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. Identify your own area of interest. Explore an area in depth. Define your own question. Experience the process of producing knowledge. Manage a project from beginning to end. Consolidate your communication, information-seeking and intellectual skills. 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. First, the learner determines the focus and direction of their work.
Second, this work is carried out on an individual basis – although usually with some tutor support and direction provided. Third, there is typically a substantial research component to the project, requiring the collection of primary data and/or the analysis of existing/secondary data. Finally, learners will have a more prolonged engagement with the chosen subject than is the case with ‘standard’ coursework assignments such as essays or reports, with the work consequently expected to be more ‘in-depth’. 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. 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? 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?
What is it that is special about a dissertation? Watch the What is special about a dissertation? You become actively involved with research which could mean empirical research or a library-based project. It is an opportunity for originality and intellectual independence. Your first course essays were usually (though not always) written to titles prescribed by your tutor. As you progressed through your course, you may have been given the opportunity to make up your own titles. In this way, your independence, as a reader and critic, developed. The dissertation builds on this foundation; it grows out of your own particular interest, both in terms of the material you choose to write about and the topic that provides the focus of your study. A longer word count of the dissertation allows you to sustain your analysis and interpretation over a greater range of material and almost inevitably involves you in more careful and subtle argument. Undertake an extensive programme of reading and research. Demonstrate intellectual independence and originality by choosing your own subject of study and defining its nature and scope.
Engage in sustained analysis, interpretation and comparison of a substantial body of data. Present the results of your research in a clearly written, academically cogently argued, logically structured and properly referenced form. 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. 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.