Writing a graduate dissertation is not easy, but it can be fun – and very fulfilling. At this stage in your studies you should be beginning to demonstrate an ability to apply your knowledge independently in the production of an original piece of research that pushes back the frontiers of knowledge and, in so doing, enhances the experience of life for ours and future generations. By asking you to produce a dissertation that is grounded in existing scholarship but that provides new insight we aim to help you to move that process of self-development along. To paraphrase Newton, we see a little further by standing on the shoulders of giants. So, in that spirit, below is a little advice on how to approach and successfully complete your dissertation in a timely manner.
But, before I start, we need to be sure what a dissertation is. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary definition:
A spoken or written discourse upon or treatment of a subject, in which it is discussed at length; a treatise, sermon, or the like.
To this I would add that a dissertation is an extended piece of academic writing that challenges you, under the guidance of a supervisor, to participate independently in the academic discourse. Hence, it requires you to gather, process, analyse, and present information and ideas to a greater level of complexity and originality than you may have done previously. Quite correctly, therefore, it is the final qualifying stage of a taught postgraduate degree. Now, when we talk about originality we are not talking about Newtonian levels of insight and imagination. Nevertheless, to complete the dissertation to a high standard you will have to read the principal academic literature in your field and identify gaps within it which you intend to correct, you will have to devise interesting and relevant research questions to answer, and you will have to collect and analyse relevant information to the level where you can come to informed and original conclusions.
A dissertation is an academic piece of work and requires theoretical analysis that will, however modestly, help to enhance our knowledge and deepen our understanding of a particular topic. That means you must not produce a mere narrative description derived from secondary sources but you will have to develop some research questions that you will then attempt to answer through analysis of both primary and secondary sources and materials. Primary sources are research data that you have collected yourself that is either numeric or otherwise. It might also be data that others have collected but is still in its raw form. Secondary sources are data and theories produced by others that you wish to use as evidence to support or challenge an idea.
The only way to develop research questions is to read around the topic. Of course, your title does not have to be in the form of a question but, very early on in your study, you will have to alert the reader to the question(s) you will attempt to answer through your presentation of evidence and its analysis. A relatively easy way to proceed is to read about a subject, think about it, develop some hypotheses, discuss these with your supervisor, refine these down to one main hypothesis and then to develop a couple research questions as a result. If you can narrow this down to one simple question that asks for the presentation of a single clear message, then so much the better.
It needs to be said that you should take responsibility for and ownership of your own learning. Noone is going to do your research for you and no-one is going to write your dissertation except yourself. Your supervisor will not chase you up and if you do not insist on contacting him or her then he or she will assume that you are doing fine. It would be foolish not to try to get as much advice as you can from your supervisor since, however talented and capable you are, a second and more disinterested party will always be able to help you to make improvements. Academia is essentially a collaborative process and, more often than not, the best work comes from people who are prepared to ask for advice, consider it, and act on it. You don’t have to act on all the advice that you get, but the difference between excellent and merely very good often hinges on the quality of judgement that you bring to bear on the advice that you receive.
The more you read the more you will know about your subject, the deeper and better balanced will be your conclusions, and the more authority with which you will be able to write. You will need to read primarily academic sources and to supplement these with specialist publications and journalistic sources. Remember that this is an academic piece of work so you should not regard the latter as your main source of reading material. Your principal literature should be in the form of books and peer reviewed journal articles written by well-known authors and published by an identifiably academic publisher. Specialist practitioner journals and journalistic sources, however impeccably written and sourced, are not peer-reviewed academic works and, other than in exceptional circumstances, should be used as supplementary materials.
You will have to be resourceful in getting hold of reading and resource materials because some of it will not be easily available. This, in my opinion, is the fun part when you have to travel around and get hold of stuff and where you might need to interview people or access documentary archives. This hunting about is what distinguishes research projects from essays. Not everything will be on your doorstep and you need to be prepared to root out what you need.