Occasionally referred to as “theses,” dissertations are lengthy written pieces that are normally produced to coincide with the end of a study program and/or by students completing post-graduate programs to obtain qualifications such as Ph.D. or Master’s degrees. Dissertations can be partially taught and partially researched or they can be fully researched pieces of work. In the latter case, it will be necessary for the student to identify an original and interesting topic and one that can stand up to the extensive argument.
How does one go about finding a suitable topic for a dissertation?
When trying to find a topic for your dissertation, your first task is to decide whether particular topic interests you sufficiently to research it and write about it over a lengthy period.
However, choosing an original topic should be an underlying priority during the selection stage. This factor is essential in order to ensure whatever topic you choose is acceptable and appealing to your dissertation committee.
That said though, originality does not necessarily mean you have to come up with a topic idea that no one has ever thought of or explored before. If of course, you do manage to hit on an idea that is entirely new, this should certainly prove advantageous for you!
The main requirement in the majority of dissertations is that your perspective on and/or approach to the topic is entirely original. Yet this is very difficult in a great many cases, particularly in fields related to the Arts. In-depth research of a topic is one of the best ways of finding an original angle or niche area.
Why is research important in a dissertation?
You should not underestimate how important research is in a dissertation. Put simply, this is the essence of a dissertation or its backbone.
The first step in the research process is to read a wide range of materials about your topic and to do this in an in-depth way. This usually involves reading any basic materials or texts you can find first and then honing in on the latest work that has been done in the subject area. This will help ensure your idea has not been pre-empted by someone else, which can and does happen!
Begin by looking at any foundation or basic texts that exist in the field your subject relates to. There are usually some of these for every field and topic, and you may be aware of or familiar with these from any previous investigative work you have undertaken in this area.
Texts like these are particularly useful because, firstly, they are fundamental to the topic and, secondly, because the bibliography pages from these texts may be helpful to you for expanding the research work you do yourself. This practice is entirely acceptable since, upon careful inspection, you should find that most of these texts have many common elements and so a core set of knowledge underlies all of them. Because your aim will be to ensure your dissertation is original, you will also be contributing to this existing core set of knowledge. Hence, do not let yourself think it is in any way wrong to use existing sources to build up your research.
During the process of researching your topic, keep notes about what you are reading and try to do this in the format prescribed by your university or college. This exercise will help you become more familiar with the citation style you have been asked to use for your final dissertation paper. (Remember, there are different citation styles where each one has unique features so, before you even begin, you should refer to the style manual or guide for the method you are required to use. You should find these manuals or guides in your school or college’s library or online if you do not already have one.)
A further advantage of maintaining meticulous and detailed notes while you are researching is that these will make it a lot easier for you to compile a bibliography for your dissertation at a later stage. Indeed, it could be said that a bibliography often develops hand-in-hand with a piece of research work.
For the most part, what you should be looking out for whilst reading is a gap or niche area that your work might fill. So try to be more critical than you usually are when reading and look for questions or gaps that have not been answered. It may be the case that your dissertation can or will address these.
What is involved in preparing, writing and presenting a dissertation?
Once the dissertation committee approves your research proposal, a dissertation supervisor is appointed to supervise or oversee your progress, from preparation through to completion and submission.
This supervisor should provide very valuable help throughout the entire process and it is advisable that you meet them at regular intervals.
The dissertation committee will expect regular update reports from you and the person supervising your work so that they know how you are progressing. (A dissertation committee is a group of senior personnel (usually lecturers from your department and occasionally your supervisor) who are appointed by a university governing body to monitor progress and evaluate the resulting work.)
As mention already in considerable detail, the main ingredient of your work should be the research element so you will need to collect extensive material to include in your paper.
A dissertation uses the same basic structure or format as the proposal that precedes it with some extended elements as follows:
- The paper’s title/cover page. (While this should be solid at this stage, it may well be that you choose to alter it later as you approach the end of your paper. This page should also include your name and the name or title of your degree.
- A list or table of contents. While this should be self-explanatory, you should still take care to number pages in consecutive order and use lower-case Roman numerals for the introduction i.e. ii rather than 2).
- Your paper abstract. (This is usually a single page summary showing what the entire dissertation contains, with a short summary of each chapter.)
- Your paper’s introductory section or chapter. (This usually introduces the topic of the paper, has a clearly defined thesis statement, and gives an overview of the methodology or methodologies you will use.)
- Your paper’s main body paragraphs. This section should contain several chapters, normally in the region of three to five with much dependent on the size (length) of the entire paper. Each individual chapter in this section should be devoted to a specific aspect of the topic without digressing too widely from the main point or argument. Make sure you provide enough supporting evidence and this should be properly referenced in the format stipulated by your academic institution. All evidence should be thoroughly analyzed.
- Your paper concluding section. Here, you should sum-up your entire argument, synthesize your general thinking, and make recommendations about any further research that may be needed in this subject area in the future.
- Your paper’s bibliography. (Almost without exception, this is a detailed list of any primary sources and secondary sources used in a paper, possibly divided into different (sub) sections. It also includes every piece of reading material you used or referred over the course of researching your dissertation’s topic, even those materials you have not used or quoted within your text.
- Your paper’s appendices. (Sometimes these sections are not necessary, but you should make sure that any you have included and referred to within your paper are organized and presented in a logical manner.)
What can you expect after your dissertation is completed?
Completed dissertations are evaluated by both an internal examiner and an external one, both of whom are appointed by the board of an institution.
After this, you (the candidate) will be invited to an oral presentation or examination with the objective of defending your dissertation before a body of examiners. (These examinations are referred to as vivas – from the Latin term “viva voce” and meaning “the living voice” in English.) It is to be hoped that the outcome of your viva will be a success story. In truth, an examinations board can choose any of the outcomes below:
- Pass: The outright award of a degree to a student
- Pass with revisions: This is where a degree is awarded subject to revisions, which must be approved before the eventual awarding of the degree
- The awarding of a lower-level degree e.g. a Master’s instead of a doctoral degree
- The awarding of a lower-level degree after revisions have been undertaken and approved
- Fail. (A fail is reasonably rare since dissertation supervisors tend to give candidates the chance to rewrite their dissertations until they meet an acceptable standard.)
Do not forget that, essentially, dissertations are high-level papers that are based on extensive thought and research. Therefore, the more original and more thoroughly researched your paper is, the better your chances of succeeding!
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