Sometimes known as a thesis, a dissertation is a research project completed as part of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.
Aa dissertation allows students to present their findings in response to a question or proposition that they choose themselves.
The aim of the project is to test the independent research skills students have acquired during their time at university, with the assessment used to help determine their final grade. Although there is usually some guidance from your tutors, the dissertation project is largely independent.
The length of a dissertation varies between study level and country, but is generally around 10,000-12,000 words at undergraduate level, 15,000-25,000 words at master’s level and up to 50,000 words or more at PhD level
The type of dissertation you complete will vary depending on your course of study. One of the main differences is between empirical and non-empirical dissertations.
An empirical dissertation involves collecting data. For example, to gather the views of patients at a GP’s surgery, volunteers in a police service, children in a play centre or translators in a refugee centre, you have to find ways of asking the individuals involved what they think or review what they’re doing. You can collect your data in many ways: from questionnaires and observations to interviews and focus groups.
Or, you may prefer to collect your data by taking another approach such as looking at and analysing existing data from new angles, making useful comparisons or drawing interesting parallels.
Making the choice to do a non-empirical dissertation shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sustaining an argument over the length of your whole dissertation is a distinct challenge. If you enjoy spending time in the library, reading, thinking and discussing theory, this is likely to be the right choice for you.
If you know that making the university library your home for weeks on end is going to be difficult, you may be better off choosing a more empirical research question to explore.
Key theories in your discipline such as feminism or pragmatism can be the basis of an abstract discussion in your dissertation. Subjects such as sociology have this type of theory at their centre and so it’s perfectly valid, for example, to discuss aspects of the theory of pragmatism as your dissertation topic.
A dissertation that draws upon major theories, such as in education more often takes an applied route, but can also be exclusively theoretical, for example, some work in the philosophy of education.
You’re more than likely to choose doing an empirical or a non-empirical dissertation. However, in other disciplines you may come across different methods of producing a dissertation.
Dissertations in many science subjects include or even focus around a laboratory report describing all the aspects of setting up, carrying out and analysing a complex experiment. In physical geography, time is spent somewhere wild and windswept collecting data needed for analysis. Laboratory work and field trips are a key part of the student experience of writing a dissertation. It’s possible you may even use a passage from the classics or biography as an illustration or example in your dissertation.
No matter what type of dissertation you write, and what topic you choose, you’ll need to demonstrate the following skills:
The dissertation is a much deeper exploration of a research topic than a traditional essay would be. It’s in the form of a book, with at least five chapters (some universities require a sixth chapter in the form of a recap of the previous chapters). Manns outlines the chapters this way:
The order of the chapters follows a logical progression in which PhD candidates build on their theories and explain research choices in detail before coming to the final chapter that gives weight to the value of the study itself.
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