What is a Dissertation?1


A dissertation or final year project, as a form of assessment differs from other module assessments. The expectation is that you, the learner, take responsibility for your own learning and that you produce a literature review, you choose a method for undertaking a study, write up your findings and discuss the outcomes in a discussion section. So this part of site provides you with a better understanding of the following:

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This video clip contains comments from the following academics:

Why does my degree programme include a dissertation?

Traditionally, an undergraduate degree in the social sciences and humanities uses a dissertation for a final piece of study. The degree might also offer other alternatives such as the option of an extended essay, or an independent learning project, or a senior paper. This is because the process of producing this type of assessment enables you to:

In many ways this is about doing social science rather than writing about the social science that others have produced. Some of these skills are clearly academic and related to your discipline. Others are much broader and develop your effectiveness in collecting, manipulating and interrogating information, its application and the production of reports - all of which are useful skills in employment.


For many undergraduate degree students, a significant element of final year study is an independent learning project. According to Todd et al (2004) while these projects may vary greatly in scope and nature (e.g. a large-scale written assignment such as a dissertation or extended essay; the design and production of some type of artefact) most share a number of key characteristics.

Ultimately you will be drawing together issues of theory, method and methodology and bringing them to bear on your chosen topic. Those dissertations that can best accomplish this integration or even synthesis are often the most conceptually and methodologically accomplished pieces of work.

How is your dissertation module organised?

The way in which this type of assessment is organised will vary from institution to institution and course to course. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the particular arrangements for your degree. Look for a module handbook which sets out these requirements and how you are allocated a dissertation tutor or supervisor. Your supervisor and any handbooks that are produced are excellent sources of information and support and will help you understand how the dissertation process works.
The following checklist will start you on the dissertation journey, start planning and also clarify what is expected of you




How many credit points or module equivalents is the dissertation worth?


Does the dissertation have any special status in the calculation of your final degree classification?


When do you need to start planning the dissertation formally? (Some degree programmes start this process in the second year, others in the final year.)


What is the submission date for the final piece?


Are there any key interim dates when (for example) outlines, sections or requests for the ethical approval of proposed research have to be submitted?


How long is the dissertation (and does the word count include the bibliography and appendices)?


Are there any lectures, seminars or workshops associated with the module?


Will you have a dissertation supervisor?


How are supervisors allocated?


How often are you allowed to meet with your supervisor?


Is there a schedule of meetings that you have to attend or do you arrange them with your supervisor?


Download checklist (PDF)


What is it that is special about a dissertation?

Watch the What is special about a dissertation? video (.wmv)

This video clip contains comments from the following academics:

The dissertation offers you the opportunity to further develop your subject expertise and your social research, intellectual and organisational skills:

In summary, the dissertation requires you to:

This process improves your subject expertise, is a good preparation for further study and research at postgraduate level, and requires you to work independently and methodically in a variety of intellectually demanding contexts.
For all these reasons, the dissertation can be seen as the culmination of your undergraduate studies. Here you not only demonstrate the intellectual, study, research and presentation skills that you have developed throughout your degree course, but also create something which is uniquely your own.


Quotes from final year students on what is special about the dissertation:

The point of the dissertation is that it’s independent work that’s less guided.

At the start I didn’t see the dissertation as useful, but this changed. It’s the only piece of work that’s more or less what I wanted to do.

In other courses it is set out what they want you to find out. This is about your individual thought and direction – you can go off in your chosen direction, branch out and make different things relate to each other. There’s more freedom involved.

(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, pp339-340)

What does a dissertation look like?

All dissertations will vary in format, style and design. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the particular requirements of your institution and degree programme.

A typical format guide would require the dissertation to be word-processed with double or one-and-a-half spacing, and a wide left margin to enable binding. Most formats would include:

Dissertation format guide

Title Page

Table of Contents

List of Tables (if any)

List of Abbreviations (if any), alphabetically ordered.


Literature Review


(either a certain number of chapters or an extended essay which has clearly identified sections)


and (if appropriate) recommendations

(a list of all the books, journal articles, web sites, newspapers and other sources that you have used in your dissertation)

(e.g. questionnaires, interview transcripts, pilot reports, detailed tables etc.)

However you decide to divide up your chapters and sections, certain essential ingredients need to be present in some form. These will include:

Use your experiences and strengths

You will also be able to draw upon other experience, for example in the analysis and presentation of findings that you may have covered on methodology modules.
You are probably aware of where your academic strengths and weaknesses lie. If you have never really thought about this it would be worth devoting some time to doing so. In setting up your project you will want to play to your strengths. If you are concerned about your study or communication skills you may find support is available in your institution – seek it out.

Case Study 1 Drawing on work experience


Key Questions

Further Reading

WALLIMAN, N. S. R. (2004). Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for Success. London, Sage
RUDESTAM, K. E. and NEWTON, R.R. (2001). Surviving Your Dissertation. A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. 2nd ed., London, Sage

Web Resources

A short article which describes the difference between a dissertation and an essay.

1. © Dr Malcolm Todd and Julia Waldman


Author biographies