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What is a Masters Dissertation or Postgraduate Dissertation?

Many postgraduate students experience a feeling of dread when they first begin thinking about the word ‘Dissertation’! As an essential component of most postgraduate degree programmes, the Dissertation can be the key to success or failure. However, there’s no need to spend time on stress and worry if you understand how to create a successful Dissertation.

Masters Dissertation

What is a Masters Dissertation?

A Masters Dissertation is a lengthy written study on a topic chosen by the student. It is undertaken with the guidance of a faculty supervisor, and involves an extended period of research and writing. The content and length vary depending on your field of study – Dissertations are typically longer in theoretical fields, and shorter in practical fields.

MA Dissertations

MA Dissertations are conventional academic studies in the fields of the Arts, Humanities and some Social Sciences. They are typically comprised of a thorough investigation of a particular topic, based on the application of theoretical knowledge to already-available data (texts, documents, artworks or existing data sets). It is rare for MA dissertations to include extensive data collected by the author, as the focus is primarily on the application of philosophical and theoretical frameworks. The length of MA Dissertations is typically 25,000-50,000 words, although they may be shorter in some degree programmes where a practical element is also included.

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MSc Dissertations

MSc Dissertations are often shorter than MA Dissertations, because they rely more heavily on concrete data that can be conveyed with fewer words. However, the content is just as rigorous in a scholarly sense. MSc Dissertations will often involve some practical field work by students, who are expected to collect data through lab activities. For MSc students the Dissertation forms part of a larger process of research reports and data collection.

MBA Dissertations

MBA Dissertations can take several forms. Traditionally they adhere to a more science-based framework and have more in common with MSc Dissertations than MA Dissertations. However, universities are increasingly offering MBA students opportunities to pursue alternative forms of research that encompass more qualitative and philosophical approaches, and that address a wider set of learning outcomes. For this reason the length of the MBA Dissertation can vary significantly depending on the particular institution and the line of research the student undertakes. Furthermore, many MBA programmes do not require dissertations at all!

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How Is a Masters Dissertation Different from Undergraduate and PhD-level Dissertations?

Masters Dissertation requires students to engage with their subject area in a more critical manner than they will have done at the undergraduate level. While many Masters students probably completed a Bachelor’s Dissertation, the expectations for the Masters Dissertation are very different. At this level they will be expected to develop a critical analysis that goes beyond the synthesised reviews typically offered in undergraduate studies. In particular, Masters students are expected to develop a clear philosophical and methodological framework for their writing, and this enables them to craft a much more targeted and incisive analysis.

Masters Dissertations also differ significantly from MPhil and PhD Dissertations, because the Masters level requires less original research. A PhD requires a much longer thesis, normally between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Both the PhD and MPhil require a more sophisticated research agenda, which will rely heavily on independent field research or unique text-based research. At the Masters level, research does not need to be completely unique and ground-breaking, as it does for a PhD. However, Masters students are still expected to provide original writing and critical analysis.

What Does a Masters Dissertation Normally Contain?

Masters Dissertation will typically contain the following dissertation structure, although the length and nature of these vary according to the academic field:

  • Abstract – a brief summary statement that contextualises your research, outlines your methodology and summarises findings.
  • Literature Review – a chapter that summarises the most important theories and philosophies that are relevant to your research.
  • Methodology – a dissertation chapter or statement that details the methods used to conduct your research, and provides a justification for this choice.
  • Analytical Chapters – the main body of the dissertation, these chapters provide the critical analysis of your chosen material or subject.
  • Conclusion – the final chapter summarises your findings and suggests possible directions for future research.
  • Bibliography – the bibliography is expected to be quite lengthy and must conform to the style guidelines for your discipline.

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Standard Requirements and Assessment of Masters Dissertations

Word Length – Most Masters Dissertations are 15,000 – 50,000 words in length, although as stated above this can vary significantly depending on the subject area. Do remember that the word count typically does not include front matter, foot notes, bibliography or appendices!

Duration of Study – Most UK Masters programmes are one year in length, with the Dissertation submitted at the end of that year. This can vary for longer degree programmes, or in cases where students are allowed an extra ‘writing up’ year.

Submission Deadlines – Submission deadlines will vary among universities so it’s best to check with your specific institution for details. Masters Dissertations are assessed by examiners and the results must be certified by University Exam Boards, which are held twice yearly (normally in July and September). This means that the deadline for submitting dissertations is usually late June or late August, to allow time for marking prior to the Exam Boards. If necessary, students can request an extension to these deadlines if they can demonstrate genuine extenuating circumstances that will delay their submission. Always check with your university for specific regulations regarding submission and extensions.

Grades – The marking system for Masters dissertations is usually on the same numeric scale that is used for other UK assessments. Students must generally achieve a minimum mark of 40 to pass, but most will aspire to higher marks than this. Marks of 60-69 earn a classification of 2.1, or B; Marks over 70 earn a First classification, or A.

Writing a good dissertation requires honest dedication from students and an ability to motivate themselves over a long period of time. You can start off on a successful path by understanding the typical Masters Dissertation requirements, and developing your plan of study accordingly!

References

David Brigden and Graham Lamont, 2010. Planning Dissertations. Available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/medev/Planning_dissertations. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.

Kjell Erik Rudestam, 2007. Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. 3rd Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc.

University of Worcester, 2010. Masters Dissertation Handbook. Available: http://www.worcester.ac.uk/registryservices/documents/Masters_Dissertation_Handbook_2010_2011.pdf. Last Accessed 02 May, 2013.