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Dissertations: Starting the Dissertation

What is a Dissertation?

What is a dissertation?

For the purposes of this guide, dissertation means a long piece of writing on a particular topic to be submitted for your university degree. While there are other types of final assessments (e.g. final projects, extended essays), this guide focuses on dissertations. With a dissertation you learn, explore, challenge, theorise, explain, and develop a position on a certain topic.

Why are you required do write a dissertation? 

  • A dissertation is a core requirement of most university degrees. 
  • The dissertation will enhance the development attributes that will equip you to successfully move into employment or further study.
  • While it is a demanding experience, the dissertation is your chance to explore in depth a topic that interests you, and can be personally rewarding, so hopefully it will give you some joy too!

Dissertation and Graduate Attributes

Undergraduate courses at Westminster have been designed to help you develop the Westminster graduate attributes, which support you in becoming a highly employable, globally engaged, and socially responsible citizen. The dissertation fosters the graduate attributes. 

Critical and creative thinkers: The concentrated, detailed, analytical thinking required for a successful dissertation is precisely what the world of professional work expects of graduates. You will be defining the scope of your topic and the questions you ask, exploring how your ideas contribute and relate to wider and interconnected debates and demonstrating your independence of thought through the construction of your own arguments.

Literate and effective communicator: Writing a dissertation requires you to communicate complex ideas and detailed evidence in a clearly written, well argued, logically structured and properly referenced way. You will also be leading on the discussions you have with your supervisor throughout the process. If you are gathering data from individuals (through surveys or interviews) or contacting organisations for information or advice, you will develop your skills in communicating your ideas to different/non-specialist audiences.

Entrepreneurial: Writing a dissertation encourages proactive, independent thinking and activity. You will learn time and project management skills and develop confidence in decision making based on solid evidence.

Global in outlook and engaged in communities: The dissertation requires you to consider different perspectives and to be aware of your own cultural bias.

Social, ethically and environmentally aware: All research requires you to be socially and ethically aware. This can be reflecting on the intentions of your study or how you choose to interpret and present others' arguments, acknowledging the intellectual contributions of others and understanding your responsibilities when involving other people in your research.

First Steps

Uncertain where to start from? These are normally the first steps of dissertation writing: 

  1. Choosing a topic
  2. Literature search
  3. Devise research question(s) / hypotheses
  4. Devise your approach (e.g. if undertaking primary research you will need to devise your methodology, methods, etc.)
  5. Think of a title
  6. Plan your time
  7. Write a proposal (if requested) 

1) Choosing a topic

How to choose a topic

  • Consider something that interests you
  • Talk to academic staff
  • Draw on reading and knowledge from modules you have studied
  • Consider topical issues in news/media
  • Look through dissertations of previous students
  • Search for academic articles and read around topic
  • Consider limitations and future research discussed in journals
  • How about a topic that... 
    • You can investigate in your own country or area? 
    • Would help you find a job?

Tips for a good topic

  • Choose a topic you will enjoy. Your dissertation is an opportunity to explore in depth a topic of interest. It will be challenging, so pick a topic that will sustain your interest. Doing the initial research in your areas of interest will help you choose a topic that will be both viable and enjoyable.
  • Consider the time and resources you will need to successfully complete your dissertation - be realistic! Research, particularly gathering primary data (such as interviews, experiments or archival research) takes time and may involve other challenges such as travel, language skills, ethical considerations etc. Make sure you speak to your supervisor/tutor early on to ensure that your project is achievable.
  • If your topic is too broad, try to narrow it down, perhaps focusing on a specific sector, country or case study. 
  • If your topic is too narrow, you can broaden it by contextualising it within the literature. 

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2) Literature Search

For more information on literature search go to the researching page. 

3) Research question or hypothesis

Normally, in a dissertation you will have a research question OR an an hypothesis. 

Research question

In order to appreciate what a research question should be, let us remember what research is about. Research can be summarised into three points (Cottrell, 2014, p9):

  1. A question
  2. Methods of arriving at an answer
  3. The answer

When to use research questions

  • The work is exploratory, meaning, you are not looking for a specific result. Therefore, it would be impossible or inappropriate to formulate hypotheses
  • Qualitative studies, generally.

Characters of good research questions

  • Answerable: the question should be answered by your research!
  • Manageable: you have to answer it within your resources (skills, time, financial means)
  • Focused: it is better to have a thoroughly researched answer to a small question than to fail to find the answer to one which is too big or diffuse.

See also the Macmillan resource on research questions

Hypothesis

A hypothesis is a reasoned, provisional statement capable of being empirically tested.

When to use hypotheses

  • When you can empirically test the hypothesis
  • Generally, for quantitative studies

Characters of good hypotheses

  • Testable
  • Logical
  • Simple

In quantitative research, hypotheses often concern the possible relationship between two or more variables. E.g. "Cycling to university improves students' ability to concentrate during lessons". 

See also the Macmillan resource on hypothesis.

4) Devise the Approach

For more information on research design go to the methodology page within this guide. 

5) Dissertation Title

A good dissertation title should be

  • Descriptive and explanatory (not general)
  • Precise
  • Possibly including important components/aspects of the research strategy e.g. situated nature, population, methodology
  • Avoid using abbreviations and acronyms

A simple way to write a dissertation title is to simply set out two parts separated by a colon:

A general area: A specific focus within the area

For example: 

Barriers to Internet banking adoption: A qualitative study among corporate customers in Thailand

OR 

Engaging bit: Informative bit

For example: 

Changing Bodies: Matters of the Body in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler

6) Time Management for Dissertations

The dissertation is a large project, so it needs careful planning. In order to organise your time, you can try the following: 

  1. Break down the dissertation into smaller stages to complete (e.g. literature search, read materials, data collection, write literature review section…).
  2. Create a schedule. Working backwards from your deadline, decide when you will complete each stage.
  3. Set aside time to regularly work on the dissertation.
  4. Consider what times of day you are most alert and what makes a suitable space to study.
  5. Identify a specific task to work on.
  6. If overwhelmed, try to identify one task that needs doing rather than focusing on the larger project.
  7. Leave time to redraft, proof-read, format, and complete the reference list.

Gantt Charts

As the dissertation project involves certain processes to take place simultaneously, rather than in a sequence, a Gantt chart is a suitable tool to organise your time. 

A Gantt chart  is a bar chart which shows the schedule for a project. The project is broken down into key tasks/elements to be completed. A start and finish date for each task/element of the project is given. Some tasks are scheduled at the same time, or may overlap. Others will start when a task has been completed.

To produce a Gantt chart, you can use Word, Excel (see example in the attachment) or an online planner like Tom's Planner. There's an example for you to use to complete your plan.

7) Dissertation Proposal

The structure of a proposal varies considerably. This is a list of elements that might be required in a proposal:

Title: The title you have devised, so far - it can change throughout the dissertation drafting process! A good title is simple but fairly specific. An effective type of title is "General bit: Specific bit", e.g., "Barriers to Internet banking adoption: A qualitative study among corporate customers in Thailand" or "Focus and concentration during revision: an evaluation of the Pomodoro technique."

Introduction/Background: Provides background and presents the key issues of your proposed research. Can include the following:

Rationale: Why is this research being undertaken, why is it interesting and worthwhile, also considering the existing literature?

Purpose: What do you intend to accomplish with your study, e.g. improve something or understand something? 

Research question: The main, overarching question your study seeks to answer. The question has to be manageable: it is better to have a thoroughly researched answer to a small question than to fail to find the answer to one which is too big or diffuse. The question has to be clearly formulated. E.g. "How can focus and concentration be improved during revision?"

Hypothesis: Quantitative studies can use hypothesis in alternative to research questions. E.g. "Taking regular breaks significantly increases the ability to focus and concentrate."

Aim: The main result your study seeks to achieve. If you use a research question, the aim echoes that, but uses an infinitive. E.g. "The aim of this research is to investigate how can focus and concentration be improved during revision."

Objectives: The stepping stones to achieve your aim. E.g. "The objectives of this research are 1) to review the literature on study techniques; 2) to identify the factors that influence focus and concentration; 3) to undertake an experiment on the Pomodoro technique with student volunteers; 4) to issue recommendations on focus and concentration for revision."

Literature review: Overview of significant literature around the research topic, moving from general (background) to specific (your subject of study). Highlight what the literature says, and does not say, on the research topic, identifying a gap(s) that your research aims to fill. 

Methodology: Here you consider what methods you are planning to use for your research, and why you are thinking of them. What secondary sources (literature) are you going to consult? Are you going to use primary sources (e.g. interviews, questionnaires, experiments)? Are you going to focus on a case study? Is the research going to be qualitative or quantitative? Consider if your research will need ethical clearance.

Significance/Implications/Expected outcomes: In this section you reiterate what are you hoping to demonstrate. State how your research could contribute to debates in your particular subject area, perhaps filling a gap(s) in the existing works. 

Plan of Work: You might be asked to present your timeline for completing the dissertation. The timeline can be presented using different formats such as bullet points, table, Gantt chart (see box on time management, above). Whichever format you use, your plan of work should be realistic and should demonstrate awareness of the various elements of the study such as literature research, empirical work, drafting, re-drafting, etc.

Outline: Here you include a provisional table of contents for your dissertation. The structure of the dissertation can be free or prescribed by the dissertation guidelines of your course, so check that up. 

Reference List: The list should include the bibliographical information of all the sources you cited in the proposal, listed in alphabetical order. 

Bibliography and Further Reading

Cottrell, S. (2014). Dissertations and project reports: a step by step guide. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Locke, L.F.,  Spirduso, W.W. and Silverman, S.J. (2014). Proposals that Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Grant Proposals. Sage.

Swanborn, P. (2010). Case Study Research: What, Why and How. London: Sage