What are the main differences between a dissertation and a coursework essay?
Length: 10,000 words as opposed to 3,000 or thereabouts.
It is harder to clearly maintain an argument throughout a longer piece of work.
A higher word limit does not mean your question must necessarily be broader, but rather that your analysis must be far more in-depth.
You select the subject, topic, and questions to be answered.
Narrowing down your topic and research questions, and ultimately deciding on a title, can be difficult.
As you read everything you can about the subject or topic, it can be helpful to break it down and make a list of possible questions. Make a note next to each question as to why you think it is interesting and relevant. Use your reading to help you identify the main issues involved, and thereby try to clarify and refine your topic and questions. You can then focus your reading around certain areas or concepts.
When deciding on a topic and a title, the key issue is feasibility. Questions which are too broad or too vague will be problematic, as you only have 10,000 words and a limited time frame to do your research and write your dissertation. Also bear in mind that while originality is important, you must find enough source material to effectively answer your research questions.
As your thinking crystallizes, begin to write a statement of relevance and intent – ask yourself, ‘Why is this topic worth researching?’ Why are you asking these particular questions? What do you want to find out? How does it fit in with other work written on the subject? The answers to these questions can later form the basis of your introduction.
You are writing a dissertation to demonstrate your skills as well as knowledge. The dissertation should clearly demonstrate the following research skills:
Resourcefulness in accessing materials from different sources, including a wide range of literature.
Selectiveness of relevant information; you will read far more than you could ever include in your thesis, but you must select the aspects most relevant to your argument.
An additional indicator of selectiveness, you must focus on the most important issues raised by your research questions and avoid tangents and digression.
When writing the dissertation, ensure that you also demonstrate the following skills:
Objectivity – You should strive to adopt a balanced approach to the analysis and presentation of arguments and counter-arguments.
Critical thinking skills – You must thoroughly engage with and challenge the arguments and information you have read.
Originality of thought – What is your contribution to the intellectual debate? How is your work different from existing scholarship?
Order of writing
While everyone has their own way of working, writing things in the following order might help arrange your ideas and organise your thinking:
Statement of relevance or intent
Introduction, based on your original statement of relevance or intent
Abstract – This is a one page summary or overview of your entire dissertation, including your argument, main themes, and findings
Cover page, table of contents, and acknowledgements (if you want)
One of the biggest difficulties is combining your research with your writing. In other words, you need to do both together rather than one after the other. Obviously your reading informs your writing, but the converse is also true: the writing process often sheds light on issues that may require further reading.
Write your bibliography as you go along, rather than leaving it right to the end. If you compile it as your research progresses, you are less likely to forget to include something. It also makes footnoting throughout your writing easier (see the ADD guide to Citations, References and Bibliography for more information on referencing).
Keep in mind that your literature review does not necessarily require a chapter of its own. Critique and discussion of existing scholarship on different aspects of your topic is often interspersed throughout the introduction and individual chapters.
Each chapter should have brief introductory and concluding paragraphs, making the purpose and direction of each chapter perfectly clear. These should also aim to link the chapters together in some way so that the end of one ties in nicely to the beginning of the next.
Each Faculty Office keeps copies of dissertations that have received First Class Honours or a Distinction. Study these examples to get an idea of what you should aim to produce.
Greetham, B. (2008) How to Write Better Essays. Palgrave
Strunk, W. & White, E.B. (1979) The Elements of Style. Macmillan Publishing
Swetnam, D. (2000) Writing your dissertation : how to plan, prepare and present successful work. Oxford University Press
Signed declaration (on plagiarism)
Table of Contents
Check with your department for specific format and style regulations, as these may vary.
Academic Development Directorate www.soas.ac.uk/skillsforsuccess