Postgraduate Dissertation Tips – Advice on Successful Research for Masters Students
Written by Mark Bennett
Dissertations in different subject-areas will differ quite a bit in terms of the kinds of research practices they involve and the manner in which their findings need to be presented. Individual students will also go about their projects in ways that particularly suit them; after all, one of the aims of any research dissertation is to help you develop and perfect your own practices as a scholar.
The following advice is therefore very general, but it should help give you a sense of what is usually involved in producing a dissertation at Masters level and highlight some of the general hurdles that you'll need to overcome.
The most unglamorous challenge of an extended project like the Masters dissertation is also the most important. Masters dissertations are usually researched and written over the summer and it will be up to you to organise your time and resources without the structure of a timetabled semester. You'll need to set realistic targets, plan ahead and liaise effectively with your supervisor in order to benefit from their feedback. You may be a budding chemist, criminologist or historian, but for the period of your dissertation you're also a project manager.
#2 Make the most of your supervisor
It should go without saying that your supervisor is a vital resource for the successful management and completion of your dissertation. Their ability to critique your ideas and offer feedback on drafts will be invaluable, but so too will their experience as a researcher. You may never have undertaken a project of this length and complexity before, but they have. As such, they'll be able to guide your planning, tell you when targets are or aren't realistic and help you avoid unforeseen pitfalls. Contact with your supervisor will be limited, however, and part of your task is to make the most of their advice when it's available. Try to agree a sensible timetable with them at the outset of your project that includes dates for meetings and draft submissions. Make sure you have material prepared for these and are able to act upon feedback when it arrives.
#3 Take advantage of the facilities and resources available to you
Your institution will be paying a lot of money to equip and maintain its research facilities and it wants students - particularly postgraduates - to use and benefit from them. In addition to your supervisor, staff in libraries, laboratories and workshops will usually be happy to help you make the most of what's available for your subject area or tell you where you might be able to find additional material.
#4 Develop effective research habits
Of course, part of using research facilities effectively involves being an effective researcher yourself. You may have already received some training and assessment in research methodologies during your degree and the dissertation is where this will be most useful to you. Keep a useful record of the secondary materials you use as well as your own ideas. You'll need to submit a complete and accurate bibliography along with your work and this will be much easier to do if you start building and maintaining it as you go. It can also be a good idea to annotate this 'bibliography-in-progress' with short notes about the material you've looked at - what different items cover, where you sourced them and how useful they might be.
#5 Plan around the availability of resources
Part of producing a postgraduate dissertation is demonstrating your capacity for original scholarship and this often means going beyond the materials held by your own institution. Even if your university's facilities and holdings are able to supply you with most of the data or sources you need, you may find that other students on your programme are also keen to use them. Where possible, try to identify your needs in advance and sequence the different components of your research according to the availability of material procured through inter-library loans, reservations or trips to external archives.
#6 Don't expect to write-up absolutely everything you research
Part of the challenge involved in completing a dissertation project involves bridging the gap between the material you uncover and the writing you produce from it. Not everything crosses that bridge. Even the most disciplined research process will often produce more material or data than you have space for in your completed dissertation. This excess might be the result of initial forays as you develop the outline of your topic. Other unused research might involve findings with interesting implications that end up being left behind by the development of the project as a whole. You'll need to be judicious when deciding what material best contributes to the development of your overall argument and supports the conclusions you are seeking to demonstrate. Don't worry too much if that means leaving some good ideas aside. You can always revisit them later on in your academic career - who knows, one of them might even contain the seed of a PhD project!
#7 Don't expect to submit absolutely everything you write
As with other academic tasks, your dissertation will usually be assigned a word limit and this will often be strictly enforced. Unlike other coursework, your dissertation also asks you to balance the requirements of individual chapters or sections within that overall limit. This may come to involve retrospectively editing completed chapters or cutting small sections of completed material as you receive feedback on drafts. Cutting material you've worked hard on is never easy, but learning to edit work in progress is an important research skill and one of the key learning outcomes for your dissertation.
#8 Remember that you're not alone. . .
Setting off to independently research and write your dissertation can seem like a strange experience after spending a year in the company of other students on your course. Don't forget though that the rest of your cohort are all involved in exactly the same task as you and will be finding it just as challenging. Consider meeting up a few times over the summer, even if it's just for a quick coffee and a chat about how you're finding things. Don't feel you have to hide away from friends and family whilst you write your dissertation either. Talking about your work with a non-specialist can be a nice way to 'de-compress' and get a fresh perspective on what you're doing. There's also no rule that says you can't go to the pub after a hard day's research!
#9 . . . but don't forget that your project is your own
If you do discuss the dissertation experience with other students, try to avoid comparing their apparent progress to your own. Everyone works differently as an independent researcher and it doesn't necessarily matter if someone else on your course claims to have drafted two chapters whilst you're still researching material. Your supervisor will keep an eye on your progress and, unless they raise any concerns, you should keep going at the rhythm that works for you.
This advice is obvious, but crucial. Hard drives do fail. USB memory sticks do get lost. Household pets do occasionally eat (or at least enthusiastically chew) notes. Keep your work safe and make multiple copies of any electronic files associated with your dissertation. As a rule of thumb, you should maintain a 'remote' back-up of any important material stored on a personal computer. Use an online file-store at your university (if it offers one) or third-party cloud storage software. Failing these, email yourself copies of key documents.
#11 Be proud of yourself!
Researching and writing a postgraduate dissertation isn't easy. Once you've completed it you'll have achieved something that a relatively small number of students manage and made your own contribution to the scholarship in your field. So keep that in mind, even as you research and write your dissertation. You're doing something challenging and impressive and you should already be proud of yourself.
See our guide for more general information on researching and writing a Masters dissertation. For additional advice, or to discuss your specific subject area, you can get involved with the helpful community of past and present Masters students on our Postgraduate Forum.