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The basics
Study abroad : Once you arrive

How to write a dissertation successfully

Follow these rules to make sure you produce the best dissertation possible.

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So, you might be approaching the end of your penultimate year or maybe you’ve just started your final year of university. For some students, this means having to think about writing a dissertation. While not everyone will be required to do one, as it depends on the subject you are studying, for a lot of students, this piece of work is a vital component of their degree. So, you need to be careful with all the little details and make sure you get it right to achieve your desired grade.


What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a long-form piece of academic writing about a topic or issue you’ve chosen to explore within your field of study. It is particularly common to do a dissertation as a humanities student on a course like history or philosophy.


Dissertations typically count for 40 credits which is the equivalent to two whole modules. Although the weighting may vary per institution, the dissertation is an important final demonstration of your knowledge and can mean the difference between attaining a 2:1 or 1st. To get a good score on your dissertation, you’ll need to include the following sections:


  • Abstract
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Methodology
  • Findings and discussion
  • Conclusion
  • References


This is the general structure of a dissertation, but you should also check what is expected within the department at your university.


When it comes to writing a dissertation, there’s also certain things you should avoid. Here’s a list of things you should never do:


1. Don't limit your research

When writing a dissertation, you will only have from 10,000 to 20,000 words to write. This might sound like a lot, but you will find it to be a very limited number to work around when developing your research and argument. So, it makes sense to stick to the relevant bits of information and develop your case around that. However, this should not stop you from researching over and above, in areas that might be remotely linked to your topic. This will not only give you ideas about what to add or not but also allows you to view things in a broader perspective which will help to contextualise your topic.


2. Don't form an incomplete argument

Do not at any point of the essay assume that the reader already knows what you are talking about. Define everything you mention in your essay and build an argument from scratch.


3. Don't use several systems

There are many methods used for referencing, one of the most popular ones being the Harvard referencing system. Ask your advisor which one you should base your essay’s bibliography on. The more important thing is to use only one system of referencing consistently throughout your dissertation.


4. Don't forget to mention information with citations

Never forget to mention whose work you use and take inspiration from in your essay to avoid being penalized for plagiarism.


5. Don't adopt a dramatic tone

Even though showing the importance of your research is good idea, try not to get carried away and over-emphasize ideas or information unnecessarily. This might leave the reader puzzled and unsure about the direction of your work.


6. Don't form opinions without evidence

It is a good idea to point out something new and original in your research. However, it is equally important to show that your point of view is logical and backed up with already existing research and facts.


7. Don't submit your initial drafts

Leaving enough time to revise your drafts is absolutely essential. You will be marked on punctuation, and grammar, along with all other aspects of your dissertation, which is why you need to pay special attention to detail and review your drafts before coming up with the final one. You might organise for your supervisor to check over parts of your edits for feedback, if they gree to do so.


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8. Don't use "catchy" fonts

Remember, your dissertation is an academic piece of work and should be formatted as per the standardized requirements. For most official documents you will be expected to adopt the Times New Roman or Arial font with size 11. You can find out about the correct font to use by consulting your supervisor.


9. Don't use words and phrases you are not familiar with 

Refrain from using over complicated words and phrases whose context and usage you are not familiar with. This will keep you from referring to things in an inappropriate or incorrect manner, helping your reader to fully understand your argument.


10. Don't leave things to the last minute

Contrary to stories you might have heard, it’s not advisable to write your dissertation in a night. This type of work needs to demonstrate plentiful research and consideration to achieve top marks. Many people also leave the referencing to the last minute, assuming that it won’t take that long. However, referencing takes up a big chunk of your time and needs to be correct. If you're working late, you may be tired and more likely to make mistakes which will hinder you completing your referencing. So, leave yourself plenty of time to accommodate for any unexpected mishaps.  


Follow this advice and you’ll be on the right path to gaining a top grade in your dissertation and finishing your undergraduate degree on a high.


Worried about what to do next? Get advice on studying a postgraduate course, gaining the skills employers want and writing a winning CV to explore your options.


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