Supporting Taught Postgraduates

Dissertations / work based projects

Advice and resources to support you throughout your dissertation or work based project.

This is a generic resource for dissertations, and work based proejcts.  For convenience we have used the term 'dissertation' to cover large projects which are part of your postgraduate study.

For subject-specific guidance surrounding your dissertation, consult your School / programme handbook or website, or talk to your Programme Director or Project Supervisor.

Dissertations at postgraduate level

Dissertations come in many shapes and forms, but there are some factors that are common to all, particularly in terms of the process involved. All dissertations require a large investment of time and effort.

The document below suggests ways for breaking down the process of writing a dissertation

Critical engagement is a key requirement for all dissertations.

Further information on critical thinking

Planning

Writing a dissertation involves a considerable amount of work and a high level of critical analysis, so planning and time management are essential.

Looking at other dissertations in your department will give you an idea of what’s expected. Most schools hold copies of previous dissertations; check with your department.

Planning involves estimating and alloting time for research activities. You will need to find, select and critically engage with relevant background reading. Depending on the nature of your project, you may also carry out experiments, fieldwork, interviews or project placements, as well as data analysis and interpretation. And you will, of course, need to synthesise your ideas, thoughts, findings and conclusions in writing, in a clear and concise way.

Planning resources

Time management

Academic time management involves planning for all the different activites such as a dissertation, lectures, tutorial, assignments, and exams which will be a part of your time as a postgraduate.

Time management for students

Dissertation planner

Use the planner to identify what stage you are at and to think about possible directions. Blank spaces within the planner will enable you to tailor the planner to your own project and produce subject/programme/dissertation specific entries.  The planner is a pdf format, if you cannot open this please contact iad.masters@ed.ac.uk to request a paper copy.

Dissertation planner

Choosing a topic

Whether you are choosing your dissertation from a selection of topics or proposing your own topic, it’s a good idea to consider questions such as the following before you decide on a topic/project:

  • How feasible is this project?
  • How does it relate to existing research?
  • How much time would you need to complete it?
  • Which relevant resources are available to work with?
  • Do you have something to say about this topic?
  • Are you interested in the topic?

Perhaps one of the most important reasons for choosing a particular topic is your interest in it. You will be working on your dissertation for several months, and having a genuine interest in the topic will help you stay engaged and maintain momentum.

Remember that your superviser or Programme Director may be good sources of advice when deciding on a topic.

Work based projects

Some Schools also offer the opportunity to undertake a work based project as an alternative to the traditional dissertation.  If your School offers this then you will be given information in Semester 1.  A work based project can be very useful to students who wish to gain work experience, or have an interest in a particular project.  More information on work based projects can be found on the ‘Making the Most of Masters’ (MMM) website.  MMM is an inter-university collaboration supporting work based learning at a postgraduate level, primarily through work based projects as an alternative to the traditional dissertation.

Making the Most of Masters

Writing

It is easy to underestimate the time involved in writing a dissertation, which includes several stages – from pre-writing and reviewing the literature to drafting, revision, editing and proofreading.

Drafts are essential check points for reviewing your progress and determining if your dissertation is on track.

First draft: Your first draft may sketch your initial thoughts, arguments and potential structure. Once you have a first draft, you may want to review and check. Is your content sufficiently focused? Are your structure and line of thought clear and sound?

Middle drafts: In middle drafts you will be expanding and refining your ideas. You  may find that as you are writing, the direction of your dissertation changes. This could be because your review of the literature produces new avenues of thought, or because your results turn up unexpected results. If that happens, you may have to adjust the focus of your research question and consider whether your arguments or conclusions are still related and relevant.

Final draft(s): Going through your final draft(s) you will need to make sure that your writing style is appropriate, that spelling and grammar are correct, that all your references are included, that the referencing style is consistent, and that you have followed any other relevant guidelines.

It is a good idea to take ‘draft stops’ at all the above stages. A draft stop is a point where you  leave writing for a day or two to come back to it with fresh eyes. This allows you to spot mistakes more easily and to identify areas where cutting, expanding or rewriting will improve your text.

Look at your text through the eyes of an editor or an examiner. Is it easy to follow? Are your ideas connected? Have you signposted sufficiently?

Further information

Developing your English

Writing at postgraduate level

Critical thinking