How to write a dissertation

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
February, 2016

Your approach to one of the most important challenges of your academic career will determine the quality of your finished work

The need to devote sufficient time to planning and structuring your written work while at university is something that's drummed into you from the outset. However, when it comes to that all-encompassing dissertation, it's absolutely essential that you prepare well.

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

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 the right track.

Pick your subject carefully

It's vital that the topic you choose is something that you find engaging and meaningful. 'Your dissertation is an opportunity to showcase your thoughts and ideas, investigate an area in greater depth and consolidate previous knowledge,' says Michelle Schneider, learning adviser at the University of Leeds. 'Picking something you're genuinely interested in will keep you motivated.'

Christie Pritchard, learning developer at Plymouth University, suggests that you then 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.'

Check what is required of you

Christie 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.

Have a clear goal and structure

Sticking closely to an outline plan will help you to remain focused, 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.

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;
  • drafting and redrafting;
  • proofreading;
  • printing and binding.

Reference as you go

When you are ready to begin writing, aim for an output of 500 to 1,000 words each week. 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.

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.'

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

Enjoy the achievement

If you've used your time efficiently and adhered to some kind of plan, even if things don't go exactly how you envisaged they would, 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.

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