Updated 11 July 2018
What is a Dissertation?
A dissertation is different to an essay or an extended essay. A dissertation is a piece of new academic writing that tells the world you have moved from being a passive student to being an active academic. With an essay or extended essay you are almost always set the title or content. With a dissertation you choose what you want to research and write about.
Your university sets a word count limit or range and a deadline or deadlines for various aspects of a dissertation, but you determine what you are going to spend a chunk of your life researching. For probably the first time in your academic life you are being treated as an adult – which is both good and bad.
Why a dissertation?
On some courses the writing of a dissertation is compulsory. On some courses the dissertation is an option. The significant factor is that you are in charge. No lectures. No classes. Very often little supervision unless you ask for it. No set reading. No book list. You are on your own!
Some students take to dissertations like a duck to water. Others feel more like a brick sinking rapidly in the duck pond.
Your university quite often gives you one lecture or class on how to choose a dissertation title, and another on how to structure your dissertation. And a handout telling you not to cheat!
It can seem unfair. And why will they not tell you who your supervisor will be?
What do I write about?
Your dissertation can be an important marketing tool for your future career. If you were selecting someone to teach Maths in a High School, a dissertation “The twoness of two – basic maths in kindergarten” would be less attractive than “Tough Love -Maintaining Discipline in A High School Class”.
If I am selecting potential employees for a Wall Street or City of London Accountancy firm “The Legalities of Transfer Pricing” is more attractive than “Lets Help The Poor – Encouraging Charitable Giving By The Very Rich”.
One Marketing student compiled a list of standard brand leader products, and every Tuesday evening trawled around 5 major supermarkets recording the “sell by” dates. This allowed her to build a field illustrating which supermarket had the leanest supply chain and which had the fattest – with obvious implications for which supermarket had the best stock control. As well as using it for her dissertation she sold the results of her survey to at least two of the supermarkets. And what a kick start to her career!
Whatever your discipline your dissertation title -which goes on your CV- gives the prospective employer a clue as to where your interests and aptitudes lie. It is virtually certain that if you are invited to interview you will be asked why you chose your dissertation topic. I would not advise any Law student to write a dissertation where the title suggests the student is interested in drugs or is sexually nonconformist, because employers will draw adverse conclusions and will not employ you.
Apart from your future career, there are other reasons to choose a dissertation topic. You may have a real interest in something a bit off the beaten track, you may have knowledge or experience in some area that gives you a head start, or you may feel that the law needs changing. A bit of passion can help motivate you into going the extra mile to research a great dissertation.
How Do I Choose?
The better students are thinking about their dissertation nearly a year before they write it. In my case, because I would have to write my Masters dissertation while working full time, I started my research over a year before submitting my thesis proposal. By all means talk to friendly staff about topics. Every cohort of students does it and lecturers are expecting it.
In Law, which is my area, there are students every year who want to write about abortion or euthanasia. The staff-room joke is “Euthanasia has been done to death!” But it is new to you!
Given that there are probably three or four dissertations on Euthanasia in the University Library, and some on the internet, what can you bring to the subject that has not been said many times before? If you want a top mark you have to do more than tread the same ground as dozens have trod before. “Euthanasia and inheritance law – should the helpers inherit?” or (for Americans) “Is Euthanasia Constitutional?”
Sometimes you are required to phrase the title as a statement that can be proved or disproved – “”Euthanasia Helpers Should Not Inherit” or “Euthanasia is Unconstitutional”
The lecturer administering the dissertations wants to be sure that students’ dissertations are so different from each other that there can be no copying or co-operative working. Each student should be on their own. Then the lecturer has to fit the proposed titles to the teaching force.
Each teacher has areas of strength and experience that the students frequently do not know about. Alternatively a teacher may have said “If you give me Constructive Dismissal once more I will quit!”
Juggling the strengths of the teaching team with the supervision requirements of a cohort of students is not an easy task.
Some students try to choose a subject where they get a cuddly lecturer rather than a dragon. It does not work, because of the allocation problems.
Writing The Proposal
You normally have to write a proposal, explaining what you want to write about and what your interest is. If you have already done some research, your proposal will be ten times better, because you will already have got through the superficial to the meat.
A student who says “I want to write about Abortion because it is interesting” really is not impressive. One who says “Roe v. Wade was rightly decided but for the wrong reasons because….” sounds exciting.
A student who says “I want to analyse the domicile case of Re Martin, Loustalan v. Loustalan because it is very complicated and utterly fascinating” is also interesting.
There may be a problem finding a supervisor for you.
One of my university friends was the son of a Safety Officer at a nuclear plant, and so had access to every nuclear publication in English French and Japanese. He wanted to write his dissertation on the law relating to the international transport of nuclear materials. Although ours was quite a prestigious university there was no-one on the staff team in the early 1970s who could supervise or mark the dissertation. He had to write about something less interesting.
One factor which may apply is that the staff want you to succeed. If you are already recognised as very bright the staff will normally encourage you where you want to go.
If you are thought to be struggling, they may want you to “play safe”. They may be tactful how they do this because students who are told they are not outstandingly bright often think they are being called stupid.
Sometimes the reason for refusal is that your selected area is so vast that you cannot do it justice in 10,000 words or is so narrow that there is just not enough material to write 10,000 words.
One problem with Law students is that sometimes their dissertation proposals stray from Law into Sociology, Criminology, Politics, History, or Philosophy – but not actually Law! Many Law departments cannot accept the proposal.
With “hot” issues, the law is going to change before the dissertation is finished. Or the Law is enacted, but there will not be any decided cases until after your hand in deadline.
Science students have to remember that dissecting 50 earthworms is practical, but dissecting 50 cows is not.
Do your thinking early. Do your preliminary research early. Write your proposal early and hand it in on the first or second day. Very often the lecturers operate a “first come first served” policy to encourage early submission and because it is not fair to make the good students wait for the lazy incompetent students. Once you have approval you can get started. You may be told immediately who your supervisor will be, or that may wait until all the proposals are in.
If you get a dragon, you may be pleasantly surprised. On a one to one basis the dragon is likely to be very sharp and perceptive and will make good suggestions. They are dragons because they do not tolerate fools – not a problem for you!
I was quite surprised when I was told some students were afraid of me. I think I am cuddly but I do not tolerate fools.
If your proposal shows that you have done your research, that there will be something new and meaty coming out of it, and that the project can be achieved, it is likely to be approved. If your proposal looks like a 3 am back of an envelope “sketch” which is light on content and shows no evidence of research, it should be rejected.
Even worse is the student who “freezes” and does not put in a proposal. All the good topics are taken, and all your ideas are knocked back because they overlap with ideas that have already been given permission.
The “frozen” student is aware that everyone else has been working on the dissertation for six to eight weeks and they have not yet got a topic.
There is a feeling that the dissertation lecturer is being wilfully unhelpful. The frozen student feels despair and hopelessness as proposals are knocked back one after another. What do you do?
The truth is that by this stage you are in trouble. You do not have the luxury of wasting any more time. Go to the lecturer who teaches the module in which you scored best, and brainstorm with the lecturer for topics. Or go to the lecturer you get on with best and brainstorm there.
The dissertation lecturer may give the impression that s/he despises you. They are frustrated every year by the handful of incompetents who basically want to be rescued. Rescue yourself!
The University library may well have a bank of dissertations. If not, the nearest other university will have a bank of dissertations. Read the titles, and make a list of dissertations you could write. Write a stack of proposals and hand them all in. At this point you will just have to accept whatever comes out.
Now you have your approval you have to do more planning and thinking. You may have an experimentation phase followed by a writing up phase – plenty of time!
When you come to write up, you will realise that, with hindsight, you should have conducted the experiments differently. If you start early there may be time for the second round of research which lifts your dissertation from Good to Excellent.
Your supervisor is not there to write your dissertation for you. If you go in with nothing done yet your supervisor will think you are useless. If you go to your first meeting with a lot done the supervisor can contribute more and will want to contribute more.
As a supervisor I love the students who are working hard, sparking off ideas and responding to ideas. I dread the student who six weeks into the dissertation comes in with one and a half sides of type and wants me to tell them what they should write about. It is supposed to be the student’s dissertation, not mine. Part of the reason for you doing a dissertation is that a dissertation is a personal journey.
Structuring a Dissertation
A dissertation is much more than an essay. Think of a Mayan pyramid with three layers.
The bottom layer is description. The layer above is analysis, discussing the description below and discussing where there is discord or fault lines or contradictions. The top layer is synthesis, where you propose answers.
With British abortion law the Abortion Act 1968 set 24 weeks as the point beyond which abortions could not be performed. Back in 1968 a foetus of 23 weeks was not viable. Now, foetuses of 22 weeks are viable. (That was the description.)
There is a clash between the intent of the 1968 Parliament, which was that viable foetuses should not be aborted, and current practice where viable foetuses are aborted. (That was the analysis.)
So the law should be changed to the intent of the 1968 Parliament, so viable foetuses are not aborted. (synthesis).
Most dissertations work on the basis of description followed by analysis followed by synthesis.
With abortion I had a student come in with very strong ideas about what the answers should be, before she had done any research.
I explained the normal process was description-analysis- synthesis. Given that she had such strong views I suggested she would have to work backwards. These were the answers. So what were the questions or contradictions to which they were the answers? What was the description base that generated the questions and contradictions to which she already had the answers? She saw the funny side.
Interestingly, as she researched the subject she learned why some of these questions came up and that her simplistic religion based answers were not adequate. Her views did not change in general, but in some particulars she did soften or modify her position.
A Dissertation will normally fall into chapters roughly related to description analysis and synthesis, perhaps with a conclusion. Or it may take separate themes and run them sequentially. A very few institutions say “There shall be four chapters” but most leave it to you. Some require a literature search and some ban one and some leave it to you.
You will need a bibliography and either footnotes or end notes. Most Universities use the Harvard Referencing system. There is always information about the referencing system at the library or on the University intranet.
How Do I Structure The Dissertation?
You will find the dissertation structures itself. As you dig into the topic you will find chapters sub chapters and passages floating around. Over time they will fall into a logical order.
I find it funny and sad when students wail to me “I can’t get anything done because I don’t know how to structure it.”
STEP 1 – Collect blank paper and pens.
STEP 2 – Go to the Library/ Laboratory
STEP 3 – Work your butt off. Generate hand written paper and notes for a couple of days or a week.
STEP 4 Take a day off – go visit your parents and talk to them about your dissertation. Your mum will nod and smile and your dad will nod and snore. It doesn’t matter what they do. What you are doing is putting the structure together.
STEP 5 Go on your computer and write down what you know, what you think you know, and what you need to explore.
Save that as “Draft 1” or “Draft 20April” and email it to yourself or to your mother.
If necessary set up a free account for yourself and email it there from your normal email account. Every afternoon or evening when you finish writing, mail it again.
Then when your computer blows up and your University computer catches a cold, and your memory stick hides, you have the latest edition of your dissertation in your email SENT box.
Those silly filing cards they sell in the stationery store? Ideal for writing down every reference, web site, book, or stray thought. It is infuriating when you just cannot remember where a good quote or a good statistic came from. It looks so bad when your dissertation carries the quote or statistic with no footnote (incompetent/idle) or a “I can’t remember” footnote (definitely incompetent).
There are some students who need a gun to their head. One way to force them to do some work early is “the presentation” where three months into the dissertation you make a presentation to your lecturer and the dissertation lecturer about your dissertation. They will want to see evidence that you have done a lot of work and that you are still excited and exciting about what you are discovering. If you are doing the work you can waltz the presentation. If you are not doing the work it will show. The mark is between 10% and 40% of the dissertation mark, so it is worth working for.
The sooner you get stuck into the dissertation the longer you have for thoughts to hit you. Ideas need time to rub up against each other and to gell. Sometimes you realise you have found a contradiction. Then you realise it is not necessarily a contradiction.
If x=y, and z=y, perhaps x=z – a significant discovery. If x does not equal z, that is even more interesting!
You will discover that in the course of the dissertation you made assumptions that proved to be wrong, and you wasted time chasing down blind alleys. That is part of the process of academic discovery, not a sign that you are an idiot. “The man who never made a mistake never made anything”.
Bump up my marks!
How can you make the piece earn more marks? If you have facility in another language, or you know someone who does, you can quote something relevant from that other language (and put the translation in a footnote). Do not consciously look for something to show off, let it fall effortlessly into position. Or let it appear to fall effortlessly into position.
Foreigners may have trod where you are now treading – so it is perfectly appropriate to give the impression you read their work. Google have a pretty good online translation facility – so you can read foreign stuff and quote it in the original with the Google translation.
If you want to be utterly shameless, find something the dissertation lecturer or the head of department wrote, and praise it highly. No sarcasm please, praise till you puke. To paraphrase Disraeli, “lay the flattery on with a trowel”.
Can you find something unexpected as a source? Can you show in your referencing that you have studied widely and have not just gone down the expected avenues? Can you produce an experiment that generates an unexpected result?
Near The End
You may be required to write 1,000 words or so about the experience of writing the dissertation. If your mentor neglected you, praise him for his “light hand” and his display of confidence. If he was genuinely helpful, genuinely praise him. And if he was argumentative and unhelpful thank him for playing “Devil’s Advocate”. Be reflective and try to dredge something positive out of the experience.
You may also have a “viva” where you have to defend your dissertation. This is designed to make sure that you did write it yourself, and to push at any points where you are a little weak. Most people feel sick before the viva and are walking on air after it.