In this post, we share some thoughts from academics on what makes a good dissertation.
We surveyed academic staff across the University of Edinburgh to find out what qualities that made a good dissertation. Surprisingly, there was little variation across the various Schools and Colleges and subjects. Here, we bring together the common elements in their answers to help you think about what makes a good dissertation.
“Find a topic that you are really excited about: you will live with this dissertation for a long time…” Dr Anja Gunderloch, CAHSS.
You should be genuinely excited and passionate about your chosen topic. You will live with your dissertation for a long time (in some cases, for two years), so you will need to have lots of motivation to carry out your research, analysis and writing. Your passion will shine through in the finished product, which will make it a more engaging read for the marker.
“A hypothesis-led investigation of a relevant subject area.” Professor John Moncrieff, CSE.
At the beginning of the dissertation, you must set out a clear, focused research question that you are capable of addressing fully and effectively “…within the scope of a dissertation process.” (Dr Jan Eichorn, CAHSS). The question should neither be too broad nor too narrow, and terms should be defined and consistently used.
“Critical evaluation of literature, and especially of own data where relevant.” Professor Norah Spears, CMVM.
Your dissertation should demonstrate excellent knowledge of the literature related to your research question. As part of reviewing the literature, you need to show that you have a solid grasp of what other people have said and be able to summarise it. But you also need to go beyond this: you must critically engage with relevant ideas, texts and thinkers.
“This involves subjecting what others have said to close scrutiny, figuring out what the best interpretation of their views and arguments is, what can be said for and against each key claim and whether their arguments are genuinely plausible or not…” Dr Aidan McGlynn, CAHSS.
As part of your critical appraisal of the literature, you must identify a gap and explain what your contribution to filling this gap will be: a new case, argument or theory? An innovative take on prior work? What are you offering?
“Well-structured, organized and clearly written.” Professor Gary West, CAHSS.
Almost everyone we asked mentioned how important clarity and structure was. Good dissertations have a clear structure which makes it easy for your reader to follow your argument. Clarity in your writing makes your points and arguments and conclusions explicit for the reader. “If you maximise clarity at every level, you cannot fail to produce a good dissertation.” (Dr Matthew Bell, CSE).
Signposting, headings, sections, topic sentences all help the reader know where they are in your argument. Keep things relevant and focused towards your conclusion to avoid distracting your reader. “The writing is concise… A good dissertation does not outstay its welcome.” (Dr Stephen Gilmore, CSE).
Try to avoid overlong sentences and paragraphs to make it easier for the reader to follow the individual points and arguments. Simple, accessible and appropriate language and grammar also make for easy reading and tell your reader that you are invested in your work. Consistent and accurate referencing also lends authority to your work. “Student ownership of [the] project.” (Dr Andrew Bell, CSE) is highly valued by markers.
A good dissertation will conclude with a worthwhile answer to its research question. There should be a sense that the dissertation satisfactorily answers the questions it posed. It should also offer a discussion of the implications of the dissertation’s findings for policy, theory and/or practice where appropriate.
A dissertation or research project is a challenge and requires time and effort. Knowing what makes a good dissertation means that you can direct your time and effort more effectively.
And a final tip from Dr Anja Gunderloch (CAHSS) “…do your referencing as you go along – you don’t want to …have to tidy up… the day before the deadline.”
This post was based on contributions from:
Dr Jan Eichhorn, Dr Kevin Wright, Professor Andrew Newman, Dr Chris Perkins, Dr Anja Gunderloch, Professor Gary West, Dr Andrei Potlogea, Dr Tom Mole, Dr Alan Mackie, Dr Aidan McGlynn, Dr Sandy Forsyth, Dr Fionnuala Sinclair, Dr Elaine Haycock-Stuart, Professor Norah Spears, Miss Zoe Coyle, Professor Simon Tett, Dr Julia Richardson, Dr Matthew Bell, Dr Catherine Kidner, Professor John Moncrieff, Dr Stewart Smith, Dr Andy Hein, Dr Stephen Gilmore and Dr Andrew Bell.