It's the time most students dread - time to start thinking about your dissertation. It feels as though it's looming over you, but in fact writing your dissertation isn't much harder than writing a regular assignment. If you feel you're struggling though, this guide is for you. It will go through what you need, how to structure your dissertation, and give you lots of tips to make sure you do the best you can.
Why your dissertation is important
The fact your dissertation feels so scary is because you've been told through your entire academic career that this piece of writing is the most important document you'll ever create. While it's true that it is the most important piece you'll write at university, it isn't as dire as it seems.
Your dissertation is essentially the culmination of everything you've learned while you're at university. You've had years to start thinking about your subject, and wonder about the gaps that have appeared as you've studied. This is your chance to do some real research out in the field, and publish a real, academic piece of work.
If that sounds intimidating, don't worry. Use this guide from our essay writers to help yourself through the process, and you'll find it's much easier than it sounds.
Start writing as soon as possible
The first thing you'll need to do is start writing as soon as possible. Many students don't do this, as they feel it's a waste of time. After all, if you start writing before you've gone out and done the research, then it may all be wrong and you'll have to dispose of it.
However, this is not the case. You don't have to start writing polished pieces of your dissertation, but it's very helpful to start writing notes and ideas down as they come. The first thing you'll do is go through current academic texts and see what they have to say on the subject. At this point, you should be jotting down notes and ideas as you think of them. These will be very helpful when it comes to creating your literature reviews and plans for your dissertation.
Use the help available to you
It's your dissertation, but that doesn't mean you should be doing it on your own. Your university will have given you several sessions on dissertation writing before you officially need to begin working on it. If you have any materials from these sessions, now is a good time to take them out and review them.
Also, you will have been assigned a tutor for your dissertation. Many students struggle and get poor marks because they don't have meetings with their tutors. To do well, you need to stay in regular contact with them. Set up an initial meeting, and discuss your ideas with them. A tutor can't tell you what to do, but they be able to point you in the direction of appropriate texts, people, and organisations.
The basics of your dissertation
Before you start writing, here's the things you'll need to know to make sure you're formatting it correctly.
- The signature page: This page will be needed to bear the signatures of all the readers of your dissertation, including the dissertation director.
- Type and spacing: Your university may have set rules for this, but generally type faces set at 10, 11 or 12 point are all acceptable. All text should be double spaced, apart from block quotations, captions, long headings, and footnotes.
- Margins: Your left margin should be 1.5 inches wide, while all other margins should be 1 inch wide.
- Page numbers: All pages, including blank ones, will need to be numbered. Preliminary pages should be numbered with lower case Roman numerals. The rest of the dissertation should be numbered with Arabic numerals, starting with 1.
- Preliminary pages: The pages that come before your dissertation proper will be as follows:
- 1. Title page, which will not need a number.
- 2. Copyright page, which will not need a number.
- 3. Signature page
- 4. Curriculum Vitae
- 5. Preface and acknowledgements
- 6. Table of contents
- 7. List of tables and illustrations
The structure of your dissertation
Once the preliminary pages of your dissertation are out of the way, this will be the basic structure of your dissertation. Yours may differ slightly, depending on your university and subject. If it will need to differ, be sure to run any changes by your dissertation tutor first.
- Materials and methods, or literature review
- Results, or sources and methods
- Discussion, or findings
This is one of the first pages in your dissertation, but it's often best to write it last. This is because it sums up the entirety of your research and writing in one page. As it's a summary, it's often a lot shorter than the other sections of your dissertation.
When you write your abstract, do your best to sum up exactly what the reader will find if they read your entire dissertation. You want this piece to be able to stand on it's own.
Again, you may want to leave writing this section until last, as you'll then know exactly what's coming up in the rest of the dissertation. It differs to the abstract as you're not summing up the entire piece. Instead, you are introducing the work you're about to do, and signposting what you're looking for. Think of it as a way to entice the reader to want to carry on and find out what you discover.
This section is designed to give the reader context for your study. You'll need to show how your original research fits into the current literature around the topic. Of course, this means you'll need to do some intensive reading before you're able to write this section.
When you write this section, you'll need to describe what the current state of the research in your area is like, and where the gaps are that you've identified. Then, you will need to state how you intent to address those gaps, and what you're hoping to find.
Methods and research chapters
These chapters will be rather straightforward to write, as they will describe the methods you used to do your research. How they will be laid out will again depend on your subject and your university guidelines. For these chapters, you will again need to consult with your dissertation tutor to find out exactly what you will need to do. However, there will be some aspects you will need to cover:
- The planning and creation of your research plan.
- The methods you used i.e. questionnaires, focus groups.
- How you conducted the study.
- Any obstacles you faced or amendments you had to make. Don't be afraid to include these. All academics will come across road blocks. You need to show how you worked around them in your dissertation.
Results or findings
This chapter is again very straightforward. Here, you will be detailing the results you got from your research as detailed in the chapter beforehand. How you present them will depend on your field of study. If you study science, for example, you may have tables of results, as well as charts to clearly show how they stack up against your initial study. If you study a humanities subject, the results may be more nuanced.
Remember to simply present your findings here, rather than discussing them. The next chapter will go more in depth on what you found.
This is where you'll be analysing your findings, in relation to your initial research. When you write this section, think about your thesis. Do your findings hold up your theory, or do they disprove it? What does this mean for the academic community at large?
If you feel that you could have done more study, or needed more time, you can say so. Acknowledging the limitations you had shows that you understand what could be done with a larger scope, more time, or a bigger budget.
As with all assignments, you'll need to write a conclusion. This won't be just a simple summing up of your main points, although you will need to do that. You'll also need to consider what your findings mean for your field of study itself.
It's best to write this section as you go along. This is because you'll use different texts at different times, and you may well forgot what you used or where you found it. Writing it throughout the whole process means you won't miss anything off. Check with your university's student support centre for details on referencing in the correct style.
Appendices are any resources that your reader may want to see, but would interrupt the flow of your main dissertation. These can include graphs, illustrations, or other data you've collected during the course of your investigation.
Some helpful tips
Of course, every student will welcome some quick tips to keep themselves on track as they write their dissertations. Here's some that will make your life easier as you're writing.
- You don't have to write it in order: It sounds obvious, but you don't. In fact, if you do, you're going to make the process a lot more difficult for yourself. Write sections as you gather the evidence for them, and you'll soon see it all slots together.
- Don't wait till the last minute: It's tempting to pull an all nighter the night before the due date, but it's not worth your while. There'll be a line a mile long to hand it in and get it bound, and no one wants to deal with that.
- Don't compare yourself to your friends: You'll want to ask how much work they've done, and they'll probably say they've been interviewing people while you haven't even got your literature review done yet. Don't panic, everyone works at different rates. Plus, everyone's dissertations will need slightly different approaches.
- You'll probably want to start over again: At some point, you may think that everything you've written is terrible, and that your thesis is unusable. It's reasonable that you'll feel like tearing it up all up and starting again. However, don't, not until you've spoken to your dissertation tutor. They'll be able to help you find a new way of looking at your current thesis without having to start from scratch.
- A lot of your work won't make it into the finished product: When you start reading, everything you find will be a gem and you'll want to cram it all in. Soon, though, you'll discover that it just isn't possible. A lot of your research will have to go by the wayside, but don't be disheartened. It just means that only best of what you find will make it in.
Hopefully by now you'll be feeling a lot more confident about your dissertation. It's the longest piece of writing you'll have produced up to this point, but with a little preparation and use of the help available to you, you'll get a lot out of it.