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16 Essential Questions About you Dissertation Answered

by Charles Nwabueze
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If you choose to undertake an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate degree something that you’ll come across – especially in the master’s program – is the requirement to complete a dissertation. However, do you know the answers to some key questions that can help you understand the requirements, get started, and deliver a great dissertation project?

  1. What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a long essay or research project on a particular subject, especially one written as part of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. The majority of degrees end with this assignment. Sometimes known as a thesis, with some educational systems using both words interchangeably, a dissertation allows students to present their findings in response to a question or proposition that they choose themselves. 

A dissertation aims to test the independent research skills students have acquired during their time at university, with the assessment used to help determine their final grade. 

  1. What is the difference between a postgraduate and an undergraduate dissertation?

A dissertation at the undergraduate level in most typical cases will have a word count of 12,000 or less. While on the master’s level it is usually more than 15,000. Although rare, there are some dissertations on the postgraduate level where the word count could just be 10,000. 

If you are undertaking a dissertation at the PhD level – that is, a thesis – you may be looking at 50,000 words or more.

The higher the level of dissertation you take the higher the level of critical debate, better synthesis of the arguments, and more independence in research that will be expected of you. It also requires originality and an attempt to touch, challenge, or expand the body of existing knowledge.

  1. What type of dissertation are you taking on?

There are two types of dissertation that you can take on to fulfil the dissertation requirement of your course, and it will depend on your course of study. The two are empirical and non-empirical dissertations.

Empirical dissertations are dissertations which involve collecting data and analyzing original data. This type of dissertation is usually seen if you are studying a subject in the sciences or social sciences, for example, a psychology degree. This may mean putting into practice professional and ethical guidelines when collecting data from members of the public. Empirical dissertations in natural and life science subjects may involve or be entirely centred on laboratory work.

Non-empirical dissertations focus more on theories, methods and their implications for educational research. These kinds of dissertations are based on existing data and arguments in the work of others. If this is the type required of you, you’re more likely to spend a lot of time with your head in a book! In this type of a dissertation, you need to make sure you don’t just describe what others are saying, but critically analyze the work and explore its practical applications.

  1. How much time should be spent writing a dissertation?

Although there is usually some guidance from your tutors, the dissertation project is largely independent; this will show in the number of hours spent. An Undergraduate dissertation is worth 40 credits (from 360 in total) and should take 300-400 hours. A Postgraduate dissertation is worth 60 credits (from 180 in total) and should take 400-600 hours.

In other words, depending on the structure of your course or whether it’s a master’s or an undergraduate dissertation you might work on it (alongside other classes) for the entirety of the final year, or the last six months. 

  1. Necessary skills for a successful dissertation

Regardless of the level of dissertation you’re dealing with you’ll need to exhibit the following skills:

  • Define and outline a research area with a clear question
  • Identify the leading issues
  • Source the relevant information
  • Assess its reliability and legitimacy
  • Evaluate the evidence on all sides of a debate
  • Arrive at a well-argued conclusion
  • Organize and present the outcomes of your work critically, convincingly, and articulately, following all the guidelines on how to format your essay
  1. How should I choose my dissertation topic?

When embarking on your dissertation, you will be expected – and it makes sense – that your dissertation topic is relevant to your field. It should be around your areas of interest and be manageable whilst adding some scientific novelty for courses of study that call for this. To make sure that the topic is a good one, discuss it with your tutor or supervisor and other people whose opinions you trust.

  1. Do I need to find out the dissertation guidelines of my university?

It is a great practice to examine the dissertation guidelines of your uni thoroughly. Some mistakes you make by missing a single small detail (e. g. in the referencing format) might affect your score. Sometimes referencing can carry as much as 10% of your marks. Furthermore, find out the deadline of your dissertation; you don’t want to be penalized for submitting your work late. 

  1. What formatting and referencing rules should I follow?

Your uni’s formatting guidelines will determine what formatting and referencing you need to follow for your dissertation. It can be quite annoying to lose marks for things like not using the right font size, heading, page numbers, punctuation, and so on.

  1. What kind of research do students need to complete before starting?

In most universities, there will be a module on research methodology which will help the students to know how to develop a research proposal, based on previous research and carry out a research.

  1. Should I include media such as imagery and videos?

In most programmes this is not possible, for example, images have nothing to do with a law dissertation. However specific programmes such as MA design, media studies, or architecture may allow various media to be included.

  1. How much support is offered by advisers?

Although the dissertation project is largely independent, students are provided with support from their supervisors or advisers. Depending on the uni, you may be getting 4 hours of one-to-one supervision spread over 12-14 weeks of a term. Some other supervisors may afford you the opportunity of breezing into their office during working hours or sending them an email when you require help.

  1. Are students able to submit multiple drafts?

Yes, yes and yes. And you should take great advantage of this. One of the worse mistakes to make is to have one draft as your final submission. 

  1. Can I submit my dissertation after the deadline?

For some universities when you miss the deadline, that’s it. Some other unis are lenient as students can be granted late authorization (two extra weeks) or authorization based on personal extenuating circumstances. There needs to be evidence to support the requests. I remember missing a deadline unintentionally, I’ve never sweated more than when I was waiting to see if it would be extended – it was extended! 

  1. What are some of the most common mistakes to avoid?

The following mistakes will make a great recipe for a disastrous dissertation, so avoid them:

  • Non-focused research objectives and a lack of relevant research topics
  • Not enough depth and critical debate in the literature review
  • No communication with your supervisor 
  • A lack of justification for research methods 
  • A failure to use required methods of qualitative or quantitative research
  • Not discussing your results
  • Plagiarizing
  1. What makes a truly great dissertation?

On the other hand, a recipe for a great dissertation involves:

  • A well-structured piece of work with a clear introduction, literature review, research methods, findings, discussions, and conclusions
  • A dissertation that incorporates theory, applications, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation
  • Work that meets the module’s learning objectives
  1. Must I collaborate with my supervisor?

Yes, yes and yes. Come on, if you want to excel you must carry out regular meetings, show respect, and develop a good partnership with your supervisor to encourage the best environment where both parties help the student to deliver a powerful dissertation. 


Charles is a writer, practising lawyer and personal trainer who loves learning and developing himself. He graduated from Middlesex University, London with eight first-class grades in the second and third years of his law degree, and received a postgraduate offer from Cambridge University. He loves strength training, boxing and encouraging people to succeed in their pursuits (legal ones)
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