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Researching and Writing a Masters Dissertation

by Mark Bennett

All Masters programmes include some form of extended individual project. Research-focussed programmes, such as an MRes, may include multiple independent research components, whilst 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.

How do the content and expectations of a Masters dissertation differ from an undergraduate dissertation?

You can think of your Masters thesis as 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 extensive research work as a postgraduate. That said, there are some important differences between the two levels.

One of the most obvious new challenges stems from the greater length of the postgraduate thesis. In order 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 space to investigate your subject in greater detail than is possible at undergraduate level, but it will also 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. This will also have an impact on your research process if the individual topics within your overall project require you to access separate sources or datasets and to plan around their availability.

The other significant difference between undergraduate and postgraduate work concerns the expectations of you as a researcher. Your undergraduate dissertation will have given you a chance to prove the competence you have developed in your subject area by undertaking an independent and research task, demonstrating an ability to comprehend and analyse new material for yourself. As a postgraduate you will do all of this again, but you will also be expected to establish and assert your own critical voice as a member of the academic community associated with your field. This will involve proving 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 as an original contribution to or reflection upon this. So, if you'll excuse the pun, a 'Master's' 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.

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 particular research interests and expertise align well with what you want to do. You may be able to request particular supervision, but taught postgraduates are more likely to be assigned supervisors 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 timetable for its undertaking. This timetable will probably set dates for subsequent discussions and progress checks, including the submission of draft chapters or sections and the receipt of feedback.

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.

Where can I find out more?

You can find more information on the dissertation requirements for individual Masters programmes by looking at the entries for courses in the FindAMasters database. For some extra help and advice on the Masters dissertation experience and help with managing your research, see our selection of useful tips.

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