Writing your Dissertation


This is only a general guide to writing dissertations – you should refer to the Student Handbook on writing Major Assessment Tasks, and to your course/module guides for specific information relating to your course.

Your department’s policy must take priority over anything contained in this guide.

The majority of this guide deals with the structure of dissertations that are based on primary research, following a ‘social science’ model. There are, however, other types of dissertation where the structure outlined here would be inappropriate.

If you are unsure or unclear about anything check with your dissertation supervisor.

Click on the different tabs below to expand more information.

Check the Exact Requirements of the Brief!

This guide cannot deal with all of the various requirements of different types of dissertation. However, a good first principle is to be clear about the exact requirements – the word length, exact submission date, any intermediate deadlines and presentation requirements (binding etc.) for your dissertation. It is also important to know whether you are expected to undertake primary research (the collection and interpretation of original data). All of this information should be in your module guides.

Contact your Dissertation Supervisor

During your dissertation you are entitled to supervision from a dissertation supervisor (the exact number of support sessions that you can have should be made clear at the beginning of the module. If you are unsure, check).

Contacting your supervisor early is important, as is having a clear idea of how the relationship can support you with your dissertation. Your tutor will not be able to help with everything, but can often give invaluable advice, especially during the development of your question. Try to be as clear as possible with any requests for support by developing focused questions before you meet / contact your supervisor. A clear question usually invites a clear response. By the same token, a muddled request is very difficult to answer especially when time is limited.

Developing your Research Question

A dissertation usually allows the researcher (you!) a degree of freedom to define the parameters of their research. Although this can be liberating, it also presents considerable challenges. The most important challenge is to develop a project that is manageable within the word limit that you have available, whilst also making a contribution that is of interest. The research question helps to define the parameters of your project, and its wording is important. If the wording is too vague the research may lack focus; if it is too specific, the research may lack ‘scope’ (and meeting the required number of words will be difficult).

In practice, the wording of the research question can become clearer as the project develops and the research design is formulated.  Therefore, it is important to begin with to have a ‘working question’: a question that may not be perfect, but is good enough to be going on with.

To help you with this the following are important:

  • Investigate the existing literature in your area of interest to see how other research projects have been designed and their questions formulated. This process of studying existing research is often known as a ‘literature search’ and forms an important part of all dissertations.
  • Create some ‘working questions’ to show your dissertation supervisor. Ask yourself whether these questions are too wide or too narrow in scope. Are there any assumptions contained in your question that should be scrutinised?

Research Design

This section is particularly relevant to any dissertation that is expected to include primary research.

Your research design must be closely linked to your research question (or questions). Basically, your research design phase involves deciding how data will be collected and interpreted in order to answer your research question /s. The development and execution of your research design is usually related in the ‘methodology’ section of a dissertation.

Key Questions for Research Design

  • Can your question be most effectively answered using quantitative or qualitative research methods, or a combination of the two?
  • Will your research design produce data that can help to answer your research questions? In other words will your design produce results that are valid and reliable (or as valid and reliable as possible)?

Structure of a Dissertation

Dissertations that contain primary research will most commonly follow the structure of a report. It is always important to bear in mind that dissertations are divided up into sections so that questions, methods and results can be expressed in the most coherent way possible. The sections are usually as follows:

Abstract – A paragraph that summarises the content of the dissertation. It should include a short description of the central research question, methods used, conclusions reached and any recommendations to be made. This will usually be about 200 words long – this is not included in the final word count of the dissertation.
Introduction – This should contain a brief general background to the subject area, as well as a statement of objectives and a brief outline of the method of enquiry.
Literature Review – This section contains a summary of the existing research into your area of interest. It might also indicate the accepted definitions of key concepts in your research question. (See the study guide on Writing a Literature Review).

Method –This should describe how you have chosen to design and execute your research. The description should be so clear that it would allow a reader to precisely replicate your research.
Results or Findings – In this section results are laid out as clearly as possible. There is no one ‘right’ way to lay out the results of research. The important thing is to ensure that the method used (whether a graph, a table etc.) presents the data in a way that can be easily understood.

Discussion – In this section the findings are related back to research questions and key points from the investigation into existing research – your literature Review.

Time management

  • Remember most things take longer than expected.
  • Surveys like questionnaires etc. can be very time consuming to administer and collate.
  • Remember you may not be able to get the information you want quickly and easily – busy organisations may not respond to your requests as and when you need them to. Try and have a plan B just in case.
  • Printing facilities are likely to be under pressure in the run up to the dissertation deadline so allow plenty of time for printing, collating and binding

Top Tips

  • Keep a notebook where you can write down thoughts and ideas.
  • Make frequent back-ups of your work and print out draft copies just in case something goes wrong.
  • Review two or three well-organised and well-presented dissertations, use them as a model for your own.
  • Get a non-specialist to read your dissertation to see if your ideas are clear.
  • Discuss your work with other students – use each other for support.

Web links

  • his is a very comprehensive guide from the Writing Centre.
  • Another comprehensive guide on the dissertation writing process from the University of Leicester.
  • 20 minute video from Massey University in Australia which covers all of the important areas when writing a dissertation.

Writing your Dissertation – General Points


A dissertation will usually contain some or all of the following.

  • Title page – the title should appear in the window of the front cover.
  • Table of contents – remember to update this last as it is important that your page numbers match up
  • List of figures, tables, photographs etc.
  • Glossary of terms (if appropriate).
  • Statement of originality – this is signed and dated and confirms that you have fully acknowledged all your sources and that where there is no such acknowledgement the work is your own. It can be found in the Students Regulations Framework.
  • Acknowledgements.
  • Abstract – at undergraduate level this is 200 word summary of the aims, methodologies, key findings and conclusions of the dissertation.
  • Main body – each new chapter should start on a new page.
  • Reference list.
  • Bibliography (if appropriate).
  • Appendices – these are supporting documents such as graphs, maps, questionnaires etc. that you may wish to include but would obstruct the flow of the dissertation.  Appendices are usually labelled alphabetically, and follow the reference list. They are usually referred to in the text, for example:‘The pilot questionnaire (see appendix B) was ….’

Presentation –

See the Formatting checklist for more information.

  • Use a conventional font such as Arial in 12pt. The text must be 1.5 or double-spaced
  • Page margins should be approximately:Left hand: 30mm
    Right hand: 20mm
    Top: 20mm
    Bottom: 20mm
  • Pages should be numbered from the first page to the last including abstract, appendices, indices, maps, etc.
  • Use a new page for each new chapter.
  • Be consistent. Whichever conventions you adopt for headings and dates etc., stick to them i.e. choose between either 26th June 2014 or 26/06/14, and Chapter one, or Chapter 1.
  • Length. Do not exceed the permitted word length-usually 10,000 words.

Use of Tenses

The default tense for most academic writing is the present e.g. ‘ Smith (2011) states that..’. However, sometimes a ‘method’ or ‘results’ section may be more coherent if written in the past tense because it deals with activities that have been completed. If you are unsure on this point consult your dissertation supervisor and the Academic Skills department. It is of course important that any tense should be used consistently.