Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London Undergraduate Dissertation Guidelines Dissertation What is a dissertation?

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Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London
Undergraduate Dissertation Guidelines


What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a long piece of written work (8,000–10,000 words) that offers a detailed, sustained and critical treatment of a chosen topic. The aim of the dissertation is to enable students to advance their knowledge of the disciplines they have studied on their BA programme by pursuing an independent research project on a chosen topic within one or more of these fields. Students completing the dissertation will have examined a subject in substantial depth, shown evidence of an ability to undertake sustained critical analysis, developed and improved their research skills, and produced a long piece of written work that demonstrates understanding of an area relevant to your degree.

Who writes a dissertation?

BA students are not required to do a dissertation but they can choose to do one in their final year in lieu of a Level 6 option module (see programme handbooks for more details). The dissertation involves independent study, but it is in no way an ‘easy option’: students writing a dissertation should expect to dedicate at least the same amount of hours per week to researching, reading and writing as they would in any other Level 6 taught module. In many respects, the dissertation offers a taste of postgraduate study and throws up distinctive intellectual and logistical challenges associated to independent learning.

Proposing a dissertation topic

The dissertation proposal, which must be relevant to your degree programme and approved in advance, should contain a provisional title and subtitle with the keywords identifying the theme of the dissertation. It also requires a 1,000-word outline description detailing the proposed structure and tentative content of the dissertation, including around a dozen key bibliographical references.

The purpose of this form is to present a dissertation topic for approval by the undergraduate dissertation coordinator Dr Alex Colás, who will then help you identify a suitable supervisor. Once students have chosen to do a dissertation, they must e-mail the dissertation proposal to Dr Colas at by 31 August in their penultimate year of study.

Assessment Criteria

The dissertation is assessed according to the following criteria, with credit given to the extent that:

Ethics proposal form

All research that is carried out by Birkbeck students that involves intervention or

interaction with human participants, or the collection and / or study of data derived

from living human participants (e.g. conducting research interviews), requires ethical

approval. See ethics proposal form in the annex to this document. For more detailed guidance, please see:

Submitting your dissertation

All dissertations must be submitted on the 15 May. Upload your dissertation electronically to the dissertation Moodle base for your programme. Please submit one hard copy to the Department of Politics office (10 Gower Street, London WC1E 6DP) by 5pm on the 15th May.
If you cannot access Moodle or your dissertation module does not appear, please send your dissertation by email to
The length of the dissertation should be 8,000–10,000 words inclusive of footnotes, appendices and bibliography. A dissertation which exceeds this word count by more than 10% may be penalised by the examiners. The dissertation much be typed or word-processed, and spiral bound. The dissertation should include a completed cover sheet (see annex).
The role of the dissertation supervisor

The dissertation is intended to provide an opportunity for students to pursue a research project independently. Students are, therefore, entirely responsible for the work for their dissertation. The role of the supervisor is to offer advice and guidance, not to direct the research. Your supervisor will help you to identify a topic, to draw up a suitable preliminary bibliography and to plan the primary and secondary research you will need to do for the dissertation. He/she will be available to advise you on approach, coverage, questions to be asked and the outline structure and research design.

You should have up to three meetings with your supervisor. It is up to you to contact your supervisor for meetings and you should make sure that you do so in good time. Please note that the supervisor is under no obligation to meet you after the end of spring term so it is advisable that all supervision meetings take place before then. Nor is the supervisor required to find you a suitable topic for the dissertation, read preliminary drafts of your work, offer you guidance or proof read your final draft.

Additional Support

The School of Social Sciences, History and Politics has Learning Support Officers who support undergraduate students with their studies and offer help with academic skills such as essay planning and writing, note taking and time management. If there’s an aspect of your work that’s worrying you or you feel you could use some additional help contact your department administrator ( to make a booking.

Birkbeck’s Centre for Learning and Professional Development (CLPD) runs occasional workshops on undergraduate study skills that may be useful for your dissertation. For further details, please see:
Assessment Criteria

The dissertation is assessed according to the following criteria, with credit given to the extent that:

  • the research question is well-defined, and contextualised;

  • an argument is specified, coherently presented and supported by evidence;

  • alternative arguments are analysed;

  • the approach is critical, not descriptive;

  • a relevant methodology is employed;

  • relevant sources have been consulted;

  • knowledge of relevant literature, issues and debates is demonstrated; and

  • the style and presentation is clear and careful, and appropriate academic conventions have been observed.

Marking Schema

The pass mark for the dissertation is 40. Dissertations written for courses or during examinations are marked according to the schema:

0-29: A totally inadequate dissertation, which does not specify a research question, fails to present an argument, is largely descriptive, shows little or no knowledge of the topic, or its intellectual context, does not refer adequately to the relevant literature, fails to follow an appropriate methodology, and is shoddily presented

30-39: An inadequate dissertation, which fails to identify a research question adequately, does not present a clear argument, includes some relevant material, but does not evidence of sufficient reading and is overly descriptive

40-49: A poor dissertation, which identifies a research question, states an argument, shows some knowledge of the literature and addresses the question, but does not sustain the argument, is overly descriptive, and lacks originality, sufficient knowledge of the relevant literature, issues and debates, and organisation.

50-59: A satisfactory dissertation, which defines a research question adequately, makes an argument, shows an awareness of the major issues, shows some knowledge of the sources and of alternative approaches to the subject, but does not adequately develop or sustain the argument, does not show a clear understanding of alternative arguments, and makes uncritical use of sources.

60-69: A good dissertation, which offers a precise specification of the research question, presents a clear and coherent argument that is well-substantiated by evidence, treats the issues in a critical and balanced way, shows an awareness of context, sources and different explanations, and achieves a high standard of presentation

70-79: A dissertation of distinction quality, which addresses a well-defined research question, displays exceptional knowledge of the literature and/or a substantial measure of originality, and achieves a high standard of presentation.

80-100: A dissertation of distinction quality, which is outstanding in virtually all areas of a calibre far beyond what would be expected at this level. Contains substantial evidence of original and independent thought.

The dissertation must be your own work. Plagiarism - the presentation of another person's thoughts or words as one's own - in the dissertation constitutes grounds for failing the dissertation; more serious sanctions may be also applied if circumstances warrant them. Please read the plagiarism guidelines in the annex to this document to ensure that you understand the concept of plagiarism and why it should be avoided.

Deferring your dissertation

Students who wish to defer their dissertation must inform the undergraduate dissertation coordinator, Dr Alejandro Colas (, before the dissertation is due. Students who do so without claiming mitigating circumstances will be given one additional attempt to pass. Students with mitigating circumstances must send the mitigating circumstances form, along with evidence to the undergraduate administrator. Students with an accepted mitigating circumstances claim will be offered two remaining chances to pass the dissertation.

For further details on mitigating circumstances, please see:

  1. Dissertation Proposal Form

  2. Ethics Proposal Form

  3. Dissertation Cover Sheet

  4. Some tips on writing an undergraduate dissertation

  5. Birkbeck plagiarism guidelines

Department of Politics

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