Starting your Dissertation: Essential Knowledge to getting it Right First Time

Table of contents

Planning your Move

A dissertation isn’t just a test of your knowledge in a particular field; it is also a test of your time management and organisation skills too. To be able to not only create a detailed and fully referenced academic report but to do it within well-defined and tight timescales is a skill in itself, and not meeting your time constraints can be just as damaging to your final mark as a poorly presented dissertation.

You should consider that a dissertation is not only a culmination of your academic work, but also an introduction into your forthcoming life in academia or industry, where you will be expected to hit potentially tight timescales with accurate work. That means that you need to effectively plan not only what you are going to deliver, but when you are going to deliver it too.

The key to starting your dissertation is to break it down into manageable chunks, and make a plan of when each part will need to be delivered, and these need to follow a logical sequence. For instance, the very start of your dissertation needs to be the decision about what your question is going to be, and you will not be able to do anything else until you have agreed that with your supervisor. Your supervisor is there to guide you through the whole process, but also takes on other roles, such as:

  • Helping you to decide the topic of your dissertation and advise you about essential primary and secondary reading for it.
  • Helping with formulating ideas and hypotheses regarding your question.
    Discussing the progress of your work with you during the course of the year and helping you meet delivery targets.
  • Offering guidance on the proposed structure of the final deliverable.
    Offering feedback at all points in the process.
  • Advice to you about the structure of your dissertation, including matters of presentation, such as the title page, contents page, pagination, footnoting and bibliography.

You should consider your supervisor to be the subject matter exert on form and deliverables, and you should consult with them often.

What’s The Question?

Picking a question is a delicate and in-depth process. This is going to be the question that you throw yourself into, and becomes the central focus of your life for the next year, so t has to be right. That means discussions with your supervisor, who will have a good idea of what constitutes a suitable question.Generally, a dissertation question should be:

  • Relevant to your field of study.
  • Manageable in terms of research and in terms of your own academic abilities and background.
  • Substantial in scope and with original dimensions that set it apart from similar previous research.
  • Consistent with the requirements of the assessment you are undertaking.
  • Clear and simple, while being of sufficient depth to make it relevant.
  • Interesting to academia.

It’s all too easy to pick the wrong question; many students select a question that is either convenient – its fits neatly with coursework – or is simply a fad or something that is derived from personal circumstances. That’s not to say that you cannot consider these factors when picking a question, but you should try not to let them become controlling factors.

Research it!

While you are producing a new piece of academic work, the old adage of “there’s nothing new under the sun” hold true, and while your research will be original, there will be other works out there that are similar and will be able to offer guidance. These will fall into two broad categories:

Arguments that support your hypothesis. These will be previously completed works on which you base your research and use to demonstrate the existence, legality, or purpose of your own research. For example, you may be researching the limitations of online learning for novice students, in which case you would support your work with published papers that demonstrated the difficulties faced by novice learners.
Papers that you refute. There will be previously published works that you will counter through new research. You will have to understand them fully and pick out the parts where your research disagrees with their research, and create a cogent, well researched argument to support your own hypothesis.

To be able to properly research is a skill that you need to learn as you are likely to be using it for much of your working life. By the point of starting a dissertation, you should have completed several researched papers and reports and will have researched and cited works. You should treat your dissertation as an extended report and ensure that you extract all of the information that you need from your research.

Putting it all together.

With a question agreed, your research done, and a timeline agreed with your supervisor, the massive task of putting it all down on paper begins, but do not underestimate the importance of starting early. Make notes whenever you can and start to build up a report from first principles, create a structure and start to fill in parts that you can, complete all the ancillary parts like your list of acronyms and your questionnaire if you are using one.

Do not put the work off; you may think that you have a long time to write your dissertation but a good dissertation is a lot of work, and you will have barely enough time to fit it all in anyway. If you find that you run into problems, you need to speak to your supervisor promptly and get back on track quickly. The same thing applies if you find that you are starting to miss your milestones and are in danger of missing important deliveries of work.

When you start writing, proof read as you go. Write a section and then read through everything that you have done before. You need to check for the usual typos and grammatical errors, but as your report grows, you need to ensure that it not only is academically correct, but also continues to fit the original question and remain relevant.

The report that you finally construct will help define your working life and will have an impact on your future employability, so it is worth putting the work in now and making sure that you get the maximum benefit out of it.


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