How to Write a Dissertation
If the thought of writing a dissertation is stressing you out, then you’re not alone. Most students worry about the dissertation because it’s so different to anything they’ve written before.
So, how should you write a dissertation? Well, begin by clearly defining your research question, and then seek your supervisor’s approval. Next, devise a research schedule (and stick to it!). Most importantly, if you want to get a good mark, leave plenty of time for proofreading and editing.
According to Boscolo (2007), the dissertation is a game-changer because it enables students to become ‘producers rather than consumers of knowledge’. ‘Producing’ new knowledge is difficult, but breaking it down into stages can help. With that in mind, let’s explore the 12 stages of writing a dissertation!
1. Choose a topic
Choosing the right dissertation topic is an important decision. Get it right and you’ll barely even notice that writing a dissertation = no social life. But get it wrong, and you’ll have to face losing your sanity as well as your social life!
Having the freedom to choose your dissertation topic can be exciting. Then again, it can feel pretty overwhelming, too. In fact, feeling overwhelmed is the number 1 reason students delay starting their dissertation.
So, if you’re finding it hard to choose a topic, what should you do? Well, try finishing the following sentences.
- “During my degree, the assignment I scored highest on was….”
- “During my degree, the assignment I enjoyed writing the most was…”
- “My university’s research department specialises in….”
Your answers should give you a fair idea of topics that will be a) interesting, and b) feasible.
2. Define the title
Once you’ve chosen a topic, it’s time to narrow the focus. Now’s the time to move your idea from ‘general’ to ‘specific’.
So, let’s say you’ve chosen the dissertation topic of ‘Servant leadership in contemporary organisations’. Since this idea is very broad, it needs narrowing down. After some deliberation, you might sharpen your research question to: “Exploring the effectiveness of Servant leadership at Google: A case study”.
When defining your research question/title, be specific and realistic. Remember, the earlier you do this, the sooner you can get started with your project.
If you are struggling to define your research question/title, try describing your project idea to someone else. Often, explaining your ideas to others helps you synthesise them into clear goals and objectives.
Tip: If you’re feeling really stuck, Ivory Research offers an affordable dissertation topic service to students at all levels!
3. Write a dissertation proposal
Once you’ve decided upon a title, it’s time to write your proposal. Most universities will require you to write a dissertation proposal. This is typically between 750 and 2,000 words in length, and is not usually marked. Although it doesn’t attract any formal marks, the proposal is still a crucial part of the dissertation process.
More specifically, the dissertation proposal is an opportunity to clearly describe your aims and objectives to your supervisor. The clearer you can be from the outset, the more sophisticated your end project will be!
Some students rush the proposal because they know their project is likely to change as a result of supervision meetings. Whilst most dissertation projects do change slightly during the research and write-up process, the best dissertations are the ones that begin with a thoughtful and robust research proposal.
4. Meet your supervisor
Most universities will advise you to schedule an initial meeting with your allocated supervisor to discuss your proposal. Some universities are pretty lax and won’t force you to see your supervisor, so be prepared to arrange these appointments yourself!
During this meeting, your supervisor will probably discuss the feasibility of your project, and suggest any amendments which may be necessary to your methodology. They may also provide advice on ethics, data collection, and academic writing.
Remember, supervisors work with many students, so they rarely have time to give detailed written feedback. Since it takes much less time to communicate via speech, the most helpful advice you’re likely to receive will be during your face-to-face appointments.
Tip: Take notes during your appointments or, better still, ask your supervisor if they would agree to have their voice recorded. That way, you won’t forget any of their valuable feedback!
5. Create the basic layout in Word
It’s important to familiarise yourself with your university’s dissertation style guide. Some universities are helpful enough to provide students with an editable dissertation template, but this is quite rare. It’s more common for universities to provide a ‘suggested layout’ since individual projects can vary quite a bit.
Familiarise yourself with your university’s style guide as it will remind you of all the components you need to complete. Better still, start building the basic layout in Word as this will help to structure your writing (and reduce the time you need to spend on formatting later).
In fact, good presentation will set your dissertation apart from others. This is because many students leave their dissertations until the last minute which doesn’t leave much time for focusing on presentation.
Tip: If your Microsoft Word skills are pretty basic, don’t worry. Use a Paper or Report Template from Microsoft Word Online to create a professional-looking layout for your dissertation.
6. Plan and initiate data collection
A dissertation is an independent research project. As such, it’s vital that you conduct your research in good time. This will ensure you have enough time to analyse the data and report your findings convincingly.
If you are conducting primary research, you will need to complete an ethics application. Bear in mind that ethics boards tend to meet around 5 times a year, so try to get your application in as early as possible. Also, you will usually need to prepare a brief & debrief and a consent form before you can start collecting data.
Dissertations that explore secondary data might seem more relaxed because they don’t require consent forms and debriefs. But, don’t be fooled! Secondary data analysis can be just as time-consuming.
So, whether you’re conducting primary or secondary research, don’t leave data collection to the last minute.
7. Create a writing schedule (and stick to it!)
Some students make the mistake of leaving the write-up ‘til the last minute. This is a bad idea! For one, you’ll be forced to write circa 10,000 words in a couple of weeks, which will inevitably appear rushed. But, more importantly, if you delay the writing process, you’ll miss the opportunity to develop, refine and edit your work.
In the words of Jodi Picoult,
“You can always edit a bad page. But you can’t edit a blank page.”
So, start writing as early as possible. Perhaps commit to writing 2,000 words a month for five months. Aim to allow yourself 6 months for the entire project – this will leave you 1 month to do the editing and final tweaks.
It’s true that some elements of the dissertation – such as the abstract and introduction – should not be written at this stage. Instead, focus your attention on writing the literature review, formulating the research questions, and describing the methodology for your dissertation.
Tip: Reference your work as you go (even if you just write the reference in draft form). Some students spend hours eloquently incorporating other authors’ arguments into their work, but later forget who they were citing. Save yourself time by adding the references as you go along!
8. Get regular feedback
We’ve already discussed the importance of having an initial meeting with your supervisor, but your relationship shouldn’t stop there.
Remember, your supervisor will be marking your dissertation, so their feedback is gold. Asking for regular feedback will help to keep your project on track. As a general rule, aim to see your supervisor a minimum of 3-5 times throughout the academic year.
9. Analyse the data and report your findings
Once you’ve collected your data, it’ll be time to start the analysis. Students tend to find this the most rewarding (yet most challenging!) part of the dissertation.
Quantitative data tends to be analysed using programmes like SPSS or Excel, whereas qualitative data is ‘coded’. Data, whether quantitative or qualitative, can be tricky to analyse. As such, be prepared to do some extra reading to ensure that you’ve analysed your data correctly.
Getting the data analysis right is a crucial part of the dissertation. It will have a big influence on your final grade! If you’d like to check the accuracy of your data analysis, one of our PhD specialists can lend a helping hand.
10. Draft the entire dissertation
Once the data have been analysed, you can finish drafting the entire dissertation. Thankfully, if you’ve stuck to your writing plan, there won’t be thousands and thousands of words left to write.
Now’s the time to write your dissertation conclusion. Then, the penultimate task is to write your dissertation introduction. Finally, spend time crafting a compelling abstract for your dissertation.
Aim to have your full dissertation draft completed around a month before the final deadline.
11. ‘Mark’ and edit your dissertation
You can start to get excited because the return of your social life is in sight! Having said that, now’s not the time to give up. Pour the remaining energy you have into editing and improving your dissertation.
This stage is all about cutting out the superfluous, and refining the waffle. Firstly, take a copy of your university’s marketing criteria and ‘mark’ your dissertation. This will give you an idea of any current weaknesses.
Secondly, make sure there is signposting throughout your dissertation. Signposting tells the reader what came before, what’s coming next, and also refers them back to the higher argument. This stops the reader from getting ‘lost’. To get the highest grades, you should include signposting in every chapter!
Unfortunately editing your own work is one of the hardest things to do, because it can be difficult to spot your own errors. This is where hiring a professional to proofread and edit your dissertation can be invaluable.
12. Print and bind your masterpiece!
It might sound obvious, but don’t underestimate the time it can take to print and bind your dissertation. IT problems can slow things down, so aim to submit your dissertation at least 1 day before the deadline.
Phew! After submitting the dissertation, relief will set in. However, if your dissertation was a bit of a rushed job, this sense of relief may quickly morph into angst and regret. As mentioned, planning your time carefully and sticking to a schedule will ensure you submit a dissertation that you can feel proud of.
Above all, appreciate the dissertation for the unique and challenging project that it is. Once it’s finished, you’ll have shifted from a ‘consumer of knowledge’ to a ‘producer of knowledge’. It’s hard to imagine a skill more exciting than that!