10 Steps to writing and excellent dissertation

Brevity is the sister of talent.
Anton Chekhov

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.

1. Choose a subject you are interested in and one that might contribute to your career.

Hopefully the above two reasons for choosing your subject matter will coincide, but where they don’t then you may wish to re-examine your choice of research subject or career! For, it is essential that you can sustain yourself through to the end of your project. Choosing something you feel strongly about or that you are fascinated by will help you towards that end. It may also help to get you a job that you enjoy. Nevertheless, be careful not to infuse your work with so much passion that it becomes something akin to a personal manifesto for global change. Your work should be academic and not polemic.

2. Read around the subject first.

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.

3. Maintain regular contact and good relations with your supervisor.

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.

4. Clear your research strategy with your supervisor first.

Once you have settled on a subject and read around it you will discuss with your supervisor your hypothesis/research question(s) and even a provisional title. The precise wording of your title is not so important at this stage, and may even end up being the very last thing that you edit before submission! What is important is that you get the research strategy right and that you have it cleared by your supervisor before you progress from reading around the subject to doing the research.

You should provide the following for your supervisor to comment on:

A provisional title, a hypothesis/research questions, a breakdown of chapter headings and short descriptions of each chapter’s anticipated content, a list of books and papers already read in bibliographical format (this will form the beginning of your bibliography), a list of books and papers that you plan to read, a description of your primary research method and its underlying methodology, and a timetable for completion.

This might sound a lot, but the thinking that is required to get all this done will help to move your study forward substantially and will save you time when you come to do the research by helping you to anticipate any possible wrong turnings. Moreover, before you really get started, make sure you can complete within the required word limit. If you feel that it is going to be too large, then you need to refine and narrow your focus. When you come to start writing you will probably have more to say than you realise, so at this stage you have to pare down the parameters of your research to make sure that you can get to within striking distance of that word limit.

Now is not an appropriate place to evaluate different research methods and their methodologies, suffice it to say that, if you are unsure about this area of academic research then, before you start, you could do no worse than to read a few books about research method and methodology to familiarise yourself with the main methods of investigation in your field, what the rationales are behind them, which types of study they are most suited to. A good introduction to method and methodology in the social sciences is Nigel Gilbert’s Researching Social Life. Though, depending on your subject matter, you might want to ask your supervisor to recommend some more targeted reading.

5. Read a lot and do the research.

This might sound obvious but it needs to be said. For a dissertation you will need to read a lot both about and around your subject. 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.

6. Narrow down your focus and write for your audience.

You will never be able to write a definitive work on a subject, however much time and space you have. Dissertations have word limits which must be adhered to. Word limits are there to help you develop research and writing skills and examiners will not normally give a good mark to a dissertation that substantially exceeds the word limit. The purpose of a dissertation is to help you to learn how to distinguish between highly relevant and not so relevant information, how to analyse it, and how to present your information and analysis clearly and concisely. In that sense it is an exercise in building advanced research and analytical skills. If you cannot show that you are able to do this through doing it within the prescribed word limits then you do not deserve a good mark.

To do this you should narrow down your topic of investigation. Depth is much better than breadth at graduate level. You should decide the approach you will take and then maintain a thread through the course of the project from beginning to end. This does not mean that the thread should be dead-straight; when you come to write you may feel the need to digress or meander a bit. But you need to be able to justify everything that you include as well as everything that you exclude. It is no good saying “XXX is relevant but space constraints prevent me from including it here.” You need to have solid reasons for doing so and these reasons come out of your approach or your methodology.

To take an example from my own work:

Though we need to make mention of the following issues, this book is not an exploration of the causes of Japan’s low fertility, the ageing of society, or indeed Japan’s industrial restructuring. Detailed research into these questions can be found in abundance elsewhere. Instead, what we do here is recount how demographic shrinkage is playing out across Japan’s regions and how the people living in these areas are responding to theproblems they are encountering.

In the excerpt above notice how I was able to escape the chore of filling up space with too much background information by saying how and why it is not strictly relevant or necessary here, thus giving me more space to write about what I thought was more relevant and interesting.

In this sense, be aware that you are writing an academic paper for an academic audience. Assume that the reader has a good knowledge of the subject matter and an appreciation of its meaning and significance. This will enable you not to have to labour through writing pages and pages of elementary background material, thus giving you the opportunity to get down to what interests you as quickly as possible and freeing up space to go into your subject in greater depth. However, this does also require you to harness your judgement and analytical skills to a higher level than perhaps you have been required hitherto. Remember, academic writing is not the same as vanity publishing. You have to be aware of your audience and moderate your text to suit its needs. Although this can be difficult for those with little experience, it is a valuable life skill that the experience of writing a dissertation will help you to learn.

7. Use signposts and markers.

Imagine you are leading your reader down a wooded path that they have never travelled before. At times you will need to explain where you have been, where you are going, and why. For example, in the introductory chapter you might provide the reader with your rationale for choosing your subject, a description of your method and methodology, a description of your approach to the subject, and a short summary of what the succeeding chapters will tell the reader about your subject. In the main body and conclusion you should, now and again, be telling the reader why you are proceeding in the direction you are, why that is the right way to go in order to answer
your questions and, if you have excluded information or arguments that might be relevant, why you have done so. In addition, you may feel the need now and again to refer back to earlier arguments that you have presented, and in a subtle way this reassures the reader that you are following your thread. In your reading you will come across various different phrases and techniques that authors use to do the above. Notice these and employ versions of them in your own work.

Here is another example from my own work:

Into these unfolding crises have come the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, to deal the Tōhoku region the greatest blow to its vitality in historical memory. Having destroyed significant portions of three prefectures, the disaster raises many difficult questions about the structure of governance and policy-making in Japan, the direction of Japan’s postwar development, and the degree to which reconstruction plans are affordable and realistic. The rest of the article will explore these issues by examining the magnitude of the disaster and an analysis of major issues that it exposes. The concluding discussion will tie together the themes covered and address the three principles of a safe, sustainable, and compassionate society that Prime Minister Naoto Kan has put forward as his vision for the post-quake reconstruction.

8. Every single word is important.

When writing a dissertation you need to understand implicitly and deeply that every word, phrase,sentence, paragraph, section, and chapter is crucial, and that the way all these components link together is also vital to the whole tone and shape of your study. Pay close attention to every word and its meaning. Don’t waste space by including something that is not directly relevant and make sure you are saying exactly what you mean to say.

Beyond the meaning of every word and how it stands in relation to the rest of the text, the shape and tone of your dissertation will depend on how you arrange your chapters and their content. There is always going to be a variety of perspectives on your subject and a variety of ways of arranging your information. My suggestion is to arrange it thematically with two or three main chapters addressing different themes. This will enable you to present supporting data that will lead you to analyse your subject according to the themes you have chosen. A thematic approach lends itself to providing theoretical analysis rather than simple description. Too many dissertations fall down because the author arranges the material in a narrative structure which then leads him or her into providing too much data and too little analysis.

9. Obey the rules.

This shouldn’t need repeating, though unfortunately, and all too often, otherwise excellent pieces of work don’t do well because they fail to obey the basic requirements laid down by the examining body. Stick to the word limit. Write good English. Format and present your work properly. Use the correct system for citation and referencing (if you are still in doubt after reading the course outlines then read a couple of books that use the same system and learn from their example). Make sure you include vernacular sources if they are required. Submit your work on time. This means, therefore, that you should read the guidelines carefully, ask for clarification of these if need be, and act on them. If you can, ask your supervisor to recommend a recent dissertation that he or she thought was excellent and see how that was done. When you do look at a previous dissertation, make sure that the rules have not changed since then.

10. Work hard, enjoy it, and be confident in yourself.

There is no greater chore than producing a dissertation that you know you will not be proud of. Conversely, you will gain a deep sense of achievement from becoming involved in your subject and engaged with the literature, grappling with complex ideas, and pushing back the boundaries of understanding through your own research and thinking. This sense will be conveyed into your text without you being aware of it and, as a result, will naturally engage the reader’s interest.

Discuss your project with others – this will help you to sharpen your ideas and make them more concise, as well as alert you to some of your shortcomings. Ask others to read your work and make comments, as well as correct typos, and to suggest better ways of arranging your text. Write, rewrite and edit your text again and again until you are satisfied that you cannot improve it any more. Writing a little too much and then editing it down will improve the clarity of your writing and tighten up your arguments. Don’t be afraid to rewrite your introduction to suit what you have written in later chapters. The process of writing itself will take you in unexpected directions and you will need to revisit each chapter to make sure that all of your text combines to form one integral whole. Ask your supervisor to read a chapter or two and make comments. Make sure your supervisor knows about the progress you are making, how much you have written, and what your concerns are. He or she will be able to make a real contribution to your work if you are open and honest about yourself and your work.

There is no standard way of researching for, writing, and completing a dissertation at higher degree level. It is in the nature of the task that it should be original and, as such, may require new ways of getting to submission. However, by following a few simple steps you can substantially enhance your chances of producing an excellent piece of work that, most importantly of all, you can be proud of. For, much more important than what others think of you is what you think of yourself. So, be confident and proud of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Finally, all that remains to be said is: Good luck and enjoy it!