What is a dissertation?

A dissertation (sometimes known as a ‘thesis’) is a long piece of writing, usually prepared at the end of a course of study or as a text for a post-graduate degree, such as a Masters or PhD.

A dissertation is either partly taught and partly researched or completely researched. In the case of the second of these, you will need to find a topic that is both interesting and original and that is capable of sustaining an extended argument. Taught dissertations tend to follow the subsequent structure:

  • An introduction
  • The main body
  • A conclusion

The second type is a dissertation that you have to research from scratch. This means you must focus on an aspect of a topic that you have studied, and which you have found particularly interesting and wish to deepen and widen your research in this area. Then you put together a proposal based on your research, emphasising any original aspects you have uncovered, and once your idea is accepted you proceed as with the taught dissertation.

How do I find a suitable dissertation topic?

When you are looking for a dissertation topic, the first thing to consider is whether or not you are sufficiently interested in the topic to sustain the research and writing of it over an extended period of time.

Your underlying motivation, however, in the selection of your topic should be originality. This is the major factor that will make your topic attractive and acceptable to a research committee.

Originality in a dissertation, however, need not mean coming up with an idea that has never been thought of before – though if you can do this, of course, it is definitely to your advantage!

Most dissertations rely on originality of approach and/or perspective rather than a completely original topic, as in most cases, especially within the Arts, these are almost impossible to find. The best way to seek out a niche of originality is via research.

Example Dissertation Topics

What is the importance of research in my dissertation?

The importance of research in your dissertation cannot be overestimated; it is quite simply the backbone of your dissertation.

Beginning to read widely and deeply on your chosen topic should be the first thing that you do when you are thinking about your proposed dissertation. This means reading the basic texts first, and then moving on to the most recent work undertaken on the subject to ensure that no-one else has pre-empted your own idea – it can happen!

It is important that you look at the foundation texts for your subject first. Every topic has these and you will be familiar with them from the previous work you have done on the subject.

These texts are especially useful, not only because they are basic to the subject but also because you can use the bibliographies of these texts to expand your own research. This is perfectly acceptable as, if you look carefully, you will see that many of the texts are common to all of them; therefore a core of knowledge is informing them all. As the writer of an original dissertation, you will be adding to this core and therefore you should not feel that it is wrong in any way to use these sources in your own dissertation research.

As you are researching, keep a record of your reading in the prescribed format of your college or university. This will enable you to familiarise yourself with the method of citation you are required to use in your dissertation (as these are often very different from one another, you should consult the style guide for the required method before you embark; if you do not have one there should be one in your academic library and/or online).

Another advantage of keeping a detailed and meticulous record of your research is that it makes your bibliography much easier to compile later; in fact, you might say that your bibliography evolves as your research does.

What you are chiefly looking for as you read is a niche for your own research to fill. Try to read even more critically than usual, looking for spaces where questions are left unanswered because it is possible that your own dissertation proposal could answer them.

What is a dissertation proposal?

A dissertation proposal is the document you prepare to submit to the research committee of your academic institution in order to get your dissertation research accepted. See the link below on guidance to write this.

Example Dissertation Proposals

How should I prepare, write and present my dissertation?

Once the research committee has accepted your proposal, a supervisor will be appointed to oversee your work throughout its preparation until its completion.

Your supervisor will be of invaluable help to you at every stage and you should meet with them regularly.

Both you and your supervisor will be expected to submit regular reports to the faculty research committee in order to keep them fully up to date on your progress (the research committee is simply a group of appointed senior lecturers within the department, appointed by the governing senate of the university; sometimes your supervisor will be a member of this committee).

As has been mentioned in some detail, research should be the main element of your work and you should be collecting evidence to use in your dissertation.

The basic format of presenting a dissertation is similar to that of the dissertation proposal. This might include:

  • A title page (this needs to be definitive, now, but it will not be at all unusual if you decide this at the end of your dissertation); include name and degree.
  • A contents page (self-explanatory, as has been said, using consecutive page numbers, with the introduction in Roman numerals in lower case – such as ‘iv’ instead of ‘4’).
  • An abstract (this is a one page summary of what is contained within the dissertation as a whole, with chapter summaries).
  • The introduction (this should introduce the dissertation topic, with a clear thesis statement and an indication of the methodology to be used).
  • The main body of the dissertation (spread across a number of chapters – usually between three and five, depending on the length of the overall dissertation). The individual chapters of the main body should each address a different aspect of the dissertation topic whilst never veering too far from the central argument. You should ensure that you provide sufficient evidential support, correctly referenced in the stipulated format and it should be analysed in detail.
  • The conclusion (this should summarise your argument, provide a synthesis of your thinking and give an indication of future research to be undertaken).
  • The bibliography (this should include a comprehensive list, possibly subdivided into primary and secondary sources, of all your reading for your dissertation, whether you have quoted from it in your dissertation or not).
  • Appendices (these are not always needed but if you have used them and referred to them in your dissertation then ensure they are logically structured and presented).

Read more in our comprehensive “How to Write a Dissertation” guide.

What happens after I have completed my dissertation?

An internal and an external examiner, appointed by the academic board, will examine the dissertation.

In some cases (such as for a PhD), you will then have to attend an oral examination (known as a ‘viva’, which is short for ‘viva voce’, from the Latin ‘with the living voice’) where you will be asked to defend your dissertation by your examiners and where, hopefully, you will be told you have been successful. In fact, the examiners can decide one of the following:

  • To award the degree outright to the candidate
  • To award the degree with revisions, which will need to be approved before the degree is finally awarded to the candidate
  • To award a lesser degree (a Masters, if this is for a Doctorate)
  • To award a lesser degree to the candidate after approved revisions
  • To fail the candidate (this is quite rare because usually a supervisor will advise you to rewrite your dissertation until it is of the required standard).

If you are unsure of if you are to present a viva, talk to your course leader or tutor.


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