Dissertation discussion

A fair bit of my work at this time of year concerns student dissertations – the big piece of independent work that is normally a prerequisite of an honours degree: on the undergraduate programmes I’m involved with, the final year students are handing in dissertations shortly, and on one of the postgraduate programmes they are choosing dissertation topics right now.  So below is some guidance, presented as a sort of checklist, for issues to include.

Big disclaimer: these are all personal views and don’t represent the official policy of any university, least of all the one that employs me.  They are principally oriented to students in business and management.  And I hope, cautiously, that they may be of use.

  1. Make it clear what there is of you in the dissertation.  Make sure that your own voice comes through in what you have written.  If you’ve collected your own primary data – through interviews, surveys, or observation – then emphasise this, and tell ther reader what insights you’ve gained.  If it confirms or contradicts what you’d expect, tell the reader why and how.  If you’ve found some way of linking theory with practice – for instance because you’ve observed something which fits a pattern related in a textbook – make a point of that
  2. Ensure that your conclusions fit the introduction.  If you set out aims and objectives at the start of the dissertation, say in the conclusion where you’ve addressed each of these.
  3. Emphasise what you have learned from the process.  If it became apparent once you started work on the dissertation that there was a new insight that you hadn’t expected, tell the reader about it.  If you uncovered some new effect, or new area of interest, in your work, explain this
  4. Be consistent in your use of language – in practice for most of the dissertations that I supervise that means using British English throughout
  5. Be rigorous about referencing – explain exactly what sources you used and why.  If a source isn’t well-known, be prepared to include a sentence or two about why it’s worth referring to.  If you include exact quotations, make it very clear exactly which words form part of the exact quote.  For exact quotes and statistics you need to be very precise about sources – that means including a page number if at all possible where the source is a book or an article.

4 Responses to “Dissertation discussion”

  1. Fredrik Says:

    Thanks Martin. This really helps and confirms what I’m trying to achieve with my project. From my perspective, point (1) is really important. It is very easy to focus too much on the academic / professional research that has been done on X topic previously and ignoring the importance of putting one’s own stamp on the project.

  2. David Says:

    Thanks! That is very useful, logical and perhaps interestingly quite omitted advice. Regarding No.1 I found it quite difficult to differentiate what is my complete original idea from what has been only my augmentation of somebody else’s idea. No.2 I am usually trying to use short and visible hypothesis or few propositions which I mention in the beginning and then summarize in the conclusion. And I found it useful tool to show the link and the line of thinking and analogy.

  3. Fredrik Says:

    @David: I think I’ve managed to get around this by clearly defining a set of objectives in the introduction which I find essential in order to answer my research question.

    My dissertation is then divided into two main sections. I then have a brief conclusion at the end of each section and relate it to the relevant objectives in order to ensure consistency.

    I then make sure that my main conclusion is consistent with what I’m trying to achieve (i.e. my objectives) and ultimately provides an answer to problem (i.e. the research question).

  4. Fredrik Says:

    @David: Forgot to mention something regarding point (1) that might help you.

    For any paper I produce, I normally compile a first draft which is very scientific and perhaps a bit too descriptive (compare/contrast different methods/theories of X researchers). But once I have set the framework in the first draft, I rewrite the paper more or less from scratch with my own ‘voice’ in mind and only keep what’s essential for the problem at hand. I personally find it very difficult to go in an make incremental changes to a very large document and at the same time ensure consistency throughout the study.

    Yes, it is a quite time consuming task, but if you have done your background reading, it is very easy to compare and contrast theory/secondary research against your own ideas.

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