Writing a quality dissertation

Summary

  • Before you begin, familiarise yourself with your institution’s guidelines for presenting and formatting a dissertation.
  • Writing a PhD dissertation of good quality cannot be produced in a day. Give yourself ample time to carry out the necessary research, reading, data processing, writing, proofreading and editing.
  • Proofreading and editing are an integral stage of producing your dissertation. It’s worth seeking professional help to improve the text if you encounter difficulties doing it yourself.
  • Use a reference management system (RMS) to help you build a reference library that will help you to quickly insert citations into your dissertation with minimal fuss.
  • Structure your dissertation with all the common headings from dissertation title to references.
  • Avoid plagiarism at all cost.

The word dissertation can mean many things depending on where you’re from. There are some confusion and differing opinions as to what a dissertation is. Some, use dissertation interchangeably with thesis. In some parts of the world, a dissertation is submitted for the award of a doctorate degree and elsewhere it is submitted for the award of a master’s degree.

In my experience, a dissertation is a written document submitted by a postgraduate student presenting their research findings as part of a master’s degree course in the UK. According to a blog on the Prospects website, a dissertation can be produced for undergraduate and PhD qualifications as well as a master’s degree. But, for my PhD, I had to submit, what I and everyone referred to as, a thesis. Then you hear that in the US a dissertation is submitted for a PhD and a thesis is submitted for a master’s degree. So, which is it? I don’t think it’s ever been clearly defined. But, not to worry because whether you’re writing a dissertation or thesis the approach can be the same.

Knowing all the rules and requirements for writing your dissertation

We haven’t been able to clearly define a dissertation, but you know the type of qualification you’re going after. Let’s assume you’re writing a PhD dissertation; it is crucial to consult with your institution on the rules and requirements of your submission. Knowing this information can be the difference between a pass and a fail. For example, the University of Birmingham has detailed guidelines on how to present a PhD dissertation. Things like formatting, word limit, plagiarism, proofreading, editing, etc are covered in great detail. So, refer to your institution’s guidelines and familiarise yourself with the necessary rules and requirements for writing your dissertation.

Whenever I was tasked with something I had never attempted before, I would always try to get an example copy to use as a blueprint. In the case of writing a dissertation, I would seek out one or more past dissertations relevant to my field to model my own on.

Managing your time when writing your dissertation

I cover this in great detail in my other blog: How to write coursework to boost your grade. Deciding how much time you need to complete your dissertation is entirely down to you as you know best how long such a task will take you. Sometimes you will have a deadline or you may have to impose a deadline on yourself to get things off the ground. By now you should know what your target word limit should be. Let’s assume a word limit of 50,000 words and you write, on average, 40 words per minute. In theory, it will take you around 21 hours to write your dissertation, right? Wrong. You need to factor in research time, reading literature, processing and analysing data as well as proofreading/editing and making changes as per the recommendations of your supervisor(s). 

With all these variables, producing the final draft of your dissertation may take up to a year. You also need to consider your writing skills and proficiency in the English language as this will have an impact on how long it will take you to write your dissertation. I’ve always encouraged non-native English speakers to spend the early years of their PhD refining and improving their language skills. I can’t overstate the importance of practising reading of anything, not just your research, writing, watching English television and talking as much as possible with native English speakers. With time, your language skills will improve exponentially and hopefully in time for you to begin writing your dissertation.

Never underestimate the importance of proofreading and editing

I discuss the significance of proofreading and editing such a document in my blog: ‘Why is editing important?‘ In it, I cover how insanely difficult it is to edit a large body of text that is your work. I attempted proofreading and editing my PhD dissertation and I look back at it years later to discover glaring typos. It’s normal! After completing such a monumental task, to then go through it again with enthusiasm and an objective lens is nigh impossible.

I’m sure you’ve read a paragraph over and over only for someone else to discover the errors that you couldn’t. Now, you could ask your friend to kindly proofread and edit your 50,000-word dissertation for you, but that’s a huge favour and could involve a bit of bias. This is why it pays to have a professional editor carry out the editing. It may cost, but the level and quality your dissertation can reach would be worth the price. Just make sure you find an editor that is reputable and reliable. But if you must go at it alone, give yourself more than enough time. To perform proofreading of a 50,000-word document can take approximately two weeks, but more advanced editing may take three weeks. But this all depends on the experience and language skills of both the writer and editor.

Build your reference list

For smaller assignments, you may expect to have one page of references. However, for a 50,000-word dissertation, you may have hundreds of references that could amount to several pages when listed. It’s definitely worth using an RMS like Endnote or Mendeley as inputting references manually can take an eternity. The great thing about an RMS is that if you delete a reference from the main text or rearrange sentences and paragraphs your reference list will automatically update and resequence saving you all that headache.

Google Scholar to the rescue

Take this time to build your reference library making sure that each reference has all the necessary information to be displayed in the correct format in the references list. I recommend Google Scholar as a useful tool to search for academic work. You can use Google Scholar to search for relevant keywords and keyphrases to find several academic publications. 

You can even easily cite items in your search result by clicking on the quotation marks under an entry to bring up a cite dialogue box like the one shown in the image below. In the cite dialogue box, you have the option to manually copy and paste the reference formatted in various citation styles such as Harvard, Vancouver and many more. The really useful thing about this tool is that at the bottom of the dialogue box you have the option to download the citation file for different RMSs such as BibTex, Endnote, Reference Manager and RefWorks. Once downloaded you can open the file which will automatically launch your RMS and import all the necessary information about the reference into the system.

Using your word processor, you can then insert the reference into your text and it will automatically generate an in-text citation and details of the reference in the reference list at the end of your document. This can be a subject for another blog post in the future but experiment with using an RMS as this will save you substantial time and effort. I owe a lot to Endnote.

Instruction on how to use Google Scholar to cite work while writing your dissertation.
Google Scholar is a great tool to use while writing your dissertation. It can make citing other work simple and easy.

Dissertation structure

When writing a dissertation, I’m sure you are familiar with some of the main headings to include: title, abstract, acknowledgements, introduction, literature review, methodology/experimental procedure, results, discussion, conclusions, future work, appendix and references.

Title

The title to your dissertation may change over time but best to come up with a working title in the meantime. Avoid using any technical jargon or acronyms that readers may not know. Rather than use a title like ‘PAA supports for dense metallic membranes to separate hydrogen from a hot gas mixture’, you could instead use ‘The effects of porous ceramic supports on the performance of dense metallic membranes for hydrogen separation applications’.

Abstract

The abstract is one of the things you will write last and will tend to be 200-300 words in length. Try reading abstracts for other dissertations to familiarise yourself with the style and content. The abstract needs to summarise the dissertation’s content and highlight all of your major findings.

Acknowledgements

This is your chance to give thanks and show appreciation to those key individuals that made this monumental journey possible. This could include your supervisor(s), colleagues, friends and family. Make this part special and endearing, it’s the only part that will sound human.

Introduction

The introduction will help you to show the purpose of your research and it identifies and presents a viable solution to a societal problem. It may be that your idea is a solution to vehicle emissions which contribute to climate change. Your solution may be a practical and environmentally-friendly answer to diminishing air quality. This approach helps the reader to understand why on earth you spent years of your life working on this stuff.

Literature review

I discuss the literature review in the context of writing a successful grant proposal in a previous blog, but the approach is the same. I wrote a literature review for my PhD dissertation that accounted for around a quarter of the total word count! There is no hard and fast rule as to how long your literature review needs to be, but always read other dissertations to get a good idea of style, content and length.

Essentially, a literature review demonstrates your knowledge, understanding and awareness of your field of interest. You have to critically analyse key research articles over time and juxtapose them to see if there are any agreements or disagreements on fundamental or emerging concepts. It also allows you to identify an unsolved problem found in your field that you plan to fix.

A good place to start is with highly-cited review articles that are often found in high-impact factor journals. Building on this work will help you form the basis of your literature review. Pay attention to the sources cited in the review articles and read through them yourself to form an overall picture of the work done in your field around the world. This will also help you make sure that your idea has not been done by someone else already. Remember your idea must be novel, original and never done before.

Methodology/Experimental procedure

Here you explain the method in which you carried out your research. It could be that you have described the conditions under which you performed trials or experiments. The idea is that someone reading this section can go away and replicate your methodology or experiment with little trouble.

For example, if you’re carrying out a series of experiments you will need to mention the equipment used (make and model) as well as the conditions you used e.g. time, temperature, pressure, etc. Imagine you are reading a cheesecake recipe, you know you need enough information to find all of the ingredients and prepare the cake. You can similarly think of this section as being a sort of instructional recipe for conducting your methodology. Of course, if there are some proprietary material that cannot be released into the public domain then consult the owner for advice on what you are allowed to mention.

Results

Here is where you get to present all of the fruits of your labour. This may include tables, charts, graphs, images, you name it. You will be using this information to support your claims and conclusions in the subsequent sections.

It pays to make sure that anything presented in this section is correct and accurate as this will form the basis of your research. For instance, if you report results for a chemical reaction that took place at a particular temperature you need to have a high level of confidence and certainty that this actually happened at that temperature. So, you could use different thermometers to measure the temperature to make sure that the reading is accurate and reliable. After all, some thermometers may not be calibrated correctly and can give readings that are way off. Can you imagine if this inaccuracy gets discovered after you have submitted your dissertation? Don’t let this happen to you, you’ve worked too hard.

Discussion

This is the heart of your dissertation where you get to talk about the research findings reported in the previous section in greater depth. You need to explain your results to the reader and clarify their significance. You also get to compare your results with other data found in the literature to see if there is any agreement or disagreement. If there are any disagreements with the works of others then respectfully and carefully explain why. But this goes back to having a high level of confidence in the results you are presenting because the last thing you want to do is challenge data found in the literature to later find out that your results were inaccurate and incorrect.

Conclusions

This is where all your results and arguments come together to come up with a final thought. You want to summarise all the key points and findings and set out to answer the original research question. Questions you may want to answer are: 

  • Was there a solution to the problem introduced in your dissertation?
  • What was the solution?
  • If there was no solution found, why do you think that is?
  • What message do you want to leave the reader with?

Future work

The problem with some research is that it can go on for what seems an eternity. You just have to draw a line under everything at some point. But I bet there was some extra work you wanted to carry out but just didn’t have sufficient time, resources or patience to do so. Spell that out here and give ideas for others who may pick up from where you left off.

Appendix

Just like any appendix, in this section, you can include supplementary data to support your dissertation such as tables, graphs, charts, images, etc.

References

This will be the very last section where you list all the sources that you have cited throughout your dissertation. Make sure that this section is neat, tidy and formatted correctly. As I mentioned in my blog, How to write coursework to boost your grade, you can be penalised for a poorly produced reference list.

Plagiarism: avoid at all cost

This has been a common topic discussed in some of my blogs and is a huge deal in academia. Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. It’s considered intellectual theft and many have landed themselves in a great deal of trouble over this so really do resist the urge. Give credit where appropriate and cite as necessary, but do not copy and paste text from elsewhere and insert into your dissertation. Many institutions use sophisticated plagiarism software to detect any foul play and it will be exposed resulting in a fail.

Other important things to consider when writing your dissertation

  • If you insert a figure into your dissertation, make sure that you refer to it and describe its relevance to the reader as well as how this item supports your argument.
  • Back up your claims with evidence. Aim to cite reliable sources as opposed to quoting something a friend or colleague once said.
  • Double-check that everything you state is factually correct.
  • Be careful with using content and media from the internet when writing your dissertation. Always make sure you correctly cite these items and make sure it contributes to the point you are trying to make.
  • Be sure to define all mathematical terms when presenting an equation.
  • Always maintain consistency with your referencing system and the format that you use to list sources in the references section.
  • Edit and polish your work to maximise the quality of your dissertation.
  • If you’re including calculations, then always explain your assumptions and make sure that the maths is correct.
  • Seek out completed dissertations and use them as a blueprint when writing your own dissertation.
  • Avoid using contractions like ‘don’t’ and ‘haven’t’.
  • Use the third person singular passive voice when writing your dissertation. This is a writing style commonly used in textbooks and other formal publications so try to emulate them.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you. Get your free quote today!

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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