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10 Top Tips for a Tip Top Undergraduate Dissertation: a Practical Guide

7

Think carefully about how to structure your argument

Think carefully about how to structure your argument

As you start to move towards writing your dissertation, think carefully about how to structure your argument. Dissertations usually follow a fairly set structure, but be sure to check whether your department expects you to use specific sections.

Using literature throughout your dissertation

Scaffolding

We've explored already the importance of literature in your dissertation, but remember that it's not confined just to a literature review section. You'll also need to use literature in your methods section to justify your approach, and likely later in your discussion and conclusion to add some context to your findings.

The structure of your dissertation will depend very much on the expectations set by your department. The following gives an example structure for empirical research:

  1. Introduction -  where you set out the aims and objectives of your dissertation, and where you might explain why you have chosen your specific topic.

  2. Literature review - where you present a critical overview of the extent and content of the current literature which informs your topic.

  3. Methodology - where you present your chosen approach to your research, drawing on research methods literature to justify your choices.

  4. Findings/results - where you present your data from your research, at this stage without any commentary or analysis.

  5. Discussion - where you analyse the results of your research and draw parallels with the earlier analysis in your literature review. You might decide to present your discussion thematically.

  6. Conclusion/recommendations - where you summarise your research and the extent to which you’ve met the aims and objectives of your introduction.

  7. References

  8. Appendices (where appropriate)

Headings and sub-headings

Dividers

We’ve said already that the dissertation is much longer than a normal essay, and the sections listed above will give you a sense of that. It’s perfectly acceptable (and often encouraged) to use headings for each section in a dissertation, as this helps to break up the text and to make it clear for the reader how everything fits together. You can use sub-headings too, but try not to include too much subdivision; it can get a bit confusing, especially if you’re numbering your headings.

As well as maintaining the overall structure, remember that each individual section should have a structure and logic of its own. You might like to think of each section as a mini-essay; each should make it clear what is included in that section, and conclude that content in some way before moving on to the next section.

First out of the gates

Start line

Many people find the introduction and conclusion sections the most difficult to write. The introduction should concisely explain what you’re trying to achieve in the dissertation, including any limitations which you’re deliberately imposing on the topic to keep it within scope of your word count. Although the introduction comes first in your actual dissertation, you don’t have to start there in your writing. You might find it easier to write a brief, draft introduction, then come back to expand on it when you have written more of the rest of the dissertation; you’ll then have a better understanding of what you’ve written as a whole.

The University of Manchester's Academic Phrasebank has some useful advise about how to write your introduction.

Finish with a bang

'The end' in sand

At the other end of the process is your conclusion, which should be a summary of what you have found or achieved in the dissertation. How far have you been able to achieve the aims and objectives which you set out in your introduction? How overall have you answered your central research question(s)? You shouldn’t introduce any new material in your conclusion, as that might undermine your research so far and confuse the reader. You may choose to provide some recommendations, either for practical implications of your research or for further research to take place. Try to avoid the latter unless you have something specific to recommend; noting that ‘more research is needed’ doesn’t necessarily add anything, and is overused in dissertations (to say the least!). You will almost certainly write your conclusion last, but don’t forget about it until the end; why not keep notes as you go of useful points to include when it comes to writing the conclusion?

The Academic Phrasebank has some good tips of what you should aim to cover in your conclusion.

References and appendices

Referencing

Your references and any appendices are not usually included in the word count of your dissertation (although in-text citations are included). The reference list would usually just include those items which you have directly cited in the dissertation and not other items which you have read for background information, but your department will give you specific guidance on this. Remember to follow the format and presentation of the referencing style chosen by your department. Examples in all styles are available on the University’s Academic Integrity website. As with your conclusion, why not write the reference list as you go? It’s most definitely not a fun job to have to write at the end! Explore tip 9 for some advice on using reference management software.

You won't necessarily need to include appendices, but they might be a good place to note any supplementary information about the dissertation. For example, if you’ve undertaken interviews you could include a copy of the consent form and interview questions as appendices. Remember, however, that you shouldn’t attempt to hide in the appendices anything which belongs in the main body of the dissertation.

More advice

Our Skills Guide on writing structure gives further guidance. Although it’s written for smaller essays, you will find some useful tips about what to include for specific sections of your dissertation.