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Dissertation Writing

What is a dissertation?
An extended essay exploring a specified research question or area of practice in depth. Although the word count can vary it is usually longer than most essays, between 5000 - 10000 words.

Your dissertation should demonstrate your ability to:

  • Study independently;
  • Plan and undertake an in-depth piece of research;
  • Select and evaluate information;
  • Develop a reasoned argument based on examples and evidence;
  • Communicate your ideas and findings effectively.

Dissertation Webinars
For further help see - Library & Learning Webinars and Events (see Recorded Webinars tab and Dissertations).

Developing your research
Consider your overarching hypothesis and the argument you are going to construct. Be aware that these may change as your research deepens. Use tutor and peer feedback to develop your research.

Begin writing before you have completed your research, because the process of writing will help you clarify your ideas and inform your research.

Research methods
To some extent, the topic you choose to investigate will be shaped by existing studies on related topics, so it is important to explore existing literature.

Once you have some awareness of what has already been written about, you need to select the texts, ideas and methods that are most relevant to your particular enquiry.

You may want to research people’s responses to a recent phenomenon, and there may not be very much written about your specific topic: in which case look at the ways that other people have investigated public opinion, find out more about primary research methods (e.g. writing and delivering surveys, interviews, carrying out focus groups and observations etc.)

However, many art subjects are continuations or variations of existing practices and disciplines, and a lot of research is based on evaluating existing texts, which is known as secondary research (e.g. texts written by another researcher).

See also: Finding Resources

See 'The Introduction' under the 'Writing' tab at: Essay Writing.

For longer pieces of writing, chapters serve to break up sections that have different, but related topics. Traditionally, dissertations included a literature review as the first chapter (after the introduction), and a methodology, but check your course requirements.

Chapters can be arranged into key themes, case studies, or they can follow the development of something, chronologically. How you organise them will depend on your topic, and what you want to emphasize. It is helpful for your reader if you explain how you have arranged your chapters in the introduction, so that they know what to expect.

A methodology is a theoretically-informed approach to the production of knowledge. It usually refers to a chapter or section of a chapter that explains how you went about finding and verifying information, and why you used the methods and processes that you decided to use.

Since research is about finding out more about a subject, methodologies are designed to aid the process, so a good starting point is deciding what you want to find out.

  1. Your research question (aim)
  2. What smaller questions (objectives) you think you may need to explore in order to answer your main research question (aim)
  3. What practical experiments/primary research/secondary research activities you think you will need to undertake to answer these questions (objectives)

You might want to write a list of what you are going to do. However, a methodology is more than simply the methods you intend to use to collect data. You need to include a consideration of the concepts and theories which underlie your chosen methods, and to state how you have addressed the research questions and/or hypotheses.

Every stage should be explained and justified with clear reasons for the choice of your particular methods and materials. Ideally, the methods should be described in enough detail for the study to be replicated, or at least repeated in a similar way in another situation. If your research is mainly secondary, then much of this will be covered in the literature review and you may choose to combine the two (a critical review).

Methods vary both within and between disciplines: talk to your supervisors and evaluate methodologies written by other researchers in your field.

Research Methods
Research methods are frequently divided into two categories: primary and secondary research.

  • Primary research includes interviews, surveys, observations and questionnaires – research where the student gathers first hand evidence.
  • Secondary research is found in sources such as academic books and journals and is the usual route for the contextual and theory-based dissertation. Secondary research should be done before primary research is carried out, as this will inform the research design.

However, when you Google or search online for a guide to writing a methodology, you are commonly given a scientific methodology structure which emphasises the experiment and results. In an arts and humanities based subject, a methodology is not a systematic description of how you arrived at your conclusion or result. Rather, it could take a critical approach that is grounded in theory (perhaps social theory such as Marxism, Feminism, or Post-humanism, for example), and the use of literature to support this which may be applied to case studies or examples.

The choice of research methods depends on what you want to find out: the data or findings you need to support your discussion of your chosen research subject.

Research Findings
Research findings, that is the information related to the topic you are investigating, falls roughly into two categories - quantitative (numbers and statistics) and qualitative (words, images, objects and meanings).

  • Quantitative methods might include experiments, observations recorded as numbers, and surveys with closed-ended or multiple-choice questions. The findings are usually presented in tables, charts or percentages.
  • Qualitative methods might include interviews with open-ended questions, observations described in words, and literature reviews that explore concepts, narratives and theories and is open to interpretation.
  • It is important not to consider them to be mutually exclusive: for example, the process of designing an effective survey or questionnaire to gather quantitative data will probably include some qualitative research into different approaches and formats of questionnaires, and this will need to be underpinned by your own evaluation of what would be most effective.

Have a short introduction which tells your reader the overall aim of the research. what methods and procedures have been used, with a rationale to explain how the approach is appropriate to the research questions and aim.

Establish links between the question and the method, e.g. if the question revolves around a feminist debate on the representation of women in advertising, then a survey of people's opinions on this would not be as valuable as academic texts that engage with these current debates at a theoretical level.

Describe the specific methods of data collection.

Establish your analytic framework (theoretical perspective) and interpretation of your findings.

Your conclusion should bring together the main themes, findings and overall point of your essay. In order to do this, it is a good idea to refer to both the assignment question and your introduction, so that your conclusion is consistent with them. For example, if you have looked at an argument weighing up the pros and cons of something, you should summarise why you lean towards one opinion above others, or explain why a variety of approaches are valid for different reasons. It is not necessary to state a definitive answer to your question, but you should bring together the key elements that you have investigated, so as to justify your stance.

See also 'The Conclusion' under the 'Writing' tab at Essay Writing.

Academic style
Being able to express your ideas in formal English is a requirement for many written course assignments: it is also a valuable transferrable skill in terms of employability. Academic writing demonstrates your ability to present your ideas convincingly, with clarity accuracy and authority. Some good examples of academic phrases are available on the Manchester Academic Phrasebank.

General guidelines for academic style include:

  • Use signposting words to introduce and link your ideas, and help your reader follow your ideas. For example, rather than ‘Picasso experimented with cubism’ use ‘Picasso’s experiments with cubism were significant because…’
  • Use objective language (the third person, rather than the first): e.g. rather than 'I believe that it is difficult to say how much an artwork is worth…’ use 'It is often difficult to estimate the value of an artwork, for example...’
  • Use accurate language and subject-specific terminology, e.g. Rather than stating ‘Media stereotypes women' be specific: ‘The film Showgirls (1995) has been criticised for representing the female characters as stereotypical and highly sexualised.’ or ‘in the 1960s’ rather than ‘In the old days…’ (try to avoid assumptions and generalisations: e.g. everyone uses facebook, everybody knows…)
  • Use a cautious style, particularly when discussing subjects where opinions differ; avoid conclusive statements: e.g. use may, might, it seems that, appears to, possibly, probably, seemingly, the evidence suggests that, it could be argued that, research indicates...
  • Avoid contractions: e.g. use ‘do not’, rather than ‘don’t’, or ‘cannot’ rather than ‘can’t’ (this affects word count as well)

None of these guidelines are always applicable – there may be times when it is appropriate to use first person (I) to refer to personal experiences and opinions, and there may be times when you want to assert strong opinions. As with any piece of writing it will depend on what you want to communicate. However, essays are usually assessed on the knowledge demonstrated by the writer and using accurate terminology and statements rather than questions present a more convincing argument than phrases used in spoken English, such as ‘I feel…’ or ‘in my opinion…’.

Using evidence
Providing evidence to demonstrate that you have researched your topic, and are aware of other studies and opinions about it, is a distinctive feature of academic writing. You should refer to the ideas and findings of others to support your argument, but the main voice should be your own.

Do not use a quotation unless you make it clear to your reader why you are using it and how it relates to the overall discussion. By interpreting other people's work you can indicate the significance of their ideas to your own argument. By commenting on or evaluating the work of others you demonstrate your own understanding of the topic you are investigating and indicate how you position yourself in relation to existing scholarship.

Evidence could be a direct or paraphrased citation from a variety of different sources to support your argument. Academic writing should contain citations, but they should not constitute more than 25% of your word count.

For information about how to evidence and refence your work correctly, see Harvard Referencing.

Using illustrations
Illustrations are another form of evidence, and should be used as support for:

  • Analysis;
  • Comparison;
  • Deconstruction;
  • Interpretation;
  • Extrapolation.

Each image should have its own figure number and the numbers are allocated by order of appearance. The first image in your written work will be Figure 1, the second will be Figure 2, followed by Figure 3, Figure 4 and so on. If the image you are using is a named work of art, you should include the name of the artist, the tile, the year of production (in round brackets), the medium [in square brackets] and its dimensions in the caption. For an example, see below.

Detail of experimental lacquer by Saeko Ando

If your image does not have a name, your caption should simply describe what the image is. The caption, like all titles in the Harvard refencing system, must be in italics.  The year of publication, medium [in square brackets] and year (in round brackets).

Wrinkled paint [Photograph], (2022)

For more information on formatting images, captions and your list of illustrations in Word documents see Microsoft Help on Inserting Pictures and Harvard Referencing.

Formatting your work
Check the criteria for layout and contents recommended by your course.
This may be in the handbook or the dissertation briefing documents.

General presentation:
Dissertations should be word-processed and their overall presentation and layout should be reader-friendly.

It is a good idea to back your work up, so that you have more than one copy in different places, in case of technical problems.

  • Number your pages;
  • Set it out on A4 paper;
  • Use 1.5 or double-line spacing;
  • Use a readable font (e.g. Times New Roman or Arial);
  • Use at least a 12 point font.

Format may vary but might include any of the following:

  • The front cover/title page;
  • The full title;
  • Your full name;
  • The qualification/course you are studying;
  • The name of the Institution (UCA);
  • Year of submission;
  • Name of your tutor/assessor;
  • Word count.

The contents page, if you include one, might list the following with page numbers:

  • The introduction;
  • Titles of chapters;
  • The conclusion;
  • List of illustrations;
  • Bibliography;
  • Appendices.