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Academic writing: a practical guide

Dissertations

Dissertations

Dissertations are a part of many degree programmes, completed in the final year of undergraduate studies or the final months of a taught masters-level degree. 

Introduction to dissertations

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is usually a long-term project to produce a long-form piece of writing; think of it a little like an extended, structured assignment. In some subjects (typically the sciences), it might be called a project instead.

Work on an undergraduate dissertation is often spread out over the final year. For a masters dissertation, you'll start thinking about it early in your course and work on it throughout the year.

You might carry out your own original research, or base your dissertation on existing research literature or data sources - there are many possibilities.

Female student working on laptop

What's different about a dissertation?

The main thing that sets a dissertation apart from your previous work is that it's an almost entirely independent project. You'll have some support from a supervisor, but you will spend a lot more time working on your own.

You'll also be working on your own topic that's different to your coursemate; you'll all produce a dissertation, but on different topics and, potentially, in very different ways.

Dissertations are also longer than a regular assignment, both in word count and the time that they take to complete. You'll usually have  most of an academic year to work on one, and be required to produce thousands of words; that might seem like a lot, but both time and word count will disappear very quickly once you get started! 

Find out more:

Key dissertation tools

Digital tools

There are lots of tools, software and apps that can help you get through the dissertation process. Before you start, make sure you collect the key tools ready to:

  • use your time efficiently
  • organise yourself and your materials
  • manage your writing
  • be less stressed

Here's an overview of some useful tools:

Digital tools for your dissertation [Google Slides]

For more detail, see the dedicated practical guide to digital tools for research:

Setting up your document

Formatting and how you set up your document is also very important for a long piece of work like a dissertation, research project or thesis. These slides will help you set up your document and include headings, a table of contents and page numbers:

 

Making Word Work [Google Slides]

Dissertation top tips

Many dissertations are structured into four key sections:

  • introduction & literature review
  • methods
  • results
  • discussion

There are many different types of dissertation, which don't all use this structure, so make sure you check your dissertation guidance. However, elements of these sections are common in all dissertation types.

Dissertations that are an extended literature review do not involve data collection, thus do not have a methods or result section. Instead they have chapters that explore concepts/theories and result in a conclusion section. Check your dissertation module handbook and all information given to see what your dissertation involves. 

The Introduction and Literature Review give the context for your dissertation:

  • What topic did you investigate?
  • What do we already know about this topic?
  • What are your research questions and hypotheses?

Sometimes these are two separate sections, and sometimes the Literature Review is integrated into the Introduction. Check your guidelines to find out what you need to do.

Literature Review Top Tips [YouTube] | Literature Review Top Tips transcript [Google Doc]

The Method section tells the reader what you did and why.

  • Include enough detail so that someone else could replicate your study.
  • Visual elements can help present your method clearly. For example, summarise participant demographic data in a table or visualise the procedure in a diagram. 
  • Show critical analysis by justifying your choices. For example, why is your test/questionnaire/equipment appropriate for this study?
  • If your study requires ethical approval, include these details in this section.

Methodology Top Tips [YouTube] | Methodology Top Tips transcript [Google Doc]

Working with quantitative data? These resources from the Maths Skills Centre can help you to choose the appropriate statistical tests to analyse your data:

The Results tells us what you found out

It's an objective presentation of your research findings. Don’t explain the results in detail here - you’ll do that in the discussion section.

Results Top Tips [YouTube] | Results Top Tips transcript [Google Doc]

The Discussion is where you explain and interpret your results - what do your findings mean?

This section involves a lot of critical analysis. You're not just presenting your findings, but putting them together with findings from other research to build your argument about what the findings mean.

Discussion Top Tips [YouTube] | Discussion Top Tips transcript [Google Doc]

Conclusions are a part of many dissertations and/or research projects. Check your module information to see if you are required to write one. Some dissertations/projects have concluding remarks in their discussion section. See the slides below for more information on writing conclusions in dissertations.

Conclusions in dissertations [Google Slides]

The abstract is a short summary of the whole dissertation that goes at the start of the document. It gives an overview of your research and helps readers decide if it’s relevant to their needs.

Even though it appears at the start of the document, write the abstract last. It summarises the whole dissertation, so you need to finish the main body before you can summarise it in the abstract.

Usually the abstract follows a very similar structure to the dissertation, with one or two sentences each to show the aims, methods, key results and conclusions drawn. Some subjects use headings within the abstract. Even if you don’t use these in your final abstract, headings can help you to plan a clear structure.

Abstract Top Tips [YouTube] | Abstract Top Tips transcript [Google Doc]

Watch all of our Dissertation Top Tips videos in one handy playlist:

Research reports, that are often found in science subjects, follow the same structure, so the tips in this tutorial also apply to dissertations:

Other support for dissertation writing

Online resources

The general writing pages of this site offer guidance that can be applied to all types of writing, including dissertations. Also check your department guidance and VLE sites for tailored resources.

Other useful resources for dissertation writing:

Appointments and workshops 

There is a lot of support available in departments for dissertation production, which includes your dissertation supervisor, academic supervisor and, when appropriate, staff teaching in the research methods modules.

You can also access central writing and skills support: