How to write a dissertation

10 Mar 2020
By Melissa H., Contributor at Unite Students

If you’re a final year or Master’s student, chances are you’re thinking about writing your dissertation.

It can seem daunting when you have to put months’ worth of research into around 10,000 words, especially when there’s so much resting on it.

You might not know what a literature review is, what you should put into your methodology, or how to write a dissertation proposal, but this detailed guide is a great place to start.

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation, thesis or final year project is an extended piece of work on a particular subject, submitted in your final year as part of a degree. Not every degree includes a dissertation, but the majority of them do.

They can take many different formats. For example, dissertations for humanities subjects tend to be research-driven, which means you’ll be spending a hell of a lot of time in the library. Meanwhile, dissertations for science-based subjects are usually data-driven, which means on top of hours in the library, you might also need to carry out your own study.

Whichever format your dissertation takes, try to think of it as one big case study. You’re introducing the reader to the subject, detailing what’s already been said about it, and then explaining what you’ve found from your research and what this means.

How many words is a dissertation?

The length of a dissertation will vary from course to course. This can be anywhere from 3,000 words for a subject like fine art or illustration, all the way up to 20,000 (or even more for Master’s students) for scientific studies. The most common length of a dissertation is around 10,000 words.

How to plan a dissertation

Plan in whichever way works best for you

Even if you’re the kind of person who smashes out first-worthy essays the day before they’re due, I think anyone would struggle to write a dissertation without planning one first. With that in mind, here’s my first tip: organisation is key.

Everyone works in different ways, so plan in whichever way works best for you. Calendar printouts, written notes, fancy spreadsheets and mind maps are all good. You don’t have to plan each little thing to the letter, but in the writing phase, it might be helpful to do this.

I personally used these templates to plan out my tasks for each day of the month of April, which was the month my dissertation was due. When you’re planning your tasks for each day, don’t forget to factor in some contingency time in case you miss a day here and there.

Mind maps are also super helpful. If you feel like you have too many thoughts and ideas about what you want to include in your dissertation, try drawing a mind map and include every single thing you want to talk about – it could be a reading, a theme, an argument, a quote, or a specific example. This visualisation will make it much easier for you to see the links between themes and readings, and you can build your chapters around that.

What do I include in my introduction?

As the word suggests, the introduction of a dissertation should essentially introduce the reader to your topic, the previous research around your topic, and walk them through your argument. Some dissertations open with a quote or describe a specific event that’s relevant to the topic in question, which is a nice way for you to then open up the discussion. You also need to define any words in your title which may need further clarification.

How do I write a literature review for a dissertation?

Plan in whichever way works best for you

A literature review is basically a description of the literature around your topic. This should involve key arguments from scholars who are (usually) experts in that particular field.

What you need to do here is compare and contrast scholars’ arguments – so if one scholar builds on another scholar’s argument, explain how. If two scholars disagree, explain what they disagree on.

Try to explain rather than build on their arguments with your own opinion (that will come later in the main body of the dissertation), but it’s good to write about how your dissertation fits in with this literature.

You’ll need to include any key concepts or topics that are relevant to your dissertation title, so try to keep this part a little broader than the main body of your dissertation, where you can really go into detail. Imagine you’re informing someone who has little to no background knowledge on your specific topic – you need to logically walk them through the key concepts you’re discussing.

You can use a range of media for your literature review, from books and videos to websites and magazine articles. Just remember to reference them properly and consider how trustworthy the sources are.

How do I structure the main body of my dissertation?

Figuring out the structure of your argument can be tricky, but as long as the argument flows from one chapter to the next, you’re in a good place.

Chapter lengths and numbers can vary; they don’t have to all be the same length if you’re finding that you have more content for one chapter than another. Three is a good number of chapters to aim for, but you can expand to five chapters long if you need to. For example, if you’re basing your dissertation on a study then you might need to have different chapters for the methodology, the results and the discussion of your data.

If your research is more literature-based, have a play around with your chapters and see what works best. Does the content flow better when organised in the order you researched it or in themes? It might seem like the most logical thing to go for the former, but you may have a more even distribution of content if you structure it by theme.

How do I write a dissertation conclusion?

A conclusion doesn’t need to be very long – it just needs to wrap up the dissertation nicely.

You should summarise your chapters and give a mini conclusion to each of them, explaining what you found. At some point, make sure you restate what you set out to investigate in your research and provide an answer to this. It doesn’t have to be a yes or a no. You may have found things that contradict what you expected to find, or find that the answer is a bit of both.

This is also a good time to outline any gaps in your research and the reasons for them, or suggest what needs to be done in the field to develop the knowledge on the topic further.

How to write a dissertation abstract

Not every course will need you to write an abstract for your dissertation, but if you do, it’s important to get it right. Although it appears at the start of your dissertation, you should write the abstract last. This is because an abstract is essentially a short, simple overview of your work that allows someone to understand what it’s about in an instant.

Typically, they can be anywhere from one paragraph to a couple of hundred words. Descriptive abstracts tend to explain the aims and methods of your research, while informative abstracts also include your results. Your course staff should tell you which one you’ll need to write.

When writing your dissertation abstract, remember to keep it clear and concise. In fact, imagine you are stuck in a lift with someone and you have 30 seconds to explain your dissertation. This should be how your abstract is written.

My top dissertation tips

  • If you need to organise any trips for field research or set up any kind of interview or focus group, make sure you do this well ahead of time in case your research is unusable or doesn’t suit your investigation topic.
  • It can be hard to start writing up the dissertation, so my best tip with that in mind is, just write something. You’ll be making a lot of edits, so just write whatever comes to mind, even if it sounds bad at first.
  • Separate studying and relaxing by going to the library or a café. Giving yourself allotted time each day to write up your dissertation means you can relax and not let it overwhelm you.
  • Try and aim for your dissertation to be finished a few days before it’s due to give you some leeway if you need more time or run into a printing error. Pick a date two or three days before the actual hand-in and work backwards from there.
  • Ask anyone who’ll listen for feedback. Send your friends draft material to look through, email your tutor to double check something, or ask a course mate for help.

Have an amazing tip that we’ve not mentioned? Get in touch via Facebook or Twitter and let us know!

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I’m a recent history grad with an interest in social movement history, feminism and pop culture. I’m now working as the Social Media Assistant for Unite Students. Aspiring golden retriever owner.