Future You podcast transcript

Preparing for your dissertation

September, 2022

In this episode of Future You, we speak to Ian Tapster, the course leader for journalism at the University of Portsmouth. Discover how to plan your dissertation, what pitfalls you should avoid and why primary research can be really useful when done correctly


In order of first appearance:

  • Henry Godfrey-Evans - editorial assistant, Prospects
  • Ian Tapster - course leader of journalism at the University of Portsmouth


Henry Godfrey-Evans: Your dissertation is the largest piece of academic writing you'll do at university so it pays to be well prepared. In this episode you'll discover how to identify a topic create your plan, and what common mistakes to avoid

Hello, and welcome to future you the podcast brought to you by Graduate Careers experts prospects. We're here to help with your career goals. My name is Henry Godfrey-Evans. And in this episode, I speak to Ian Tapster who is the course leader for journalism at the University of Portsmouth. Ian is here to set you on the right path with your topic, and steer you well away from the mistakes he's seen over the years. So would you like to introduce yourself?

Ian Tapster: My name is Ian Tapster. I'm a principal lecturer in journalism at the University of Portsmouth and I'm the course leader for the journalism courses at that university.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: And so, just to clarify what is a dissertation?

Ian Tapster: A dissertation is quite simply a long piece of written academic work. The roots of the word dissertation actually come from Latin, dissertare, which means to debate or to discuss. And that's basically what a dissertation is, the student chooses their topic, and they debate and they discuss that topic with the help of academic sources. For most courses, in most higher education institutions, the dissertation will probably be the single biggest piece of academic work a student will do, and as a result of that probably be the most heavily weighted, so it's very important to get it right. One thing to bear in mind is, it's not the same as an essay. Some students, don't they all dissertation is just a big essay, it is a bit different. Firstly, the sheer size of it. And secondly, the dissertation is the subject is actually chosen by the student, it's not an essay title at the lecture has come up with, so the students can choose something that really is of great interest to them.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: And with that pressure in mind, is there any common queries or worries students have? And how do you usually ease them?

Ian Tapster: I think one of the biggest obstacles, when students sort of set about their dissertation is, it's not really knowing where to start, or how to start, you know, imagine a blank screen and someone says, right, you've got, you got to write 10,000 words, it'll go up. Okay, right, fine. Where do I, what should I do first? It's not surprising that students in many senses quite rightly take a holistic approach to the dissertation because it is one artefact if you like. But it also helps to explain to students that if they can break it down into sections, then it's not so scary. So one way of reassuring them is to. Well, firstly, to make sure that they see their supervisors, and their supervisor can explain things, but also to show previous dissertations. And so they can see what the structure looks like, how to lay it out how to go about it, in general. So I think that's, that's, it's the fear of the unknown. I think that's one of the early obstacles facing students.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Do you have any sort of tips on how to approach literally the first few sentences or maybe even just the initial plan?

Ian Tapster: Well, the first thing really is to is actually to go before the first few sentences and to make sure you've got a decent topic. Now, a dissertation by its nature is obviously going to take a long, long time to do students will be living with it for months. And so it's it needs to be something that's of real interest to them to them. By the same token, it also needs to be something that is actually researchable. And it's nothing too, too bizarre that no one's actually done any research on it before. So it's a combination of those things. And again, this is where the the student's dissertation supervisor can can help to guide because a student dissertation isn't going to get very far if there wasn't any research on that topic area. So firstly, it needs to be a real interest.

Secondly, it needs to be viable, it needs to be able to be done. And also students need to be aware of whether they're going to be doing any primary research. So other people's research, they can look at that, obviously, sort of secondary research and so on. If they're going to do their own primary research, they need to be realistic about that as well. You know, it's all very well saying, Well, I'm going to do a dissertation on politics, for example, and I'm going to interview the Prime Minister. Well, they're not, well partly we haven't really got one at the time of recording, but you need- it's got to be realistic. And also there are potential ethical implications if human subjects are involved. So that's something else to bear in mind as well. So these are all the sort of the foundations if you like, before any writing is done it is planning in the early stages.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Yeah. Are there any resources externally that you actually recommend for the prep and planning stage?

Ian Tapster: Well any good books on how to write dissertation, there's plenty of them out there and universities will have them in their own libraries, I'm sure. Looking, as I said earlier, looking at previous dissertations is a good way to go about things. And then asking, if you're in the second year, asking a third years. What have you done? What do you wish you hadn't done? That sort of thing? And members of staff, you don't necessarily just need to talk to your own dissertation supervisor, you can talk to other members of staff who may be, you know, focused in the area that you're covering. So, you know, there's always support around the university. And and it's welcome, you know, the staff tutors and lecturers will welcome students asking them questions and, and, you know, maybe even pestering them, because it shows that they're really interested.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Yeah. Okay. So assuming the vast majority of our audience aren't planning to cram it all. How would you recommend, especially in the early stages, that people break up that time for the dissertation,

Ian Tapster: Cramming is definitely not recommended. Having said that, it does happen. And we know what happens because we read the results. And it's obvious it's happened. The student needs to - once they've sort of come up with their idea, once they've sort of floated the idea, and it's been given the go ahead as a, you know, a viable feasible dissertation - then they really want to start doing some sort of research straightaway, you know, even if it's part of their second year, and they're doing their dissertation in the third year, you can't start researching too early. I personally would suggest, and dissertation supervisors, some will agree, some may disagree, I would personally suggest not to write too much until you've actually had more contact with your supervisor.

There was several years ago, there was one instance one of my dissertation students turned up at the first meeting in the third year with me and he'd written about 4000 words. Such was the standard, he then had to go away and rewrite it, because it had no input. And he just sort of put stuff down over the summer holidays, all the research he'd done was fantastic, and still can be useful. So starting research early is good. I think if you are going to do primary research, you should do that as early as possible. Because you know, you may know someone or you may have a friend of a friend, that sort of thing. They said, "Yeah, of course I'll talk to you". And then you can't get hold of them. And then maybe you need to find someone else or someone else or someone else and so on. So you can't start too early on that front, either. But again, you would need to make sure you've got ethical approval before doing that.

One thing that students do need to bear in mind is that the dissertation isn't all they do in the third year, obviously, yeah, we'll have other assessments, which will be very important, because of course, the third year is the most important year in terms of degree classification. So they will need to be prepared to put the dissertation on the back burner when they do other assessments. And in some ways, that's not a bad thing. Because sometimes, you know, you can get a bit, you can get a bit lost in a dissertation. And it pays to sort of just stand away from it for a couple of weeks, and then go back to a fresh eyes and think, Well, actually, yeah, that's not bad, or why did I write that. So that's something to bear in mind. And it's always worth students in it when they get to their third year of looking at when their assessments are due, because the more they can do of their dissertation before other assessments start kicking in the better for that, for that reason, that they will have to put it on hold. So planning your time is actually very important. Students in terms of their resources will do what, what they want to do and what they've always done, you know, whether it's writing stuff on post it notes and sticking them on walls, or keeping a log or whatever, but some sort of planning in the background like that is also a good thing to do.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Okay, do you have any tips on how to reference?

Ian Tapster: By the third year, you should be able to do it, hopefully. The referencing system obviously will depend on where you are, and subject area and all that sort of thing. But it's really, really important to get it right. So my main tip is make sure you are completely comfortable with how to reference because you will, if you don't do it properly, you will lose marks. If you don't do it at all, you won't get any marks at all. The important thing about referencing is that it's not just the quantity of sources, and the quality of sources. It's also how those sources are used by the student.

Now there was one dissertation which was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Several years ago, which I second marked, the student in the bibliography had included over 100 sources, which is fantastic. You know, you look at the bibliography that were 100 sources, this is going to be good. The dissertation itself was absolutely awful, because all it was was a sentence linking one source to another source to another source... There was no coherent argument or anything like that. So they've done a huge amount of work, but they put it together really badly. And I think they just managed to scrape a pass, which was complete waste of work. So in terms of referencing not only the accuracy, but it's how students use all the sources they found, and also that they're critical with the sources as part of their referencing that, you know, they don't just say, Yeah, "Smith said this". Well, that's very nice for Smith. But what about other people on key points? Who else has got an opinion? Who else has got an argument? And being critical with the sources is absolutely key for getting a good mark in a dissertation.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: It's a very good segue, actually, on the subject of being critical with sources at a point where you might be critical with yourself, I mean, you have you have a plan or hypothesis, you might start to sort of veer away from it as your findings sort of go against what you might have thought in the beginning, what is the procedure for when that starts to happen, if there is one?

Ian Tapster: I'm not sure there's a procedure, I would say that if that is happening, that's actually a good thing, because it shows your dissertation is evolving, and that your research is leading you down avenues that maybe you hadn't thought of before. And I think that's good. Within reason, obviously, your students don't need to change their dissertation topic halfway through the year. But to find new things to find out stuff you weren't expecting, I think is well worth exploring. And you never know, you know, it shows good research. And, you know, it's a student needs to be flexible, they need to be prepared to suddenly head off in a different direction, within reason. And I think, you know, again, this is where the supervisor comes in, he or she will can say to the student, well, look, this is all very interesting, I don't think this avenue is actually that relevant, stick with what you were doing. Or they may say, right, you found something really exciting here, explore that. And you may need to sort of ditch some of the stuff you've done already. So the need to be flexible, the need to be self-critical. And also say goodbye to, you know, some bits that you may think are actually rather good. You know, you might need to be quite harsh with yourself.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: What have students done in the past in dissertations that made them particularly memorable for you?

Ian Tapster: Well, I've mentioned one bad one. There was, there was actually another bad memorable one, which, you know, if she had done the opposite, it would have been an excellent dissertation. One of the other differences about a dissertation compared to an essay is the the potential use of appendices. And I had a student who was planning on putting in not just one appendix or two, but loads and loads of appendices. And when I got the final piece of work, the appendices were longer than the whole dissertation, which isn't a problem in itself. It's just there was absolutely no mention of the appendices in the dissertation. So instead of saying, See Appendix A or B, or one or two, there was absolutely nothing. So all that work that student had done was gone to waste. So that was memorably bad as well. In terms of slightly more positive, the highest mark I've ever given to a dissertation was actually when I second marked, I think it's about 85%, which for dissertation is very high mark. And it was quite simply a superb use of academic sources. It was all the all the stuff I was saying just now where the student had done some good research, lots of research. And all the sources were good, strong sources, it wasn't Wikipedia or my mate down the pub, who's told me something. These were really good, strong academic books, journals, etc. And she had put them all together and come up with a really, really compelling argument. So that was an excellent example of very, very good use of sources.

And some of the primary research that I've seen over the years has been very good indeed, I had a student a few years ago, who was doing a dissertation on Islamophobia, in the press. And she went out and interviewed a number of Imams from London mosques. And when she showed me that document, the information in that was absolutely mind blowing. Because, you know, these, this was all, you know, from the people most affected by Islamophobia or alleged Islamophobia, if you like, in the press, you know, getting their opinions, she had done a fantastic job, and it was really eye opening to see what what people had to say. And it wasn't particularly complimentary about the press, as you might imagine. So that was some excellent, excellent primary research there. So those two spring to mind immediately one based on secondary sources, and one based on primary sources.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Okay, so moving towards completion of the dissertation, how would you approach the editing stage? Are there certain things you should be looking for or certain things people forget to check?

Ian Tapster: When you've got 10,000 words or so you're gonna forget something, very easy. Proofreading is the obvious answer. Make sure you proofread it carefully. Make sure you cut out any spelling errors, grammatical errors. Don't do what one student did, which was write the same paragraph twice. Not entirely sure how that got through. Having said that proofreading is very difficult, proofreading our own work is very difficult because no matter how good your intentions by the time you've gone down a few lines, you sort of know what's coming and the concentration already starts to flag. So, but you need to look for you basically, you need to look for mistakes, you need to look for typos, things like that. But also, the argument, is the argument logical? Are your aims and objectives which you should have, hopefully, somewhere in the introduction, have they been met? Have they been addressed? The first chapter after the introduction is normally - and again, this will depend on you know, different tutors, different courses - but normally would be a literature review.

Has the dissertation gone in chapters two and three? Has it gone back to the literature review to include it again. Rather than just say, right, I've done the lit review. That's it, let's forget about it. So has it sort of referenced back to it, and so on. Students need to check, there's no repetition, that's a common fault in dissertations, that they say something and the students enjoy making that point so much, they actually made it again, and then again, so making sure it's nothing too repetitive. And what they forget is, again, I suppose really what they forget is what they don't check. One other thing to look out for is that it's not too subjective. And again, this goes back to referencing. So you know, if a student's making a point, does it actually need a reference if it hasn't got one. So that's an important thing, because as soon as a dissertation starts becoming subjective, it becomes a little bit less academic. Although having said that, there are different schools of thought. So some tutors will tell us, they'll tell their students don't use the first person singular, don't use "I". And other tutors say, "Yeah, that's fine. That's fine these days, you can do that". So the student does need to go with what their dissertation supervisor recommends them. But it's just going through making sure everything fits, making sure the argument is logical that there are no inaccuracies, that it's not subjective, that there's referencing where there needs to be etcetera, etcetera.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Okay, as a final question, it's slightly more generic than the earlier one. And what are the top three things you look for in a great dissertation?

Ian Tapster: First one, I think, is the use of sources because it's this big, chunky academic piece of work, you can't get a good mark, if you don't use your sources well, so that you know, I can't stress that enough. Second one is clarity. If a dissertation is clearer to read, now, bearing in mind that the marker will probably have a good number of dissertations to mark and maybe second mark as well. They don't want to keep rereading paragraphs to try and work out what they mean. So clarity, in terms of the points you're making, in terms of the aims and objectives, and nice, clear, easy writing style, not trying too hard to be overly academic or anything like that, but good clarity, is I always think of good clarity, subconscious marks. If I'm reading a dissertation, and I get to the end, before I expect it, I think that was a good distinction. Unless it was very short, obviously. So critical use of sources clarity, and also that it's interesting. Yeah, because that's easier said than done. Because, you know, these are big, chunky academic pieces of work. And there's, it's very easy that they end up quite dry.

And it's a tough thing to do, given the subject matter, you know, that obviously, some subjects are more interesting than others, and more likely to be interesting than others. But if you can somehow stamp your personal touch on it without the use of the first person and make it interesting and make it compelling, then again, the reader is going to think "I like this dissertation it's really, really good". It's interesting, the students found out some fascinating points, for example, like the primary research in the London mosques, so anything that's interesting and not too dry, which is easier said than done, but with dissertations, and again, this will depend on subject might depend on the institution. Students should be submitting drafts along the way, you know, chat drafts of chapters and so on. And this is where the supervisor again, comes in and say, Well, yeah, it's okay. But it's a bit dull. It's okay. But it's a bit too sort of narrative rather than analytical, etc, etc. So I think critical use of sources clarity and making it interesting for the reader.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Thank you for coming in. You've been a great guest.

Ian Tapster: Thank you, my pleasure.

Henry Godfrey-Evans: Big thanks to him for speaking to us today. And if you'd like to explore more student content and advice, then check out the university life section at prospects.ac.uk where we have articles such as 'seven tips to writing a dissertation'. Until next time...

Note on transcripts

These transcripts are produced using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. The audio version is definitive and should be checked before quoting.

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