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Postgraduate Dissertation Introduction

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This Study Guide addresses the task of writing a dissertation. It aims to help you to feel confident in the construction of this extended piece of writing, and to support you in its successful completion.

You may also find the following Study Guides helpful:

Introduction

Sometimes writing is seen as an activity that happens after everything else:

“The research is going well, so the writing should be straightforward - I can leave it until later”.

“I know I’m not good at writing so I keep putting it off”.

“I know I’m good at writing so I can leave it to later”.

“I want to get everything sorted out in my mind before I start writing or I’ll just end up wasting my time re-writing”.

These four very different perspectives lead to the same potential problems:

  • regarding re-drafting as a failure or a waste of time;

  • ignoring the further learning and clarification of argument that usually occurs during the writing and re-writing process; and

  • leaving too little time for effective editing and final proofing.

The process of having to describe your study in detail, in a logical sequence of written words, will inevitably highlight where more thought is needed, and it may lead to new insight into connections, implications, rationale, relevance, and may lead to new ideas for further research.

Barras (1993:136) suggests that you ‘think of your report as part of your investigation, not as a duty to be undertaken when your work is otherwise complete’, and this Study Guide suggests that: writing is an integral part of the research process.

Getting on with the writing

The good news is that you have already started writing if you have written any of the following in relation to this study:

  • a research proposal;

  • a literature review;

  • a report of any pilot studies that you undertook;

  • an abstract for a conference;

  • reports for your supervisors;

  • a learning journal where you keep ideas as they occur to you; or

  • notes for a presentation you have given.

In each case the object of the writing was to communicate to yourself, your supervisors, or to others, something about your work. In writing your dissertation you will draw on some of this earlier writing to produce a longer and more comprehensive account.

Check out what is required

Before embarking on any substantial writing for your dissertation you will need to check the exact requirements regarding:

  • the word limit: maximum and minimum; and whether or not this includes words within tables, the abstract, the reference list, and the appendices;

  • which chapters are expected to be included, in which order, and what kind of material is expected in each;

  • the kind of content appropriate to place in the appendices rather than in the main text; and

  • the marking scheme or guidance.

The structure

There are some conventions that guide the structuring of dissertations in different disciplines. You should check departmental and course regulations.

Below are two structures that are commonly used.

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents page(s)
  • Introduction
  • Materials and methods or Literature review
  • Results or Sources and methods
  • Discussion or Findings
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Appendices

Each section or chapter has its own particular function

Title page

The title itself is an important opportunity to tell the potential reader what your research is about. You will need it to be succinct, specific, descriptive, and representative of the research you have done. There is likely to be a required format for the title page in your discipline, so you need to check what that is.

Abstract

This may be one of the shortest sections of your thesis or dissertation, but it is worthwhile taking great care to write it well. Essentially, the Abstract is a succinct summary of the research. It should be able to stand alone in representing why and how you did what you did, and what the results and implications are. It is often only one page long, and there may be a word limit to adhere to. The Abstract is an important element of the thesis, and will become a document in its own right if the thesis is registered within any database. The examiners will therefore assess your Abstract both as part of your thesis, and as a potentially independent document.

It can be best to write the Abstract last, once you are sure what exactly you are summarising. Alternatively it can be useful to write the abstract earlier on, as an aid to identifying the crucial main thread of your research, its purpose, and its findings, which could then guide the structure of the dissertation.

Attending to the very restrictive word / space limit, while at the same including all the relevant material is quite a challenge. It might be useful to look at how others have managed. It is certainly an academic exercise, but perhaps not too different from the concise explanations of your research you may have had to give to relatives and neighbours over the last few years, in terms of its brevity, accessibility, and comprehensiveness.

Acknowledgements

This is your opportunity to mention individuals who have been particularly helpful. Reading the acknowledgements in other dissertations in your field will give you an idea of the ways in which different kinds of help have been appreciated and mentioned.

Contents, and figure and table lists

The contents pages will show up the structure of the dissertation. Any  imbalance in space devoted to different sections of content will become apparent. This is a useful check on whether amalgamation of sections, or creation of further sections or sub-sections is needed.

Introduction

Although this is the first piece of writing the reader comes to, it is often best to leave its preparation to last as, until then, you will not be absolutely sure what you are introducing. The introduction has two main roles:

  • to expand the material summarised in the abstract, and

  • to signpost the content of the rest of the dissertation.

The literature review, or context of the study

The purpose of this chapter is to show that you are aware of where your own piece of research fits into the overall context of research in your field. To do this you need to:

  • describe the current state of research in your defined area;

  • consider whether there are any closely related areas that you also need to refer to;

  • identify a gap where you argue that further research is needed; and

  • explain how you plan to attend to that particular research gap.

This can lead logically into a clear statement of the research question(s) or problem(s) you will be addressing.

In addition to the research context, there may be other relevant contexts to present for example:

  • theoretical context;

  • methodological context;

  • practice context; and

  • political context.

It can be difficult to identify the best order for sections in this chapter because the rationale for your choice of specific research question can be complicated, and there may be several inter-linked reasons why the research is needed. It is worth taking time to develop a logical structure as this will help to convince examiners of the relevance of your research, and that you understand its relevance. It will also provide you with a framework to refer back to in your discussion chapter, when you reflect on the extent to which your research has achieved what it set out to do.

Chapter(s) describing methods, sources, material etc

In these chapters a straightforward description is required of how you conducted the research. If you used particular equipment, processes, or materials, you will need to be clear and precise in how you describe them.  You must give enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.

Results / Findings

You will need to check which style of reporting is preferred in your field. For example a scientific dissertation would probably have very clear separation between the results and the discussion of those results; whereas a social science dissertation might have an overall chapter called Findings, bringing the results and their discussion together.

Decisions about style of presentation may need to be made about, for example:

  • whether you want to begin with an initial overview of the results, followed by the detail, or whether you move immediately into the detail of the results;

  • in which order you will be presenting the detailed results; and

  • what balance, in terms of word space, you want to achieve across the spread of results that you have.

Discussion

This is where you review your own research in relation to the wider context in which it is located. You can refer back to the rationale that you gave for your research in the literature review, and discuss what your own research has added in this context. It is important to show that you appreciate the limitations of your research, and how these may affect the validity or usefulness of your findings. Given the acknowledged limitations, you can report on the implications of your findings for theory, research, and practice.

Conclusions

This chapter tends to be much shorter than the Discussion. It is not a mere ‘summary’ of your research, but needs to be ‘conclusions’ as to the main points that have emerged and what they mean for your field.

References

This section needs to be highly structured, and needs to include all of your references in the required referencing style. As you edit and rewrite your dissertation you will probably gain and lose references that you had in earlier versions. It is important therefore to check that all the references in your reference list are actually referenced within the text; and that all the references that appear in the text appear also in the reference list.

Appendices

You need to check whether or not the appendices count within the word limit for your dissertation. Items that can usefully go in the appendices are those that a reader would want to see, but which would take up too much space and disrupt the flow if placed within the main text.  Again, make sure you reference the Appendices within the main text where necessary.

Designing your detailed structure

If your dissertation is well-structured, easy to follow, logical, and coherent, your examiners will probably enjoy reading it, and will be able to listen to your argument without the distraction of trying to make all the links themselves.

The only way to achieve a consistent argument throughout a piece of writing is by creating some kind of plan or map of what you want to say. It can be useful to think of the research question or topic going like a strong thread throughout the dissertation: linking all the elements of the study, and giving coherence to its reporting.

Moving from doing the research to writing a comprehensive account of it is not necessarily easy. You may feel that you know everything in your head but can’t see how you can put it into words in the most useful order. It can be helpful to break the task down into smaller, more easily accomplished elements. The process of producing your writing plan could go as follows.

  1. You could start by making a comprehensive and unstructured list of all the elements and ideas that you need to include, ranging from

  2. chapter headings to notes about analysis, and from ideas for graphical representation to ideas for further research. Alternatively you could choose to start at stage 2.

  3. List the main chapter headings in the order in which they will appear.

  4. Under each chapter heading, list a series of important sub-headings. It may be that, for example, a literature review chapter needs to be split into a review of several different segments of literature. In this case each segment can have its own sub-heading, with a synthesis that brings the findings together at the end of the chapter.

  5. Under each sub-heading, list the main content that needs to be included, creating sub-sub-headings if needed. If you began by making a long and unstructured list of content, you can now feed that into the developing structure by inserting it as bullet points under the relevant headings. You need to ensure that all the content you want to include has been allocated a place.

  6. As you go, you can slot in ideas, references, quotes, clarifications, and conclusions as they occur to you, to make sure they are not forgotten.

  7. Check that there is an appropriate balance between and within  sections, and that the structure facilitates the logical and coherent description of the research study you have undertaken.

  8. Take feedback from others at this stage, before you begin to fill in the detail.

Filling in the detail

It can be a good idea to put the word limit to the back of your mind at this point, and concentrate on getting everything recorded in a document. You can always edit upwards or downwards later as necessary.

Writing as you go along

It is likely, and advisable, that you will not wait until the end of your research before starting to write it up. You may be required to produce one or more chapters for assessment part way through your research. The process described above can be used for any individual chapter you are working on. It is important to be prepared to critique and revise your own work several times. Even the early chapters submitted for assessment, and passing that assessment, may need to be revised later on. This is not a failure, but a positive sign of increased experience and skill.

Developing an argument

An important aspect running through your dissertation will be your argument for:

  • why this specific topic is worth researching;

  • why this is a good way to research it;

  • why this method of analysis is appropriate; and

  • why your interpretations and conclusions are reasonable.

You will refer to the work of others as you make your argument. This may involve critiquing the work of established leaders in the field. While it is important to be respectful in the way that you discuss others’ ideas and research, you are expected to engage directly, and even openly disagree with existing writing.

In Taylor’s (1989) book on writing in the arts and social sciences, he suggests that the following different approaches offer a range of academically legitimate ways to engage with published work.

  • Agree with, accede to, defend, or confirm a particular point of view.

  • Propose a new point of view.

  • Concede that an existing point of view has certain merits but that it needs to be qualified in certain important respects.

  • Reformulate an existing point of view or statement of it, such that the new version makes a better explanation.

  • Dismiss a point of view or another person’s work on account of its inadequacy, irrelevance, incoherence or by recourse to other appropriate criteria.

  • Reject, rebut or refute another’s argument on various reasoned grounds.

  • Reconcile two positions that may seem at variance by appeal to some ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ principal.

  • Develop an existing point of view, perhaps by utilising it on larger or more complex datasets, or apply a theory to a new context

(Adapted from Taylor 1989:67)

It is important that you are assertive about what you are arguing, but it is unlikely that, in a dissertation project, you will be able to be definitive in closing an established academic debate. You should be open about where the gaps are in your research, and cautious about over-stating what you have found.  Aim to be modest but realistic in relating your own research to the broader context.

Improving the structure and content

Once you have the dissertation in draft form it becomes easier to see where you can improve it. To make it easier to read you can use clear signposting at the beginning of chapters, and write links between sections to show how they relate to each other. Another technique to improve academic writing style is to ensure that each individual paragraph justifies its inclusion. More ideas will be presented in the Study Guide The art of editing.

You may choose to review your draft from the standpoint of a dissertation examiner, which might involve preparing a list of questions that you want to see answered, then reading through your dissertation scribbling comments, suggestions, criticisms, and ideas in the margin. If you have a marking guide then apply it to your dissertation and see if there are aspects that you can improve.

While you do this, be aware of whether you need to increase the number of words, or decrease it to reach your target. As you read you can then cross through material that appears unnecessary, and mark points that could be expanded. This will then form the basis for your next, improved, draft.

When to stop

Just as it can be difficult to begin writing, it can also be difficult to know when to stop. You may begin to feel that your dissertation will never be good enough, and that you need to revise it again and again. It may be helpful to divert your attention for a while to the finishing off activities you need to attend to:

  • writing the abstract and the introduction;

  • checking the reference list;

  • finalising the appendices; and

  • checking your contents page.

Coming back afresh to look critically at the main text may then enable you to complete it to your satisfaction. Remember the dissertation needs to demonstrate your ability to undertake and report research rather than to answer every question on a topic.

It is important to allow yourself enough time for the final checking and proof reading of the finished document.

Summary

  • Devote time to planning the structure of the dissertation.

  • Plan a structure that will enable you to present your argument effectively.

  • Fill in the detail, concentrating on getting everything recorded rather than sticking to the word limit at this stage.

  • Regard writing as part of the research process, not an after-thought.

  • Expect to edit and re-edit your material several times as it moves towards its final form.

  • Leave time to check and proofread thoroughly.

References

Barrass R. (1979) Scientists must write. A guide to better writing for scientists, engineers and students. London:Chapman and Hall.

Taylor G. (1989) The Student’s Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Students on many postgraduate courses will have to write a dissertation, but where do you start? Sara Goodwin gives some help and advice.

Many postgrad courses require students to produce a dissertation. Often a Master’s course will have taught components the same as or similar to a PG Diploma or Certificate, but with the addition of a dissertation tacked on at the end of the course. (A PhD is examined by thesis – similar to a dissertation but a lot longer!) So the first question you may be faced with is ‘Shall I do the Master’s or the shorter course?’ Various things will affect your answer, but don’t let the D-word put you off: with a bit of forward planning it will be no harder than other forms of study, and the end result can be very satisfying.

So What is it?

A dissertation is a student’s description of their identification of a problem, their search for its solution and their conclusions. It may involve an original contribution such as a piece of research, or it may be a detailed review and discussion of current knowledge of a particular topic. A thesis is a much longer work formed on the same lines, and represents a substantial piece of original research.

‘A thesis is a unique piece of work. Even if you go on to become an academic you’ll never write anything like it again.’ So says Professor Mark Goodwin, Director of Postgraduate studies at Aberystwyth University. Other academic writing is shaped into a book designed to sell, a shorter journal article, a conference paper. Only a thesis or dissertation is produced to stand alone as a single coherent argument where all parts contribute to the central premise.

A dissertation is usually about 15,000 words – about six times the length of this article – while a thesis is around 80,000 words, which is similar in length to an average novel. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tackle such a large volume of work all in one go, so you divide it into manageable chunks.

Preparing the Ground

It’s a good idea to look at other dissertations (or theses), particularly those produced in your department which were well received. Paul Adkins, who is mildly dyslexic, is a mature PhD student at Aston. ‘The thing I found most difficult to assimilate was the academic style necessary for the thesis,’ he says. ‘I immersed myself in it by reading other people’s theses and eventually it took over. I really enjoy it now and sometimes find myself writing through the night.

During ‘Master’s degrees and the first year of many PhDs, students attend compulsory lectures on study and research skills, which include information about how to write the dissertation or thesis. You begin with a plan and a series of questions your research will seek to answer. The way you set up your research questions is critical to the correct shaping of your written work, and the role of your supervisors is crucial to helping you to get it right. Planning takes time and you will probably still be clarifying your ideas several weeks into a Master’s dissertation; several months into a PhD.

How to Tackle it

Overall Structure

Few people starting a dissertation know how to construct it properly. But tutors expect this, and you do not need to be a born writer to write a good dissertation. Its structure is fairly rigid and largely decided for you. Rather than limit you, it’s designed to free you and even guide you into the correct academic thinking for research.

A thesis probably needs a title page, abstract, contents page, acknowledgements, introduction, several chapters, conclusion, appendices and bibliography. A dissertation has a similar but often less formal structure. For example it might have sections rather than chapters, and few or no appendices.

To start, write perhaps a page or two of notes of roughly what your chapters or sections will be, and what must go in them. With your supervisors, set a timetable showing when you expect to complete the various stages, and by which to measure progress.

The first and last chapters or sections have the most impact and need the most care in their structuring. It’s often helpful to divide each into three. A broad review of the wider context, a succinct argument for the significance of the problem being considered, and an outline of the elements of the work and methodology should go in the first chapter or section. The last should contain a brief reiteration of the original problem in view of what has been learned, a descriptionof what has been achieved and a suggestion of future avenues of research.

Start Early

Many students begin by thinking that the research is their main concern and that the thesis or dissertation is somehow tacked onto the end. In fact you can and should start writing as soon as you begin the course. Much of what you write at the beginning may later be rewritten out of existence, but it is still helpful in terms of keeping track of your ideas and structuring them, and giving you a basis for later revisions.
You will probably start preparing by reading around the subject and finding what else has been done in the area. You can already start writing at this point: you will need to include a review of the literature in the topic, so you can write it up as you go. You can also draft the introduction.
In the early stages of your programme you are building your own hypotheses, planning how to conduct your research and designing your methodology. All this is worth recording, and again, you should be writing as you go along. Later, if you design an experiment for example, write it up so that later workers can repeat your work if necessary. Later still you can discuss what you have discovered and its implications.

A Daily Task

Keep a research journal and do some writing each day. If you don’t feel that you have anything new to say, then revise what you’ve already done. There’s always at least a sentence you can add somewhere, a paragraph you can write a bit more clearly , or a section that you realise you can rearange to make the logical sequence clearer. Besides ensuring that you keep making progress, this process can spark off isdeas for more fundamental original writing, and keeps you from the kind of writer’s block that can assail you if you leave it for a few weeks. Paul Adkins comments: ‘ I lookback now at some of the stuff I wrote in my first year and cringe, but it’s the practice and rewriting that’s honed the work.’

Mark Whitehead is innthe thrid year of a Phd at Aberystwyth and says: ‘I try to discipline myself into doing a nine-to-five day and break the writing down into small pockets of words. Even if I only write 500 words a day, that means I’ve done 2,500 words a week, 5,000 words a fortnight and that makes a big dent in the wordcount. It’s a cyclical process. I constantly have to revise what I’ve said at the begining to take into account what I’m now saying at the end.

Mark’s supervisor, Professor Goodwin, agrees: ‘In the thesis, everythingnmust contribute to the argument. The student must construct and sustain this argument over a long period of time and only through constant revision, constant questioning whether something is relevant, do they get it right. But they usually do get it right.’

Getting wired

Students often find it helpful to make notes electronically wherever possible. With the advent of electronic text produc-tion, notes kept electronically can be reworked and thus reduce the amount of text inputting or copy typing you do.

Increasingly, many students prefer to make all their notes, drafts and revisions at a terminal or laptop, with no paper stage at all; many supervisors will happily accept drafts by e-mail rather than on paper. This way of working has many advantages, but there are also easily avoided pitfalls. Firstly, save your work often. If all the hard-luck stories of students who, in a fit of inspiration, typed for four hours without hitting the ‘Save’ keystroke only to have their computer crash, were laid end to end, they would make a thesis in themselves. Get into the habit of saving every time you pause for a moment’s thought.
Secondly, make regular backups on disk and keep them in a separate location from the computer where the data is stored. If you keep your work on a central university system, this is less important since the computing service probably make regular off-site backups, but it’s still a good idea. If you’re working on your own computer it’s essential. It’s a good idea to keep hard copies as well – you can always get them scanned (or if all else fails, retype them)!

Thirdly, it’s temptingly easy to update an electronic file and overwrite the old version. Don’t do it! There’s no need; disk space is cheap and text files are small. However sure you are that you will never need that old, out-of-date version again, there is always a faint possibility that you will regret having permanently deleted it. Keep all versions, in a sensible directory structure so that you can easily identify which files are current, and which order the drafts came in and when.

Keep it flexible

The early structure of your thesis or dissertation provides you with signposts to direct your research. As you become more deeply involved in your subject area and your ideas evolve you continually revise and reshape your original draft. As a result your finished written work can differ radically from your early plan.

Drafting your thesis or dissertation on a PC or other elec-tronic word processor makes reorganising your text very much easier as each piece of completed research is fitted into the whole. You can easily move words within sentences, sentences to more appropriate paragraphs and paragraphs and sections to different chapters. Most word processor software auto-matically moves and renumbers references, footnotes, end-notes, and so on as you edit the text they apply to.

Catherine Dodds used to be a primary school teacher and has just completed the third year of a PhD in sociology with Warwick University. ‘I love research and looked on the writing up as a necessary evil, but it’s not been at all bad,’ she says. ‘It helped that I’ve used some of my research material to put together conference papers or pieces for submission in academic journals. I’ll need to rework them in a different format to include them in the thesis, but the discipline of writing them was useful for fixing my ideas.’

The details – references, bibliography, layout

An important aspect of academic writing is attributing ideas and quotations to other writers. You must compile and include correct, complete and consistent bibliographic details of any written source, including anything you access on the internet, its URL and, because the web changes, the date you accessed it. For paper publications you should, for any ideas you refer to or quotations you use, record writer, book title and publisher (and editor, if appropriate) or journal title and volume number, article title, and page reference. How this information is presented is a matter of style – there are at least 15 different standard styles for biblio-graphies and your department will stipulate which convention it expects you to use.

Convention aside, such exactness in referencing is not just pedantry. Your dissertation or thesis will join the body of accumulated knowledge and be available to help others in their re-search work. If you are not accurate, they will not be able to find useful source material. For this reason, if you use a secondary quotation (ie quote a quote) you should state both sources so that your reader knows that you have not read the original.

Start constructing the bibliography as soon as you have anything to refer to. That way you will have all the neces-sary details and will not have to search around for information to complete an incomplete reference. And you can make your bibliography work for you: if you need to go back to a source you’ve used before, you will have all the details at your fingertips.

Your department or university will have detailed rules governing the presentation of theses and dissertations at that institution. All theses and dissertations must be typed and the rules include typographical information such as double-spacing, using only one side of paper, the size of margins, and so on. As well as being designed to look neat, professional and attractive, the page layout always allows large amounts of white space for manuscript corrections and comments which are useful for notes and redrafting. Make sure you are familiar with the regulations as your dissertation will be assessed on its presentation as well as its content. Some universities have dissertation templates on their computer network to ensure that postgraduate students use the correct and uniform style.

Using your supervisor

You are responsible for your dissertation or thesis but that does not mean that you work in isolation. Your supervisor or supervisors should arrange regular meetings with you – and if they don’t, you should arrange them. Some postgrads utter the phrase ‘I’m seeing my supervisor to-morrow’ in tones of foreboding, but this is a mis-take. Remember, your supervisor is there to help you, not just to keep tabs on whether you have done any work lately. Indeed, if you feel you aren’t making progress, it may be an indication that you need more guidance and should see your supervisor more often, not less.

Besides suggesting directions for research and background reading, supervisors see drafts of your thesis and help plan later chapters and check that your writing style fits with that required, that you’re answering the right questions, that you know the broader field and that your writing has a sense of unity.

As the research worker you’ll rapidly become more of an expert in the detail of your work than your supervisors. On the other hand they have a breadth of experience which you have not yet attained and which you can tap into. Supervisors have not only written their own thesis but have probably supervised the theses or dissertations of others. They know well the broader context into which you are trying to slot your research. Frequently they have seen the problems you may be trying to tackle before and can help with advice.

It’s also helpful if you can getpeople other than your supervisor to read the drafts of your work. Non-experts often spot when explanations are unsatisfactory, can check for spelling and grammatical errors and provide useful feedback about the clarity of your exposition.

The creative part

Most students enjoy writing a dissertation far more than they expect to, and besides providing invaluable training in logic, academic thought and discipline, the end result can bring an enormous sense of achievement. As Mark Whitehead says: ‘The scale of the thesis was daunting to start with but I found that the more I wrote the more I enjoyed it. I became much more conscious of writing styles, both in my own work and in my reading. Eventually I realised that writing can be the most creative part of the job.’

Reproduced with permission from Hobsons.

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