Writing a dissertation is one of the most challenging aspects of university. However, it is the chance for students to demonstrate what they have learned during their degree and to explore a topic in depth.
In this article, we look at 10 top tips for writing a successful dissertation and break down how to write each section of a dissertation in detail.
10 tips for writing an undergraduate dissertation
1. Select an engaging topic
Choose a subject that aligns with your interests and allows you to showcase the skills and knowledge you have acquired through your degree.
2. Research your supervisor
Undergraduate students will often be assigned a supervisor based on their research specialisms. Do some research on your supervisor and make sure that they align with your dissertation goals.
3. Understand the dissertation structure
Familiarise yourself with the structure (introduction, review of existing research, methodology, findings, results and conclusion). This will vary based on your subject.
4. Write a schedule
As soon as you have finalised your topic and looked over the deadline, create a rough plan of how much work you have to do and create mini-deadlines along the way to make sure don’t find yourself having to write your entire dissertation in the final few weeks.
5. Determine requirements
Ensure that you know which format your dissertation should be presented in. Check the word count and the referencing style.
6. Organise references from the beginning
Maintain an alphabetically arranged reference list or bibliography in the designated style as you do your reading. This will make it a lot easier to finalise your references at the end.
7. Create a detailed plan
Once you have done your initial research and have an idea of the shape your dissertation will take, write a detailed essay plan outlining your research questions, SMART objectives and dissertation structure.
8. Keep a dissertation journal
Track your progress, record your research and your reading, and document challenges. This will be helpful as you discuss your work with your supervisor and organise your notes.
9. Schedule regular check-ins with your supervisor
Make sure you stay in touch with your supervisor throughout the process, scheduling regular meetings and keeping good notes so you can update them on your progress.
10. Employ effective proofreading techniques
Ask friends and family to help you proofread your work or use different fonts to help make the text look different. This will help you check for missing sections, grammatical mistakes and typos.
What is a dissertation?
A dissertation is a long piece of academic writing or a research project that you have to write as part of your undergraduate university degree.
It’s usually a long essay in which you explore your chosen topic, present your ideas and show that you understand and can apply what you’ve learned during your studies. Informally, the terms “dissertation” and “thesis” are often used interchangeably.
How do I select a dissertation topic?
First, choose a topic that you find interesting. You will be working on your dissertation for several months, so finding a research topic that you are passionate about and that demonstrates your strength in your subject is best. You want your topic to show all the skills you have developed during your degree. It would be a bonus if you can link your work to your chosen career path, but it’s not necessary.
Second, begin by exploring relevant literature in your field, including academic journals, books and articles. This will help you identify gaps in existing knowledge and areas that may need further exploration. You may not be able to think of a truly original piece of research, but it’s always good to know what has already been written about your chosen topic.
Consider the practical aspects of your chosen topic, ensuring that it is possible within the time frame and available resources. Assess the availability of data, research materials and the overall practicality of conducting the research.
When picking a dissertation topic, you also want to try to choose something that adds new ideas or perspectives to what’s already known in your field. As you narrow your focus, remember that a more targeted approach usually leads to a dissertation that’s easier to manage and has a bigger impact. Be ready to change your plans based on feedback and new information you discover during your research.
How to work with your dissertation supervisor?
Your supervisor is there to provide guidance on your chosen topic, direct your research efforts, and offer assistance and suggestions when you have queries. It’s crucial to establish a comfortable and open line of communication with them throughout the process. Their knowledge can greatly benefit your work. Keep them informed about your progress, seek their advice, and don’t hesitate to ask questions.
1. Keep them updated
Regularly tell your supervisor how your work is going and if you’re having any problems. You can do this through emails, meetings or progress reports.
2. Plan meetings
Schedule regular meetings with your supervisor. These can be in person or online. These are your time to discuss your progress and ask for help.
3. Share your writing
Give your supervisor parts of your writing or an outline. This helps them see what you’re thinking so they can advise you on how to develop it.
5. Ask specific questions
When you need help, ask specific questions instead of general ones. This makes it easier for your supervisor to help you.
6. Listen to feedback
Be open to what your supervisor says. If they suggest changes, try to make them. It makes your dissertation better and shows you can work together.
7. Talk about problems
If something is hard or you’re worried, talk to your supervisor about it. They can give you advice or tell you where to find help.
8. Take charge
Be responsible for your work. Let your supervisor know if your plans change, and don’t wait if you need help urgently.
Remember, talking openly with your supervisor helps you both understand each other better, improves your dissertation and ensures that you get the support you need.
How do I plan my dissertation?
It’s important to start with a detailed plan that will serve as your road map throughout the entire process of writing your dissertation. As Jumana Labib, a master’s student at the University of Manchester studying digital media, culture and society, suggests: “Pace yourself – definitely don’t leave the entire thing for the last few days or weeks.”
Decide what your research question or questions will be for your chosen topic.
Break that down into smaller SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) objectives.
Speak to your supervisor about any overlooked areas.
Create a breakdown of chapters using the structure listed below (for example, a methodology chapter).
Define objectives, key points and evidence for each chapter.
Define your research approach (qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods).
Outline your research methods and analysis techniques.
Develop a timeline with regular moments for review and feedback.
Allocate time for revision, editing and breaks.
Consider any ethical considerations related to your research.
Stay organised and add to your references and bibliography throughout the process.
Remain flexible to possible reviews or changes as you go along.
A well thought-out plan not only makes the writing process more manageable but also increases the likelihood of producing a high-quality piece of research.
How to structure a dissertation?
The structure can depend on your field of study, but this is a rough outline for science and social science dissertations:
Introduce your topic.
Complete a source or literature review.
Describe your research methodology (including the methods for gathering and filtering information, analysis techniques, materials, tools or resources used, limitations of your method, and any considerations of reliability).
Summarise your findings.
Discuss the results and what they mean.
Conclude your point and explain how your work contributes to your field.
On the other hand, humanities and arts dissertations often take the form of an extended essay. This involves constructing an argument or exploring a particular theory or analysis through the analysis of primary and secondary sources. Your essay will be structured through chapters arranged around themes or case studies.
All dissertations include a title page, an abstract and a reference list. Some may also need a table of contents at the beginning. Always check with your university department for its dissertation guidelines, and check with your supervisor as you begin to plan your structure to ensure that you have the right layout.
How long is an undergraduate dissertation?
The length of an undergraduate dissertation can vary depending on the specific guidelines provided by your university and your subject department. However, in many cases, undergraduate dissertations are typically about 8,000 to 12,000 words in length.
“Eat away at it; try to write for at least 30 minutes every day, even if it feels relatively unproductive to you in the moment,” Jumana advises.
How do I add references to my dissertation?
References are the section of your dissertation where you acknowledge the sources you have quoted or referred to in your writing. It’s a way of supporting your ideas, evidencing what research you have used and avoiding plagiarism (claiming someone else’s work as your own), and giving credit to the original authors.
Referencing typically includes in-text citations and a reference list or bibliography with full source details. Different referencing styles exist, such as Harvard, APA and MLA, each favoured in specific fields. Your university will tell you the preferred style.
Using tools and guides provided by universities can make the referencing process more manageable, but be sure they are approved by your university before using any.
How do I write a bibliography or list my references for my dissertation?
The requirement of a bibliography depends on the style of referencing you need to use. Styles such as OSCOLA or Chicago may not require a separate bibliography. In these styles, full source information is often incorporated into footnotes throughout the piece, doing away with the need for a separate bibliography section.
Typically, reference lists or bibliographies are organised alphabetically based on the author’s last name. They usually include essential details about each source, providing a quick overview for readers who want more information. Some styles ask that you include references that you didn’t use in your final piece as they were still a part of the overall research.
It is important to maintain this list as soon as you start your research. As you complete your research, you can add more sources to your bibliography to ensure that you have a comprehensive list throughout the dissertation process.
How to proofread an undergraduate dissertation?
Throughout your dissertation writing, attention to detail will be your greatest asset. The best way to avoid making mistakes is to continuously proofread and edit your work.
Proofreading is a great way to catch any missing sections, grammatical errors or typos. There are many tips to help you proofread:
Ask someone to read your piece and highlight any mistakes they find.
Change the font so you notice any mistakes.
Format your piece as you go, headings and sections will make it easier to spot any problems.
Separate editing and proofreading. Editing is your chance to rewrite sections, add more detail or change any points. Proofreading should be where you get into the final touches, really polish what you have and make sure it’s ready to be submitted.
Stick to your citation style and make sure every resource listed in your dissertation is cited in the reference list or bibliography.
How to write a conclusion for my dissertation?
Writing a dissertation conclusion is your chance to leave the reader impressed by your work.
Start by summarising your findings, highlighting your key points and the outcome of your research. Refer back to the original research question or hypotheses to provide context to your conclusion.
You can then delve into whether you achieved the goals you set at the beginning and reflect on whether your research addressed the topic as expected. Make sure you link your findings to existing literature or sources you have included throughout your work and how your own research could contribute to your field.
Be honest about any limitations or issues you faced during your research and consider any questions that went unanswered that you would consider in the future. Make sure that your conclusion is clear and concise, and sum up the overall impact and importance of your work.
Remember, keep the tone confident and authoritative, avoiding the introduction of new information. This should simply be a summary of everything you have already said throughout the dissertation.
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