Dr John Biggam, author of “Succeeding with your Master’s Dissertation”, gives expert advice on how to write your master’s dissertation.

‘Think up your own exam question and answer it.’ That would be the ideal exam question, most students would agree. Yet, when that scenario becomes a reality in the context of a master’s dissertation it can cause confusion and no little angst on the part of students seeking guidance on structure and content.

This short article offers some pointers on how to get started and succeed.

In the first instance, here’s a quick win to give you confidence: create a dissertation template. This is where you type up your cover page and chapter/section headings on separate pages (as they will appear in the final submission). For example: Title/Name/Course/Year, Abstract, Acknowledgements, Contents, Abbreviations, Figures/Tables, Chapter 1 Introduction, Chapter 2 Literature Review, Chapter 3 Research Methods, Chapter 4 Findings, Chapter 5 Conclusion, Chapter 6 References, Appendices, Appendix 1, Appendix B.

Already you have created a dissertation folder with at least 15 pages! Take a copy with you to supervision meetings. At a glance, both you and your supervisor can incrementally see what you have done and what you have still to do.

Pivotal to your research are your overall research aim and individual research objectives. These in effect form your ‘exam question’ (in fact, you can turn them into questions if you want). Your overall aim is a general statement on your chosen study area; your research objectives are the individual sub-tasks that you believe will collectively achieve your overall research aim. Number your research objectives for easy reference.

The following summary advice is intended for those attempting a traditional dissertation i.e. a literature review followed by the collection and analysis of empirical data (see the above example Dissertation Template).

ABSTRACT

  • Write it last!
  • Keep to one paragraph (otherwise you run the risk of writing a mini essay)
  • Identify the problem/issue that you investigated
  • Outline how you did your research (i.e. your research methods)
  • State your main findings/conclusion(s)
  • Indicate your recommendations

INTRODUCTION

  • Provide a clear structure, to include, for example, some of which can be combined:
    • Background
    • Research focus
    • Overall Aim and research objectives
    • Outline research methods (and timescales)
    • Value of your research
    • Outline structure of dissertation
  • Make your individual research objectives SMART:
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Achievable
    • Relevant
    • Timely
  • Emphasise the value of/need for your research
  • Include pertinent references, but avoid starting your literature review early!

LITERATURE REVIEW

  • Remind the reader of your research objectives (that is, those related to your literature review)
  • Avoid student drift (i.e. going off-track) by having headings that relate to your research objectives
  • Develop meaningful discussions (pretend the reader knows nothing about your subject area – carefully lead them by the hand, incrementally building up your discussions)
  • Provide evidence of critical evaluation (i.e. offer views, support views)
  • Use a wide variety of sources (journals, books, reports, etc.)
  • Take care to reference properly. Lazy referencing undermines the scholarly worth of your dissertation.
  • Summarise main findings and highlight emerging issues (to justify empirical research)

RESEARCH METHODS

Be very focused in this section – your readers (i.e. markers) are not interested in reading about every research method under the sun. So:

  • Identify and describe your chosen research strategy (case study, experimental research, etc.) and justify why your chosen research strategy meets your research needs.
  • Identify, describe and justify your data collection techniques (interviews, questionnaires, observation, etc.)
  • Provide implementation details (where, when, with whom, sample size, etc.) to the extent that someone could replicate your work
  • Explain how you will analyse your data
  • Outline limitations/potential problems (but explain why your work is valid and reliable)

FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION

  • Keep this section/chapter simple: describe your data, compare/contrast data collected with literature review findings (following analysis framework set out in research methods chapter)
  • When analysing results, keep focused on individual research objectives – this helps avoid student drift
  • Highlight main empirical findings

CONCLUSION

This is where you seek cyclical closure i.e. refer back to your initial research objectives and offer concluding commentary on your completed work:

  • Remind the reader what you set out to do, i.e. refer back to your overall aim and specific research objectives
  • Summarise lit. rev. and empirical findings (related to individual research objectives) – For each set research objective, elicit main conclusions from your work
  • Offer recommendations (if appropriate), including helpful ideas on implementation

Hopefully the pointers above give you an idea of best-practice in terms of structure and what examiners look for in a completed dissertation. In short, you set the ‘exam question’, broken into parts (research objectives), so make sure you answer each part!

Further advice and guidance on writing your master’s dissertation can be found in Dr John Biggam’s book Succeeding with your Master’s Dissertation: A Step by Step Handbook

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