Getting Started on a Dissertation

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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