Dissertations - Planning and structuring more assignments

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Planning and structuring more assignments

Dissertations are the largest documents you are likely to write on your undergraduate or postgraduate course. Many are 10,000-20,000 words in length, although on a course with a strong design or mathematical element, they could be shorter. Commonly, you will be writing your dissertation in your final year of undergraduate or taught postgraduate study and, together with your final examinations, the dissertation is the culmination of your degree. Certainly, it is an opportunity to bring together many of the skills you have developed during your time at university.

As Levin (2011) suggests, it is important to distinguish between the study (the investigation you are carrying out) and the dissertation (the writing up of that investigation). The two go hand in hand, with the study itself slightly preceding the writing up. Both need to be carefully planned to leave sufficient time for you to write the dissertation so that it properly reflects the study you have carried out. In most cases, the dissertation carries all or most of the marks that are used to assess the quality of your investigation. You could have carried out a brilliant piece of laboratory work, but unless it is written up well, you will not gain maximum benefit from your ingenuity.

There are many good reasons for writing a dissertation of which you can be proud; not least, because it will contribute substantially to your final class of degree. A strong dissertation will make it easier for your assessor to write a glowing reference to accompany your job applications. It will also give you something tangible to talk about at an interview. Along with your final examinations, it is perhaps the best opportunity for you to demonstrate the professional identity you have developed in your training within the discipline.

Kinds of dissertation

It is not possible in the scope of this book to consider the wide range of dissertations possible in the different disciplines. Rather, I have sought to pick out key issues that need to be considered. Walliman (2014) distinguishes between studies that are theoretical and those that are practical (Table 6.1). These distinctions are not hard and fast; for example, a laboratory experiment will be set within the context of background theory. Deciding which category and subcategory your dissertation falls within is more a matter of emphasis. It is possible that your dissertation could be quite evenly balanced between the theoretical and the practical; for example, if you had considered a theoretical concept in depth, modifying or tailoring it for a particular context, and then tested it out in a small­scale practical study.

The particular blend of approaches (theoretical and practical) will shape the code - the format, structure and writing style (Section 2.1) - you employ in writing your dissertation. For example, practical investigations could employ quantitative approaches, qualitative approaches, or a blend of the two (mixed methods). When reporting on quantitative data you may wish to be objective (’An analysis was carried out ...’). When reporting on qualitative findings, you may adopt a more personal style (’I analysed ..’ or ’We analysed ...’). If you have used mixed methods, you may find yourself reporting in distinct styles in different parts of the dissertation (see Figure 6.3). The acceptability of reporting in such a manner is something you should check beforehand with your assessor.

Table 6.1 Types of dissertation (drawing upon Walliman, 2014, Figure 2.4)



Figure 6.3 The nature of your research methodology and its theoretical foundations will inform your writing style

Structure of a dissertation

A dissertation is an extended form of report, and like a business-style report (Section 6.1) it has front and end matter, with the main part sandwiched in between. However, the writing style and other conventions of a dissertation are likely to be rather different - more academic, less direct and more measured in its use of language.

A dissertation is likely to include all or most of the following sections (with some variation based on discipline). The main part of the dissertation shown here assumes a practically-orientated study:

Front matter:

Title page

Abstract or summary


Glossary (sometimes)

Table of contents

Lists of figures and tables

Main part of the dissertation:

Introduction. A few paragraphs introducing the context of the dissertation. Usually the introduction follows this pattern:

✵Why this study is of interest

✵The study’s wider context (locating it within the discipline)

✵The study’s narrower context (locating it within the sub-discipline)

✵The study’s aims, sometimes with objectives (how the aims will be achieved). Sometimes the study’s intention will be framed as questions to be answered and/or hypotheses to be tested.

✵The introduction may finish with an overview of the structure of the rest of the dissertation.

Background/Context. This is a literature review, which, in most practically-based dissertations, is up to 25-30% of the dissertation’s main text. The purpose of the literature review is, through citing and referencing, to locate the investigation within the context of work done by others. This is the opportunity for you to show your careful judgement in selecting, citing and commenting on the relevant literature (see Chapter 9).

Methods/Methodology. This should contain sufficient detail to enable the reader to repeat the procedure of your investigation, and your assessor to know that the investigation has been carried out with due diligence. Results or findings are only as valid as the methods used to obtain them.

In qualitative work, this section goes beyond being a Method. It also gives the reasons why those methods were chosen. It then becomes a Methodology.

Findings/Results. This section gathers together the data collected in a systematic manner with an ongoing narrative. If it is a quantitative study, the data is usually presented in graphs, charts and/or tables. If a qualitative study, direct quotations from interviews, descriptions of videorecorded interactions at a meeting, or other sources of field data might be reported on, to develop and illustrate themes. The narrative that accompanies any presented data is written to develop a line of reasoning. The text does not just refer to charts, graphs and figures, it interprets them and highlights points of interest.

Discussion. This section interprets, explains and analyses the findings with respect to the aim(s) of the investigation and in relation to the wider literature. It may evaluate the validity of the findings on the basis of methods used. It should discuss any limitations and how these might be avoided in future investigations. The Conclusion might be in a separate section, or may make up the final few paragraphs of the Discussion.

Conclusion. This refers to the original purpose of the report and summarises the main findings rather than simply repeating them. It may give recommendations for further work and reveal the implications of the study’s findings for future practice, which might, for example, be applied to the work of practitioners or the general public. If recommendations are included, they suggest what action should be taken.

End matter:

References. The full list of publications cited in the dissertation, each with full bibliographic information.

Appendices. Containing detailed information that would interrupt the line of reasoning in the main part of the dissertation (e.g. raw data, computer code, statistical analyses, sample questionnaires, interview transcripts). It may be needed to convince the assessor that the investigation was conducted appropriately.

Following precise instructions

Following the detailed instructions for an assignment is always important, but is brought into sharp relief when creating a large document such as a dissertation. Creating a long document, with all its features correctly in place, including citing, referencing, lists of contents, use of tables and figures and so on, requires careful planning at the outset. Make sure you build in plenty of time to incorporate and

check all these features.