Institute for Academic Development
Institute for Academic Development

Dissertations and research projects

General advice and resources to support you throughout your research-based dissertation or project.

This is a general resource to help you with the basics of organising and writing a research-based dissertation or project.  The Go further section at the end includes advice on work-based dissertations and signposts other resources.

You should consult your course or programme handbook, including online sources, and project supervisor or programme director for subject-specific guidance.

The basics

Dissertations and research projects are an opportunity to focus on particular question, and plan and undertake your own research to explore it further. Many students really enjoy being an independent researcher and becoming the expert on their work. The format varies depending on the disciplinary context, subject area, your research questions and the project. You may be reviewing the literature, analysing a novel, developing and testing a new method or doing a work-based project. However there are some common factors:

  • They are an independent piece of work. You will be working under supervision to some extent and may be collaborating with others, but ultimately you are submitting a piece of independent thought and writing.
  • They tend to have a large word count. This is to allow you to do sufficient in-depth analysis and discussion of the topic.
  • They require a large investment of time, thought and energy throughout the process. As a significant body of academic work, you need to maintain effort whilst reading, researching, thinking, writing and redrafting it.

Choosing your dissertation or project

Whether you are choosing your dissertation from a selection of topics or you are proposing your own, there are a range of factors to consider. For example:

  • What is the starting point for your work, i.e. previous or related research?
  • How feasible is your project / proposal?
  • Do you have enough time and resources to complete it?
  • Will it be of an appropriate academic level?

A key questions to ask is “How interested am I in this topic?” You will be working on your dissertation or project for some time, so having a genuine interest in the topic will help to keep you motivated. If you have any questions specific to your topic or project, you should ask your supervisor, programme director or another member of staff who teaches you.

Planning your dissertation or research project

A research-based dissertation or project is a large piece of work requiring a high level of critical analysis. To achieve this you will have to allow time, not just for the researching phase, but also for the writing and editing stages. You will need to give yourself plenty of time to:

  • Read around your topic and undertake background research;
  • Digest and think about what you are learning and writing;
  • Complete experiments, fieldwork, interviews or project placements;
  • Analyse data, findings or results, and interpret them;
  • Think about and decide on your conclusions.

Taking a project management approach to your dissertation or research project might be a more effective way to successfully complete it. The Time management page has tips and tools for organising your time.

Time management webpage and tools

The dissertation and project planner can be used to think about the different stages and help give you an overall view of the process. There are some general points and questions to act as prompts, spaces you can add your own notes in and some useful tips and resources.

Dissertation and project planner (pdf)                    Dissertation and project planner (rtf)

Writing your dissertation

You should not underestimate the time that should be allocated to writing your dissertation. Writing will involve planning, background research, drafting, redrafting, and proof-reading and editing.

First draft: Your first draft is about getting words on the page. For example, it may sketch out your first thoughts, arguments and potential structure. You can review these and use them to check: are you focussed on the right topics and questions? Is your structure and line of thought sensible? This is also a good time to set up your format requirements (e.g. page layouts, references).

Redrafts: Redrafting is where you expand and refine your ideas and argument. You may also find that as you are writing the direction of your argument changes; for example this could be due to your literature research producing new avenues of thought or your experiments turning up unexpected results. This is a good time to review the focus of your initial question, and whether your arguments or conclusions are still sensible.

Final draft(s): In your final draft(s) is where you cast a critical eye over your work and assess how effective it is in communicating your argument and conclusions - does it answer the question? You should also check that you presentation, spelling and grammar are appropriate and polished, all your references are included, and it follows the appropriate format guidance, etc.

It is a good idea to take a break between writing and reviewing your work. Try to leave at least a day between writing before you pick it up again, the longer the better. This allows you to look at your work with an analytical eye, looking for ways to improve. Imagine you are reading your work as someone who is not so familiar with the topic: would a reader be able to follow and understand your argument? Do your ideas link? Have you signposted on from one section to the next? Remember also to look back at your question/title, does your dissertation address it? Does it follow a logical structure?

Go further

There are a variety of study guides available on dissertation and project writing. Books aimed at postgraduate students can also be useful for undergraduates.  Our IAD Resource List has a selection available in University libraries.

Study Skills Guides

Producing a professional document

Information Services have online courses available to help you produce a professional looking research report or dissertation.  These are self-paced Learn courses using Lynda.com videos and lecture recordings.

Thesis Hub: Producing your thesis or dissertation in Word

Choosing a reference manager

A referencing management tool can help you to collect and organise and your source material to produce a bibliography or reference list.

Referencing and reference management

Work-based dissertations

Many courses and programmes, particularly at Postgraduate level, offer the opportunity to carry out a work-based dissertation. These opportunities vary between Schools and Programmes but will typically involve students tackling a research question identified by an organisation such as a business, a public sector organisation or a charity. A work based dissertation project can be invaluable for your employability and for career development.

If you are interested in carrying out a work-based dissertation you may need to start planning earlier than you would for a more traditional academic dissertation. If your Programme offers this opportunity, you will be given this information at the start of Semester 1. If you would like to source and set up a dissertation project with an external organisation yourself, you will need to speak with your Programme Director or Course Organiser first.

You can draw on resources developed by the Making the Most of Masters project.

Making the Most of Masters

Work-based projects – advice for students