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Researching and Writing a Masters Dissertation

All Masters programmes include some form of extended individual project. Research-focussed programmes, such as an MRes, may include multiple independent research components, while taught courses usually culminate with a substantial research task, referred to as the Masters dissertation or thesis.

The advice in this article is designed with the dissertation component of a taught programme in mind, but will also apply more generally to comparable projects forming part of a research degree.

What’s the difference between a Masters dissertation and an undergraduate dissertation?

The Masters thesis is a bridge between undergraduate study and higher level postgraduate degrees such as the PhD, which are awarded following the completion of an extended research programme over several years.

Therefore, depending on your subject area, a postgraduate dissertation may not look all that different to its undergraduate equivalent. You’ll usually be expected to produce a much longer piece of work, but the essential nature of the task won’t be unfamiliar to you if you’ve already completed a research project for your Bachelors degree.

After all, one of the purposes of an undergraduate dissertation or final year project is to prepare you for more in-depth research work as a postgraduate. That said, there are some important differences between the two levels.

A Masters dissertation will be longer than the undergraduate equivalent – usually it’ll be somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 words, but this can vary widely between courses, institutions and countries.

To more comprehensively answer your overall research question, you are likely to be expected to identify and individually examine specific issues or areas of your topic. This can be a bit like producing a series of shorter pieces of work, similar to those required by individual modules, but with the further requirement that they collectively demonstrate and support a broader set of conclusions.

This more involved structure will:

  • Give you the scope to investigate your subject in greater detail than is possible at undergraduate level
  • Challenge you to be effective at internally organising your work so that its individual components function as stages in a coherent and persuasive overall argument
  • Allow you to develop and hone a suitable research methodology (for example, choosing between qualitative and quantitative methods)

If the individual topics within your overall project require you to access separate sources or datasets and to plan around their availability, this may also have an impact on your research process.

As a postgraduate, you’ll be expected to establish and assert your own critical voice as a member of the academic community associated with your field. Your undergraduate dissertation will have given you a chance to prove the competence you have developed in your subject area by undertaking an independent research task.

By contrast, during your Masters thesis you’ll need to show that you are not just capable of analysing and critiquing original data or primary source material, but are also aware of the existing body of scholarship relating to your topic and can situate your work within this space.

So, if you’ll excuse the pun, a ‘Masters’ degree really is about achieving ‘mastery’ of your particular specialism and the dissertation is where you’ll demonstrate this: showing off the scholarly expertise and research skills that you’ve developed across your programme.

What’s the difference between a dissertation and a thesis?

A dissertation is a long piece of (usually) written work on the same topic. A thesis is a little more specific: it usually means something that presents an original argument based on the interpretation of data, statistics or content.

So, a thesis is almost always presented as a dissertation, but not all dissertations present a thesis.

Masters dissertation structure

As you can probably imagine, no two dissertations follow the exact same structure, especially given the differences found between Masters programmes from university to university and country to country.

That said, there are several key components that make up the structure of a typical Masters dissertation:

  • Abstract – Usually around 300 words long, the abstract is meant to be a concise summary of your dissertation. It should briefly cover the question(s) you aim to answer, your primary argument and your conclusion.
  • Introduction – The purpose of the introduction is to provide context for the rest of the dissertation, setting out your aims and the scope of what you want to achieve with your research. The introduction should also give a clear overview of the dissertation’s chapters.
  • Literature review – This part of the dissertation should examine the scholarship that has already been published in your field, presenting various arguments and counter-arguments while situating your own research within this wider body of work. You should analyse and evaluate other publications and explain how your dissertation will contribute to the existing literature in your subject area. The literature review sometimes forms part of the introduction or follows immediately on from it.
  • Research methodology – Not all dissertations will require a section covering research methodology (Arts and Humanities dissertations won’t normally undertake the kind of research that involves a set methodology). However, if you are using a particular method to collect information for your dissertation, you should make sure to explain the rationale behind your choice of methodology. Those in the Arts and Humanities will usually outline their theoretical perspectives and approaches as part of the introduction, rather than requiring a detailed explanation of the methodology for their data collection and analysis.
  • Results / findings – If your research involves some form of survey or experiment, this is where you’ll present the results of your work. Depending on the nature of the study, this might be in the form of graphs, tables or charts – or even just a written description of what the research entailed and what the findings were.
  • Discussion – This section forms the bulk of your dissertation and should be carefully structured using a series of related chapters (and sub-chapters). There should be a logical progression from one chapter to the next, with each part building on the arguments of its predecessor. It can be helpful to think of your Masters dissertation as a series of closely interlinked essays, rather than one overwhelming paper.
  • Conclusion – Here you should draw together the threads of the previous discussion chapters and make your final concluding statements, drawing on evidence and arguments that you’ve already explored over the course of the dissertation. Explain the significance of your findings and point towards directions that future research could follow.
  • References / bibliography – While planning and writing your dissertation, you should keep an extensive, organised record of any papers, sources or books you’ve quoted (or referred to). This will be a lot easier than leaving all of it until the end and struggling to work out where a particular quotation is from!
  • Appendices – Appendices won’t be necessary in many dissertations, but you may need to include supplementary material to support your argument. This could be interview transcripts or questionnaires. If including such content within the body of the dissertation won’t be feasible – i.e. there wouldn’t be enough space or it would break the flow of your writing – you should consult with your supervisor and consider attaching it in an appendix.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these sections won’t always be discretely labelled in every dissertation. For example, everything up to ‘discussion’ might be covered in introductory chapter (rather than as distinct sections). If you’re unsure about the structure of your dissertation, your supervisor will be able to help you map it out.

Masters dissertation word count

Most dissertations in the UK will be between 15,000 and 20,000 words long, although this can vary significantly depending on the nature of the programme.

You should also check with your university exactly which sections of the dissertation count towards the final word count (the abstract, bibliography and appendices won’t usually be included in the total).

How does supervision work for a Masters dissertation?

As a Masters student at the dissertation stage you’ll usually be matched with an academic within your institution who will be tasked with guiding your work. This might be someone who has already taught you, or it may be another scholar whose research interests and expertise align well with what you want to do. You may be able to request a particular supervisor, but taught postgraduates are more likely to be assigned them by their department.

Specific arrangements with your supervisor will vary depending on your institution and subject area, but they will usually meet with you at the beginning of the dissertation period to discuss your project and agree a suitable schedule for its undertaking. This timetable will probably set dates for:

  • Subsequent discussions and progress checks
  • The submission of draft chapters or sections
  • Feedback appointments

Though your supervisor is there to help and advise you, it is important to remember that your dissertation is a personal research project with associated expectations of you as an independent scholar.

As a rule of thumb, you can expect your supervisor to read each part of your dissertation once at the draft stage and to offer feedback. Most will not have time to look at lots of subsequent revisions, but may respond favourably to polite requests for exceptions (provided their own workload permits it).

Inundating your supervisor with emails or multiple iterations of draft material is best avoided; they will have their own research to manage (as well as other supervision assignments) and will be able to offer better quality feedback if you stick to an agreed schedule.

How is a Masters dissertation assessed and examined?

On most courses your dissertation will be assessed by an external examiner (as well as additional members of faculty within your university who haven’t been responsible for supervising you), but these will read and critique the work you submit without personally questioning and testing you on it.

Though this examination process is not as challenging as the oral defence or ‘viva voce’ required for a PhD thesis, the grading of your Masters dissertation is still a fundamental component of your degree. It will usually be worth around 60 credits – a third of the total 180 credit value for a UK Masters – and will therefore play a key role in determining your final result.

On some programmes the result awarded to a student’s dissertation may also determine the upper grade-band that can be awarded to their degree. For more information on the grading process for UK Masters degrees see our guide to Frequently Asked Questions about Masters study.

Last updated - 10/04/19

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