How to Write Your Best Dissertation

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Your dissertation is a piece of academic writing in which you present your findings following independent research for a degree or similar qualification. The purpose of the dissertation is to showcase your knowledge and understanding of the subject and evidence that you are able to carry out thorough research, analyze the results and arguments, and draw your own conclusions. This piece of work should also add something new to whichever branch of academia you are studying. It is important, therefore that the dissertation is structured correctly so that those marking it are convinced that you have achieved all those elements.

That is not to say there is only one way to structure your dissertation (this will be influenced by the nature of your research and how you are presenting it) but there should be a clear introduction explaining how the dissertation will flow and introducing your main arguments or discussions. It is often a good idea to write your introduction after you’ve written the main body of your essay, or certainly to go back and edit it, to ensure consistency.

Your dissertation can seem exciting and intimidating at the same time. For most students it is the biggest piece of work they have done to date and, while it is an opportunity to contribute to their field of study and to demonstrate their abilities, it is also a hugely important project that could ultimately be the difference passing or failing their course.

With so much at stake it is imperative that you plan how you are going to tackle the project, and then stick to that plan, making sure that every step is completed fully before moving on to the next.

Write a dissertation proposal

The first step should be to write a dissertation proposal. It is easy to dismiss this as unimportant, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Your dissertation proposal is the foundation of the whole project. This is the stage at which you determine the question or discussion that will be your final piece. You will need to make sure your dissertation enhances academic debate and that there are sufficient available resources for you to research. It is advisable to pick a question that is relevant to the current areas of interest in your field of study. Even if you look at a very different perspective on that area, it will help make your sure your dissertation is relevant and up to date. At some universities a dissertation proposal is not a mandatory part of the course, but it is still a good idea to write one and to discuss it with your tutor.

Conduct your research

The next step is to conduct your research. Once again planning is critical as you will need to carefully select a variety of sources to give you an understanding of different perspectives and points of view from previous research carried on your chosen area of study. But it’s also important to know when to stop. You will not be able to read everything that has ever been written on the subject and it is better to have a few selected sources which you can discuss in depth, than to have so many sources that you don’t have time or space to fully evaluate them. Give yourself a time limit for research and make sure you stick to it. To save time later on make sure you write down the details necessary for your referencing as you do your research. There are some useful online tools to assist with this. The purpose of research is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but that you've also understood its limitations.

Internet research is fine, but you need to make sure the sources are reliable, and for academic study you will need to demonstrate that you have read around your subject using relevant books and journals in addition to internet research.

When conducting your research, you may find it useful to create a mind map. This is an organizational tool to help structure your thoughts. Mind maps are hierarchical, so each idea is connected to at least two subordinate ideas which, in turn, are linked to at least two more.

The idea is to start with the big question (your dissertation title) at the top and then break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks so that you add logic to your thought trail rather than just randomly moving from one point to the next. Within any given section of the mind map you may include a brainstorming section where you are just writing down all sorts of ideas and theories as they come into your head. But you’ll need to then take stock and organize them. Most of your brainstorming ideas will be discarded, but you will also get some gems out of it which will enhance your work.

Once your research is complete and you have organized your notes, it’s time to get on with the dissertation. If you did your dissertation proposal you will already have a preliminary outline for your final piece. But you now need to ‘flesh out’ your proposal using the information and ideas generated from your research. It might be that your research took you in an unexpected direction. But it is important to add in any new points at this stage so that you can then structure your essay correctly.

Write an introduction

Your introduction should include the background to the question and the reasons why you feel it is important. You will need to clearly state your question and give an overview of how you intend to tackle it. You can also include the expectations you had for the project and any assumptions you had prior to carrying out detailed research.

Explain your research process

You will then explain your research process. You will need to talk about how you researched the information, why you chose the sources you did and why they are credible. If your research found that some of the sources used are not reliable you can discuss that too. It could be a key part of how you reached your conclusion.

Explain your findings

You will then explain your findings. It is important to make the distinction here between your findings and your conclusion. In explaining your findings, you will discuss the results and explain what your research showed you. There may be some crossover as elements of your findings will be based on your opinion but at this point you need only explain what you discovered through your research. Once you have completed the discussion on your findings, you then move on to the conclusion. This is the part where you explain how the findings have answered the question that you asked initially. You will be expected to demonstrate that you have read and understood numerous sources, applied the evidence from those sources to the question, and formed an opinion based on that evidence. Often you will answer the original question but be left with new questions based on the outcome of your investigation so your conclusion may include potential areas of further study on the subject matter or on other closely related issues.

Write a bibliography

At the end of your dissertation you’ll need to write a bibliography using the recommended citation style for your field of study. You must include all sources used during the research and writing of your dissertation.

And you may think that is it. But you’d be wrong. What you have at this point is the first draft of your dissertation. The next stage is to edit and redraft. Are all your points related to the original question? If you have gone off on a tangent, have you strayed from the point of your research? If so, you will need to delete the sections which are not relevant and look again at your research notes for material that adds something to the academic study of the subject and can be related directly back to your question. It is important to challenge your own points again. Is there anything you have missed? Are there any new and interesting angles on the topic which could add weight to your argument?

Once you have redrafted your work to the point that you are happy with it, give it to a friend. Let them read it and give you their opinion. Often, they will politely say ‘It’s good’ so you need to push them for answers. Does it make sense? Is there a coherent argument? Have you stuck to the question? It’s important that you explain to your reader that you need honesty not praise. Invite to them to be brutal in their examination of your work, and don’t take criticism to heart. It’s better for a friend to find faults while you can still fix it than for your examiner to discover it in the marking stage.

Once you’re completely satisfied with your dissertation it’s important to proofread it. You may want to use a professional proofreader for this. They won’t change your work, they will only look at grammar, spelling and punctuation. But it’s important to ensure this is perfect so as not to lose marks for simple errors.

Then it’s time to click ‘send’ and, finally, relax.