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How to write a dissertation

When you start university, one of the final pieces of work – your dissertation – seems like a long way off. Three years passes more quickly than you think, and before you know it, you’re being told it is time to start work on your dissertation. It can feel incredibly daunting, especially if you aren’t accustomed to writing extended pieces of work. Although it probably won’t feel like an easy task (it is supposed to challenge you!) with the right preparation, you can minimise the amount of stress you encounter, and manage your project with enough time.

We’re not going to focus on how to carry out your research in this post, because there are too many variables between subjects, but rather, looking at how to tackle the writing-up process.

Table of Contents

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is an independent piece of academic work that reports on research that you have carried out, and is much longer and more in-depth than a regular essay or research project. Word counts for UK dissertations are typically between 8,000 words to 20,000 words, but the length, along with the criteria for the sections that are required depend on the subject of your degree and the university you’re studying with.

 

In the UK, dissertations are different from theses. Although they are similar in that they are independent works, theses are significantly longer, and tend to refer to research projects for doctoral degrees. Theses are normally made accessible in the university library when the candidate has been awarded their doctorate. Undergraduate dissertations and theses for master’s degrees aren’t routinely available in libraries, but are sometimes made available by faculties. 

Young serious Asian man in checked shirt and glasses reading information on laptop and making notes while sitting at table

How long does a dissertation take to write?

How long your dissertation takes to write will be influenced by the word count, and how long your research takes. However, many professional writers who know their subject (and perhaps don’t require such accuracy) don’t write more than 5,000 words in a day – so don’t assume you can write your dissertation during the week before the deadline! You’ll have a good idea how many words you can write comfortably in a day, so take that figure, divide it and work backwards. If you can do 1000 words (many people work with a much lower number!) and your dissertation is 10,000 words – then you need an absolute minimum of 12 days, since you’ll need time for reading, editing, spotting mistakes, and getting your dissertation bound and handed in. 

Although many people thrive under a certain amount of time pressure, don’t leave getting started to the last minute. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need for writing each section, and when you have completed a section, move straight on – don’t waste time waiting for the next writing window you have scheduled. You might find that other sections need extra time to complete. 

Don’t forget to leave plenty of time for editing your work – most students need to do a lot of editing – and leave contingency time in case of IT failure, illness, or any other interruptions. 

Why are dissertations so hard?

During dissertation time, university campuses worldwide are full of stressed students. Dissertation projects are massive pieces of work that have to be tackled by yourself, and your degree classification can be dramatically impacted by the mark you receive for your dissertation – which is why many students feel the pressure!

Dissertations present all kinds of problems, here are a few of the best tips we can to prevent you getting too stressed. 

 

  • Planning ahead is essential – by planning, you’ll be able to manage your time much better, including breaks for eating, relaxing and exercise, which means you can think much more clearly and won’t be as stressed. 
  • Create a plan for your work – knowing what you’re working on and when will keep you on track and ensure you don’t go off on a tangent or get too far behind. 
  • Allow contingency time for emergencies – you don’t know if something will interrupt your writing time. Be sure to leave plenty of time ahead of the deadline to make sure you’re not over-stressed. 
  • Don’t procrastinate – running out of time is one of the biggest problems that students encounter. Pulling a string of all-nighters to meet the deadline won’t result in your best work. 
  • Set up autosave, and back up your work – IT staff aren’t miracle workers – so don’t work for three hours without saving, and be sure to save research in the cloud (in your Google Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox) as well as on your PC. 
  • Do enough research – a dissertation requires much more than finding a few papers and quoting from them. You need to analyse resources in depth, and use the information correctly to support the points you are making.

How do I get started?

Start by attending all the sessions provided by the course team, and read all the information and guidance that are provided by the faculty, since this is where you’ll find out any specific requirements. Before you start writing, make sure you know:

  • The word count (and whether you will be penalised for being too many words over or under) 
  • Any compulsory sections and the structure required
  • The style of writing required
  • What types of sources are permitted
  • The types of methodology you are allowed to use
  • The deadline for submission
  • The requirements for submitting your paper copy for marking, such as formatting and binding 
  • Where, when, and how you submit your dissertation


Once you know these important points, you can start to get into the details and decide on your research topic. 

You can read much more about the different types of roles in these areas here.

By choosing an area that you find interesting and meaningful, you’re more likely to put more effort in, and your enthusiasm will be evident, which is likely to result in a higher mark.

How should I choose my research topic?

Choosing your research topic is possibly the most important part of your dissertation. By choosing an area that you find interesting and meaningful, you’re more likely to put more effort in, and your enthusiasm will be evident, which is likely to result in a higher mark. If you choose an area that is related to your career aims, you’ll be able to mention your work at future job interviews. 

If you don’t feel inspired, check course materials for modules that particularly interested you and head for the library. Academic journals and other publications in the field will contain ideas, and help you to know what is currently of interest in the field. 

You can also work with your dissertation supervisor or personal tutor to narrow the focus of your research topic, discuss the best methods and to ensure your proposal is a realistic study in the time you have to work with.

Do I need to write a dissertation proposal?

Dissertation proposals aren’t mandatory at every university, but where they are, they tend to have a 500 or 1000 word limit. Even if it isn’t a requirement for you, taking the time to put together a dissertation proposal can help you understand how to plan the project. It will help you to define: 

  • The research area that your dissertation will focus on
  • The questions you will examine 
  • Some existing theories that you’ll refer to
  • The research methods you will be using
  • What you expect the outcome will be

Do I need to write a dissertation proposal?

Dissertation proposals aren’t mandatory at every university, but where they are, they tend to have a 500 or 1000 word limit. Even if it isn’t a requirement for you, taking the time to put together a dissertation proposal can help you understand how to plan the project. It will help you to define: 

  • The research area that your dissertation will focus on
  • The questions you will examine 
  • Some existing theories that you’ll refer to
  • The research methods you will be using
  • What you expect the outcome will be

What structure should my dissertation take?

In this next section, we’ll cover the sections that are usually required in a dissertation. Different universities and subjects have different requirements, so check the guidance from your faculty to ensure you have all the sections you need. 

Title page

There are usually strict guidelines for formatting your dissertation’s title page, but normally you’ll need to include:  

  • The title of your dissertation
  • Your name 
  • The faculty or school you’re studying in 
  • The name of the institution 
  • The degree programme you’re studying
  • Your student number 
  • The name of your supervisor 
  • The university’s logo


If your university requires your dissertation to be printed and bound, your title page is usually your front cover. 

Acknowledgements

This section may not be mandatory, but gives you space to thank people who have supported you through your dissertation. You might mention specific members of the course team, research participants, or simply friends and family.

Abstract

This is a short summary section that gives readers a brief overview of what is contained in your dissertation. Abstracts are usually less than 300 words, and should include: 

  • The topic and the aim of your research
  • Details of your methods 
  • A short summary of the results 
  • Your conclusions


Since it needs to detail what is contained in your dissertation, abstracts should always be written when you have finished the rest of your dissertation.

Table of contents

Most institutions require dissertations to have page numbers and a list of chapters and subheadings, including any appendices. You can generate this automatically in Word when you have finished writing your dissertation. 

List of assets

If you have included lots of tables, graphs, or images in your dissertation, you may need to include an itemised list. You can generate this automatically using the Insert Caption function in Word.

List of abbreviations/glossary

This optional section may be appropriate if you have included a lot of specialist terms or abbreviations. If you have used both, you may need to include both sections separately.

Introduction

This is where you detail the topic, and explain what the reader can expect. The introduction provides more detail than your abstract, and will help readers to understand:  

  • Your research topic and background information 
  • The focus and extent of the research
  • Current research and discourse around the topic 
  • How the research will contribute to a wider issue or discussion
  • The objectives and research questions
  • Details of how you intend to answer the questions
  • The structure of your dissertation


Keep your introduction succinct, and only include information that is relevant, so the reader can understand what your study is about, why you have chosen the topic, and how you plan to carry out the research. 

Literature review

Your literature review should show a deep understanding of existing academic work. It should be a substantial section, and you’ll need to gather sources, critically evaluate, and analyse the works, and make connections between them. Your literature review may help you to identify: 

  • A gap in the literature 
  • An opportunity to use a new theoretical or methodological approach 
  • A solution for a problem that was previously unsolved
  • That you can contribute to existing theoretical debate 
  • That existing research needs strengthening with your data

 

You’ll be able to use your literature review to justify why you have chosen to carry out the research in your dissertation, so be sure to complete it in detail.

Methodology

This section will detail what research you carried out, and the methods you used, which is essential to show the validity of your work. This section is an account of what you did, and why you did it. You will need to include: 

  • The approach and type of research (was it qualitative, quantitative, experimental, ethnographic?) 
  • The methods used to collect data (did you carry out interviews, surveys, or use information from archives?) 
  • Where and when your research took place, and information about any participants (you’ll need to anonymise personal information) 
  • How you analysed the data (did you use statistical analysis or discourse analysis, for example) 
  • Which tools or materials you used (computer programs or specialist lab equipment) 
  • Information about any restrictions or hindrances you encountered and how you moved past them
  • An assessment or evaluation of your methods

Results

The results section should clearly illustrate what you found. This could mean you include tables, graphs, and charts to present the findings. Think carefully about the best method to show your results, and only use graphs, tables and charts where they provide extra information – don’t use them to repeat what is in the text. 

Don’t include raw data here – you can add that in your appendices. Depending on the type of research you have carried out (and faculty guidance) results may be combined with the discussion. 

Discussion

This section reflects on the meaning of the work you have done. You’ll demonstrate understanding of what the results show, and whether they match what you expected. You’ll also examine other ways of interpreting the data, and if your findings are at odds with what you expected, you’ll suggest reasons for why this could have happened.

Whether your results support your hypotheses or not, you’ll contextualise your study with existing research to explain how it contributes to wider discussions about the topic.

Conclusion

Here you’ll go back to your research question, and demonstrate understanding of your research, and the validity of the study. You may make recommendations for future research in this section. 

References

As you already know, there are different referencing formatting conventions that are used by different subject fields. But since you’ll lose marks if you don’t do them correctly, it is essential to have your references stored accurately, and to format them correctly before you submit your dissertation.

 

You’ve probably already found the method of keeping references that suits you, such as using reference management software, or using Word referencing, but keep notes as you go, so you can compile your references section easily.

Appendices

If there is information that you want to be included but isn’t essential to understanding your research, you may add this as part of an appendices. This could include transcripts, copies of surveys or complete tables of raw data.  

Where can I get help with my dissertation?

Although your dissertation must be an independent piece of work, there are still sources of help if you get stuck. There are thousands of online resources, but here are a few more points of help:

Study skills support is available at most universities, and the team may be able to offer you assistance with your dissertation. Bear in mind there is likely to be a huge demand on this service during dissertation time, so ask early if you need their support.  

Your personal tutor or dissertation supervisor can provide general advice, and you’ll probably have several review meetings during the writing period. However, your supervisor is likely to have a large number of students and their availability may be restricted. 

Subject librarians will be able to advise you where to find relevant resources. 

If your mental health is the issue, support can be found from counselling services that are available both from university and from external agencies, while the multifaith chaplaincy team may be able to support you with spiritual matters during your dissertation.

Final thoughts

Your dissertation project is a major part of your final year, and with exams and the pressure to decide your next steps, life can get a bit stressful. You might be planning to apply for a postgraduate degree such as a master’s degree, another type of qualification or moving into employment, but the results of your dissertation will have a huge impact on your prospects, so performing to the best of your abilities is essential. While your dissertation is a large piece of work, with great planning and careful management, you can start to enjoy the process. 

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