your findings and discuss the outcomes in a discussion section. So this part of site provides you with a better understanding of the following:
- What a dissertation is
- Why you are required to do a dissertation
- What your dissertation may look like
- How to set about your initial reading and writing
Watch What is a dissertation? video (.wmv)
This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Dr Iain Garner
- Dr Malcolm Todd
- Shawna McCoy
Why does my degree programme include a dissertation?
Traditionally, an undergraduate degree in the social sciences and humanities uses a dissertation for a final piece of study. The degree might also offer other alternatives such as the option of an extended essay, or an independent learning project, or a senior paper. This is because the process of producing this type of assessment enables you to:
- Identify your own area of interest.
- Explore an area in depth.
- Define your own question.
- Experience the process of producing knowledge.
- Manage a project from beginning to end.
- Consolidate your communication, information-seeking and intellectual skills.
In many ways this is about doing social science rather than writing about the social science that others have produced. Some of these skills are clearly academic and related to your discipline. Others are much broader and develop your effectiveness in collecting, manipulating and interrogating information, its application and the production of reports - all of which are useful skills in employment.
For many undergraduate degree students, a significant element of final year study is an independent learning project. According to Todd et al (2004) while these projects may vary greatly in scope and nature (e.g. a large-scale written assignment such as a dissertation or extended essay; the design and production of some type of artefact) most share a number of key characteristics.
- First, the learner determines the focus and direction of their work.
- Second, this work is carried out on an individual basis – although usually with some tutor support and direction provided.
- Third, there is typically a substantial research component to the project, requiring the collection of primary data and/or the analysis of existing/secondary data.
- Finally, learners will have a more prolonged engagement with the chosen subject than is the case with 'standard' coursework assignments such as essays or reports, with the work consequently expected to be more 'in-depth'.
Ultimately you will be drawing together issues of theory, method and methodology and bringing them to bear on your chosen topic. Those dissertations that can best accomplish this integration or even synthesis are often the most conceptually and methodologically accomplished pieces of work.
How is your dissertation module organised?
The way in which this type of assessment is organised will vary from institution to institution and course to course. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the particular arrangements for your degree. Look for a module handbook which sets out these requirements and how you are allocated a dissertation tutor or supervisor. Your supervisor and any handbooks that are produced are excellent sources of information and support and will help you understand how the dissertation process works.
The following checklist will start you on the dissertation journey, start planning and also clarify what is expected of you
How many credit points or module equivalents is the dissertation worth?
Does the dissertation have any special status in the calculation of your final degree classification?
When do you need to start planning the dissertation formally? (Some degree programmes start this process in the second year, others in the final year.)
What is the submission date for the final piece?
Are there any key interim dates when (for example) outlines, sections or requests for the ethical approval of proposed research have to be submitted?
How long is the dissertation (and does the word count include the bibliography and appendices)?
Are there any lectures, seminars or workshops associated with the module?
Will you have a dissertation supervisor?
How are supervisors allocated?
How often are you allowed to meet with your supervisor?
Is there a schedule of meetings that you have to attend or do you arrange them with your supervisor?
Download checklist (PDF)
What is it that is special about a dissertation?
Watch the What is special about a dissertation? video (.wmv)
This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Kevin Bonnett
- Shawna McCoy
- Dr Malcolm Todd
- Alan McGauley
The dissertation offers you the opportunity to further develop your subject expertise and your social research, intellectual and organisational skills:
- You become actively involved with research which could mean empirical research or a library-based project.
- It is an opportunity for originality and intellectual independence. Your first course essays were usually (though not always) written to titles prescribed by your tutor. As you progressed through your course, you may have been given the opportunity to make up your own titles. In this way, your independence, as a reader and critic, developed. The dissertation builds on this foundation; it grows out of your own particular interest, both in terms of the material you choose to write about and the topic that provides the focus of your study. So when you read books and papers on your chosen topic, you become aware that you are reading with a different sense of purpose - to understand and re-present the arguments - yes, but you then start to make sense of what particularly interested you in the books, journal articles or media sources and what particular critical questions you wanted to ask about them.
- A longer word count of the dissertation allows you to sustain your analysis and interpretation over a greater range of material and almost inevitably involves you in more careful and subtle argument.
- The preparation and writing of the dissertation makes you take responsibility, with the support of a tutor, for your own learning, for the whole process of personal, independent study, time management, and the clear and methodical presentation of the results of your research.
In summary, the dissertation requires you to:
- Undertake an extensive programme of reading and research.
- Demonstrate intellectual independence and originality by choosing your own subject of study and defining its nature and scope.
- Engage in sustained analysis, interpretation and comparison of a substantial body of data.
- Present the results of your research in a clearly written, academically cogently argued, logically structured and properly referenced form.
This process improves your subject expertise, is a good preparation for further study and research at postgraduate level, and requires you to work independently and methodically in a variety of intellectually demanding contexts.
For all these reasons, the dissertation can be seen as the culmination of your undergraduate studies. Here you not only demonstrate the intellectual, study, research and presentation skills that you have developed throughout your degree course, but also create something which is uniquely your own.
Quotes from final year students on what is special about the dissertation:
The point of the dissertation is that it’s independent work that’s less guided.
At the start I didn’t see the dissertation as useful, but this changed. It’s the only piece of work that’s more or less what I wanted to do.
In other courses it is set out what they want you to find out. This is about your individual thought and direction – you can go off in your chosen direction, branch out and make different things relate to each other. There’s more freedom involved.
(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, pp339-340)
What does a dissertation look like?
All dissertations will vary in format, style and design. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the particular requirements of your institution and degree programme.
A typical format guide would require the dissertation to be word-processed with double or one-and-a-half spacing, and a wide left margin to enable binding. Most formats would include:
Dissertation format guide
Table of Contents
List of Tables (if any)
List of Abbreviations (if any), alphabetically ordered.
However you decide to divide up your chapters and sections, certain essential ingredients need to be present in some form. These will include:
- Literature Review – Similar in form and length to a longish essay entitled 'how I have set up my research topic and how it fits in with existing work in the area'.
- Methodology – Another essay-sized section entitled 'why I chose the methods I chose to answer my particular question, the strengths and weaknesses of that approach as a tool for generating knowledge, and how I actually did it'.
- Findings – Describing and presenting your own data, evidence or case study could well take slightly less or more than the earlier sections. This will depend in part on the kind of findings you are presenting.
- Discussion – This is the section that brings all of the strands of your argument together. One way to think of it is as a three-way conversation between the literature you discussed, the methodology you adopted and the findings you have presented.
- Conclusion and recommendations – This chapter will draw together the conclusions as well as noting any recommendations for practice. You should not include new ideas at this stage – they should have been dealt with in the discussion section. You can include a reflection on doing the research study and also identify ways in which you, or others, might take the work forward as further research as well as training and dissemination. This chapter often runs out of steam – be warned!
- see Writing the Dissertation section for more details.
Use your experiences and strengths
You will also be able to draw upon other experience, for example in the analysis and presentation of findings that you may have covered on methodology modules.
You are probably aware of where your academic strengths and weaknesses lie. If you have never really thought about this it would be worth devoting some time to doing so. In setting up your project you will want to play to your strengths. If you are concerned about your study or communication skills you may find support is available in your institution – seek it out.
Case Study 1 Drawing on work experience
- The dissertation is an independent piece of research where you take a great deal of responsibility for your own learning.
- It will demand the use of your communication, information-seeking and intellectual skills.
- The social science based dissertation should normally include a number of standard features, including an Introduction, a Literature Review, Methodology, Findings, and Conclusion and Bibliographic references.
- You can, and should, value your own experiences and strengths as well as secondary resources.
- How is your dissertation module organised?
- Who will be available to support your research?
- Have you started the planning of your work?
WALLIMAN, N. S. R. (2004). Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for Success. London, Sage
RUDESTAM, K. E. and NEWTON, R.R. (2001). Surviving Your Dissertation. A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. 2nd ed., London, Sage
A short article which describes the difference between a dissertation and an essay.
1. © Dr Malcolm Todd and Julia Waldman
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