Writing Postgraduate Dissertation Topics

Your approach to one of the most important challenges of your academic career will determine the quality of your finished work - discover how to devise and stick to a work schedule

Devoting sufficient time to planning and structuring your written work while at university is important, but when it comes to that all-encompassing dissertation, it's essential that you prepare well.

From settling on a topic and coming up with a title, to the moment that you hand it in, the process is guaranteed to set you on an emotional rollercoaster of excitement, self-doubt, panic and euphoria. See our tips on managing stress.

Irrespective of whether it's your undergraduate, Masters or PhD dissertation you're gearing up for, the following pointers should help to keep you on track.

Choose your research topic carefully

It's vital that your research topic is something that you find engaging and meaningful -perhaps an issue that fits with your career aspirations, and is important to the wider academic community, explains Dr Alexandra Patel, learning development adviser at the University of Leicester's Learning Institute.

'Your dissertation is an opportunity to showcase your thoughts and ideas, investigate an area in greater depth and consolidate previous knowledge,' adds Michelle Schneider, learning adviser at the University of Leeds. 'Picking something you're genuinely interested in will keep you motivated.'

If you're struggling for ideas, you can research course materials, academic journals, newspapers and other media, to identify current issues that relate to your field and to find some inspiration for your dissertation subject.

Additionally, Alexandra recommends that you work with your supervisor to agree a clear focus or research question, benefitting from their understanding of the research area, appropriate methods, and what might be achievable within your time frame.

'Consider why it is important to tackle the topic you have chosen,' she says. Once you've summarised your findings, think about how they link back to your justification of why this is an important question or topic.

Check what's required of you

Christie Pritchard, learning developer at Plymouth University, recommends that you familiarise yourself with your faculty's ethics protocols, module handbooks and referencing style guides to prevent any silly, costly mistakes. Before you begin to plan, make sure you understand what's expected of you. You should endeavour to find out:

  • what academic writing looks like in your discipline
  • the word count
  • when and where you must submit your dissertation.

Alexandra advises students to ask questions of other dissertations or academic writing in their chosen discipline, including:

  • how is a dissertation structured?
  • what types of source are used?
  • how are these sources used?
  • what forms of analysis are perceived as appropriate?

Finally, Alexandra points out that you can consider developing a shared understanding of what a dissertation is, through discussion with your supervisor.

Have a clear goal and structure

Christie suggests that once you've settled on your topic, you're then ready to write a dissertation proposal. By demonstrating how your research area is relevant, your introduction, literature review and methodology will become easier to tackle. 'Your proposal outlines the purpose of your dissertation and how you intend to go about your research.'

Sticking closely to a plan will help you remain focused without getting too overambitious with your research, which increases your chances of developing a strong and coherent argument. Knowing where your ideas are headed will ensure that you remain on track and only relevant points are made.

If the direction does shift somewhat, there's no problem with adjusting your plan - but your title, headings and content will have to be revised accordingly. Talking through your revised dissertation plan or structure with your supervisor can help you stay focused on the research, and determine if it's logical.

As you consider what needs to be achieved by the submission deadline, Christie recommends that you factor in time for:

  • reading and researching
  • gathering and analysing data
  • structuring and restructuring
  • drafting and redrafting
  • proofreading
  • printing and binding.

This careful approach can be rewarded by the end result, suggests Alexandra, who also recommends Gantt charts as a useful tool for planning the research and writing process for some writers.

Write as you go

When you are ready to begin writing, aim for a suitable target, for example 1,000 words each week, as this can be both motivating and productive. 'Can you use a meeting with your supervisor as a useful deadline?' poses Alexandra.

Start writing straight away, and use the writing process as a tool to help you better understand the topic. Check that you've addressed everything you want to cover once a section is complete. Each should serve its own particular function, linking well with the rest of the content.

'Your writing helps you to make better sense of the topic as you try to develop the narrative, and as you understand it more, your analysis, interpretation and emphasis will change. Editing can be the beginning, not the endpoint of your writing,' says Alexandra.

You should frequently back up, make research notes and maintain a comprehensive list of your sources. 'Keeping track of what you've been reading and where it came from will save you hours of work later on,' says Christie. 'It can be extremely difficult to remember where ideas came from, particularly when you have books piled high and folders bursting with journal articles.'

Continue to question

Alexandra's colleague, Marta Ulanicka, also a learning development adviser at Leicester, stresses the importance of maintaining a questioning and critical mindset throughout the dissertation process - both in relation to your own work and findings, as well as those of others.

'Remember to ask yourself how strongly you are convinced by a particular explanation or interpretation and why, and whether there are any potentially valid alternatives,' Marta suggests.

You will also need to explain your reasoning to the reader. 'As the author, you might think the justification for a particular point is obvious, but this might not be the case for someone coming across the concept for the first time. An assessor cannot give you the credit for forming a strong argument unless you provide evidence of how you reached a particular conclusion.'

As well as ensuring your bibliography contains plenty of references, make sure you've paid attention to the correct spelling of names and theories.

Don't underestimate the editing stage

A thorough editing process is vital to ensuring that you produce a well-structured, coherent and polished piece of work. Leave yourself sufficient time to engage with your writing at a number of levels - from reassessing the logic of the whole piece, to proofreading, to checking that you have paid attention to aspects such as the correct spelling of names and theories and the required referencing format. 'The art of editing' study guide from the University of Leicester suggests a five stage process and provides further guidance on what might be involved at each stage.

As well as ensuring your main argument is supported by relevant citations, make it clear to the reader that you are aware of the contributions of the most influential theories and research within your topic. This is because not doing so might make a writer appear ill-informed.

Enjoy the achievement

If you've used your time efficiently and adhered to a plan, even if things don't go exactly how you envisaged, there's no need to panic. Remember, you've chosen your dissertation topic after careful consideration, so ignore any irrational thoughts about possibly starting again from scratch.

'Your dissertation is a chance to research, create knowledge and address an important issue within your discipline,' says Dr Patel, so remain focused on your objective and you can be satisfied with your efforts.

Ultimately, your dissertation will become one of your greatest-ever achievements. 'Completing your dissertation will be difficult at times, but make the most of it and you'll look back with pride,' adds Christie.

Written by Daniel Higginbotham, Editor

Prospects · February 2017

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Top Tips When Writing Your Postgraduate Thesis or Dissertation

Writing a masters or PhD dissertation/thesis is a massive undertaking – and one that is not to be taken lightly. There are similarities and differences to each task, in some ways writing a master’s thesis can feel like running a 100m race – the course is usually very quick and there is not as much time for thinking as you may perhaps want! By comparison, writing a PhD thesis can feels like running a marathon, working on the same topic for 3-4 years is laborious and can be quite exhausting! But in many ways the approach to both of these tasks is quite similar.

Here we look at a number of different aspects of thesis/dissertation writing to assist you in the process of running your race – be it a sprint or a marathon! Who knows, maybe we can help you realise that whatever type of thesis/dissertation you are writing, it is in fact more like a 400m race – it can feel neither too short not too long if you pace yourself and take the appropriate steps. And if you've been away from academia for a while our blog on Essay Tips for Out of Practice Postgrads contains more handy tips.

Find your PERFECT POSTGRAD PROGRAM

How should I structure my thesis/dissertation?

Writing a thesis is a unique experience and there is no general consensus on what the best way to structure it is. As a postgraduate student, you’ll probably decide what kind of structure suits your research project best after consultation with your supervisor as well as by reading other theses of previous postgraduate students in your university library.

To some extent all postgraduate dissertations are unique, however there are two basic structures that a postgraduate dissertation can follow. For PhD students, one possibility is to structure the thesis as a series of journal articles that can be submitted for publication to professional journals in the field. This kind of structure would spare you the effort of having to write the thesis and articles for publication separately, however it is relatively unconventional and you should discuss it first with your supervisor before opting for this method.

A more conventional way of structuring a postgraduate thesis is to write it in the form of a book consisting of chapters. Although the number of chapters used is relative to the specific research project and to the course duration, a thesis organised into chapters would typically look like this:

  1. TITLE PAGE -  The opening page including all the relevant information about the thesis.
  2. ABSTRACT - A brief project summary including background, methodology and findings.
  3. CONTENTS - A list of the chapters and figures contained in your thesis.
  4. CHAPTER 1 - BACKGROUND - A description of the rationale behind your project.
  5. CHAPTER 2 - LITERATURE REVIEW - A summaray of the literature supporting your project.
  6. CHAPTER 3 - METHODOLOGY - A description of methodology used in your research.
  7. CHAPTER 4-6 - DATA ANALYSIS - A descsription of technique used in analysing your research data.
  8. CHAPTER 7 - DISCUSSION - Main conclusions based on the data analysis.
  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY - A list of the references cited in your thesis.
  10. APPENDICES - Additional materials used in your research.

When is the right time to start writing my thesis/dissertation?

When you should start writing your thesis/dissertation depends on the scope of the research project you are describing and on the duration of your course. In some cases, your research project may be relatively short and you may not be able to write much of your thesis before completing the project. However in other instances your project may be relatively long, especially if you are doing a PhD, and you will need to keep writing the thesis while conducting your research. But regardless of the nature of your research project and of the scope of your course, you should start writing your thesis or at least some of its sections as early as possible, and there are a number of good reasons for this:

How do I improve my writing skills?

1. The best way of improving your writing skills is to finish the first draft of your thesis as early as possible and send it to your supervisor for revision. Your supervisor will correct your draft and point out any writing errors. This process will be repeated a few times which will help you recognise and correct writing mistakes yourself as time progresses.

2. If you are not a native English speaker, it may be useful to ask your English friends to read a part of your thesis and warn you about any recurring writing mistakes. Read our section on English language support for more advice. 

3. Most universities have writing centres that offer writing courses and other kinds of support for postgraduate students. Attending these courses may help you improve your writing and meet other postgraduate students with whom you will be able to discuss what constitutes a well-written thesis.

4. Reading academic articles and searching for various writing resources on the internet will enable you to slowly adopt the academic style of writing and eventually you should be able to use it effortlessly. 

How do I keep the track of the bibliography that I need to include in my thesis?

When studying for your PhD you will need to develop an efficient way of organising your bibliography – this will prevent you from getting lost in large piles of data that you’ll need to write your thesis. The easiest way to keep the track of all the articles you have read for your research is to create a database where you can summarise each article/chapter into a few most important bullet points to help you remember their content. Another useful tool for doing this effectively is to learn how to use specific reference management software (RMS) such as EndNote. RMS is relatively simple to use and saves a lot of time when it comes to organising your bibliography. This may come in very handy, especially if your reference section is suspiciously missing two hours before you need to submit your dissertation! 

How not to “plagiarise”?

Plagiarism may cost you your postgraduate degree, and it is important that you investigate how to avoid it before you start writing your thesis. Occasionally postgraduate students commit plagiarism unintentionally, and this can happen because they copy/paste specific sections of a journal article they are citing instead of simply rephrasing them. Whenever you are presenting some information that is not your own idea in your thesis, make sure you mention the source and avoid writing the statement exactly as it is written in the source. Look at our section on Plagiarism for more information and advice.

What kind of format should my thesis have?

Different universities have different guidelines on how to format your thesis, and it is important that you read these guidelines before submitting your thesis to avoid being penalised. Read your university’s guidelines before you actually start writing your thesis so you don’t have to waste time changing the format further down the line. However in general, most universities will require you to use 1.5-2 line spacing, font size 12 for text, and to print your thesis on A4 paper. These formatting guidelines may not necessarily result in the most aesthetically appealing thesis, however beauty is not always be practical, and a nice looking thesis can be a more tiring reading experience for your postgrad examiner.

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