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Dissertations, projects and theses

Depending on the School, or the level at which you are studying, longer assignments may be called a dissertation, a research project, a thesis or a 'long essay'. Longer assignments are usually the output of an independent research project that involves some generating or working with primary data.  Data collection may be done, for example, through experimental work, or may involve engaging with primary sources such as archival documents, depending on your subject area. 

A variety of guidance and support is likely to be available.  For example, there may be a written handbook or guidance notes; workshops or training sessions; or a supervisor to advise on managing the research.

Sources of support

"What kind of support have you found useful in developing your reading and writing skills?"

"During my PhD, my supervisions were really good opportunities to get help and feedback. I guess as I got more confident ..."

 
 

Characteristics

Dissertations will usually:

  • require you to find a clear structure for your material appropriate to building your argument and analysis of your topic 
  • look at a question in greater depth than shorter essays and other written assignments, critically evaluating and sythesising evidence to support your argument
  • involve defining a manageable question or project and being able to follow it through
  • be written in a style that is appropriate for your discipline.

Undergraduates

At undergraduate level, your final year studies are likely to include writing some form of longer assignment.  Final year projects are extremely common in undergraduate degree programmes in Science and Engineering disciplines. In some schools you will encounter dissertations or longer assignments in the second year.

Postgraduates

At taught postgraduate level, similar long projects or dissertations are likely to be the final assignment on the course.  They are usually longer than the projects completed at undergraduate level, and will often include more primary research, data gathering and analysis. An MRes dissertation (Masters by research) can sometimes be a longer piece of written research than usually required as part of a taught masters because the MRes dissertation is usually the only assessment.

The PhD thesis or doctoral research project is the longest piece of written work students produce for assessment.

Keeping a reflective research diary

"Can you tell me a little bit about the idea of keeping a research diary?"

"In my own field of Social Science research, one of the things I do, for example, is go out and interview people ...

 
 

Stages for longer assignments

Here is an overview of the stages you may need to work through to complete a dissertation:

  • Agree with your supervisor your topic or question and write a proposal or plan - you may need approval from the appropriate ethics committe before you start your dissertation 
  • You may want to start building a research diary to keep track of your activities and ideas - this can also be helpful for discussions with your supervisor about your process of research, reading and writing
  • Use the initial list of sources on the topic indicated in your proposal or plan to get an overview of previous research on your topic - you may need to use a variety of reading strategies to get an overview at this stage 
  • Identify the key themes and concerns of previous research through appropriate reading 
  • Develop and write a review of previous research based on your reading - this may form the basis of your Introduction, a literature review chapter or section, or in some subjects may be the basis for a series of chapters on different themes
  • If you are doing any experiments or are gathering data, schedule time for this - this includes allowing time to conduct and transcribe any interviews.
  • Analyse your data using appropriate methodology
  • Write up chapters or sections when you have the information available
  • Allow time, if possible, to revise and edit your writing - check if your supervisor is prepared to read draft chapters and provide any feedback
  • Schedule time for proofreading and checking your writing
  • Follow the appropriate submission process (e.g. Turnitin; bound copies - how many?)

Writing a thesis

"As soon as you can, as soon as you start to approach the time where you start writing it. Try and work out what the story is ..."

 
 
Student working on a computer
Working on a longer assignment 
 

Further reading

Studying at university

Managing the dissertation stages

more from Academic Support study resources 

 

People who can help

Talk to someone in your school or a specialist support service

 

Studying Effectively

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