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How to Write a First Class Dissertation

an image from a dictionary with the word 'dissertation' highlighted

Anyone who has ever been to university will tell you that writing their dissertation was the worst part of their university experience. It's such a long and difficult process and is one that I never wish to experience again. But, somehow, I managed to get a first in my dissertation. It definitely wasn't easy and I am still shocked myself, but I know that so many students get told they have to start working on their dissertation and have absolutely no idea where to start. Luckily for you, this blog post gives you a how-to guide on how you can manage to ace your dissertation and get a first.

At this point, I feel that it's worth me throwing in a disclaimer. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I was unable to carry out primary research (which I will talk about in a little bit) and had to carry out secondary research instead. Due to this, this post is mostly going to focus on elements of that, but it should also have some factors within it that you will find useful if you are carrying out primary research.

It is also worth mentioning that different universities have different procedures when it comes to their students doing their dissertations. The majority of the elements I am going to discuss within this post should be relevant to all universities, however, I am aware that your university may handle things differently compared to how my university handles it. For this reason, it is really important that you focus primarily on the way your tutors have told you to do your dissertation, but you can refer to this post for a form of general guidance and help if you're really struggling on trying to understand something.

Let's start off by looking at something I have already mentioned, which is primary and secondary research. It is more than likely that you will be asked to carry out primary research, which is where you do the research yourself. This will typically be in the form of carrying out things such as interviews, questionnaires, and surveys with people; whether that is with industry professionals or the general public. This research should be unique and is intended to be something that hasn't been carried out before, or at least not in great abundance. Secondary research is where you take information from research that has previously been carried out and use it for your dissertation (obviously without plagiarising). For me, this involved me looking at a combination of policy documents and research that had already been carried out and using it to form my own opinion and setting out recommendations for further research. You should typically only be carrying out secondary research either because Covid protocols aren't allowing you to carry out primary research (like me) or if your research and ethics proposals aren't accepted (this was applied at my university, so may not be for yours, but I'll also explain more about that in a bit).

Often, the most difficult part of your dissertation can be deciding what topic to focus on. This will often be the first thing your tutors will ask you to consider before you even think about going any further. What my tutors did was they gave us a list of around seven different topics for us to choose from and we had to select our top three preferences and the ideas we had for each one. They did this as we had one tutor assigned to each topic and the topic we were given (which I'm pretty sure for everyone was their first choice), that tutor would be our dissertation supervisor and it was them who we would have regular meetings with and would have to go to them if we had any questions about our dissertation. Once we had been assigned a topic, we then had to start thinking about a more specific subject to focus on. This can often be edited right up until you hand in your dissertation (to a certain extent) and should be very specific and not too broad. This will help you to truly focus your topic and should help you not to go over too much on your word count.

The title of your dissertation and your research question are two completely different things. The research title is more of a statement about the research you are doing; whereas the question is more of a look at what it is exactly you are going to be exploring. For example, my research title was 'How Early Years Policy Promotes Outdoor Play in Supporting Personal, Social and Emotional Development'; whereas my research question was 'to what extent does early years policy promote outdoor play in supporting personal, social and emotional development for three to five year olds?''.

Once you have your topic, it is time to take a look at your research proposal. This is where you outline everything about your dissertation and include things about your literature review, ethics, and how you are planning to spend your time. It's okay if you don't get this right straight away (I didn't) as your supervisor can provide you with comments. It's also important to remember that this isn't the final thing and there may be one or two things you put in your proposal that will change when it comes to writing your dissertation. It is okay to make these changes as long as you let your supervisor know first as they may advise you not to do this.

The next important thing is your ethics application. This is your most important thing and you cannot begin your dissertation unless your ethics application has been approved. A lot of the stuff that is involved with your dissertation has already been decided by your course leader (at least, mine was anyway), so you will have to stick to those as otherwise your application won't be approved. You will also be able to include a lot of what was in your research proposal, as well as a few added extras, so this should help you time-wise. An ethics application isn't really needed if you are doing secondary research as you won't be holding confidential information about participants. However, you still need to do it, such as by stating you will not plagiarise the pieces of research you are using and how you are going to analyse your data. If you are doing primary research, your ethics application needs to be accepted before you can carry out any work and if it isn't, you will possibly have no other choice but to do secondary research. Another condition of doing primary research is that you will need to seek informed consent from your participants and will need to provide proof of this when handing in your dissertation. This proof will vary depending on your university and the type of research you are carrying out, so please check with your tutors and supervisors on what exactly is required of you regarding the ethics of your dissertation.

Once your ethics application has been approved, you are free to start work on your dissertation! If you are doing primary research, this will involve you asking around to find participants to take part in your study. If you are doing secondary research, this will involve you looking at various pieces of policy and research.

For your literature review, you will need to sort out themes. Regardless of whether you are doing primary or secondary research, your literature review will consist purely of previous research. Don't decide on your themes straight away. How I did it was I would read a piece of research and on a word document I would make a note of what that research had found. From this, after you have read a few research papers, you will be able to see which themes are more prominent than others and these will be your themes for your literature review. I had to find three themes, but the number of themes will probably depend on what your tutors and supervisor suggest.

Next, you have your methodology. A lot of this will be what you put in your ethics application, but you will need to provide references to back it up. Things you will discuss within this section includes data protection, informed consent, and confidentiality. You will also need to give an explanation as to why you decided to do the type of research you are (primary or secondary). For example, I did secondary research and the explanation I gave was that I had to do this type of research due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact it was unsafe for me to go into settings to carry out primary research as I could put others (and myself) at risk of getting the disease and could also become a distraction to the practitioners and children (for reference, I did an Early Childhood Studies degree and if I were to have carried out primary research for my dissertation, I would have needed to go into nursery and school settings). Then you have your findings. If you did primary research, this will be what you found from carrying out your interviews/questionnaires/surveys etc. If you did secondary research, this will be what you found from looking at policy documents. In this section, you shouldn't go too much into detail about these findings as you will talk about them more in the analysis section. The findings section should essentially give a brief overview of what you found and should also be put into themes. I used the same themes as I used in my literature review, but you may find different themes within this. You should also include direct quotes from your participants/policy documents in this section and where they came from. It is perfectly acceptable for this section to be description only and, as I've said already, not go into too much detail.

Next you have your analysis section, which is where you can go into lots of detail about your findings. This is where you compare your findings to what you discussed in your literature review. A way I found helpful was to create one word document with notes for my literature review, where I created three separate headings for my themes and under each theme I included the bits I'd taken from research and put in my literature review. I then created another word document with the notes from my findings and did the same thing where I created three separate headings for my themes and included the notes under each theme from what I'd taken from the policy documents I'd used and put in my findings section. I then looked at each theme individually in both the literature review and findings sections and if there was a bullet point that agreed in both sections, I highlighted this in green. If there was one point the literature review mentioned but the findings didn't, or vice versa, I highlighted these in red; or if there were two contrasting views, these were also highlighted in red. This meant I could then compare the similarities and differences between the two. I'm not the best at explaining things, so I've included a screenshot below of how this looked so you can get some sort of idea (and please feel free to message me if you're still confused and I'll be happy to try and help you in any way I can):

Then you have your conclusion. In this, you should include a summary of your findings and give your recommendations for the future. You should also discuss the limitations of the methods you used and how you would do things differently next time. The conclusion should be one of the last things you write.

I'm aware that I haven't already discussed the abstract and conclusion. Even though these go at the beginning of your dissertation, I would recommend doing these two things last (I personally would do the introduction first and then the abstract, but it's up to you).

Your introduction should include a bit of background about the topic you have decided to discuss, some key definitions, the research question (which, remember, is slightly different to the research title), the aims of your research, a brief discussion of the methods you are going to be using, and a brief overview of your entire dissertation. It is important to keep the introduction short but sweet, and I would say to use 10% of your word count (but I guess it depends on your word count and what your tutors and supervisor tell you to do).

The last thing you should write in your dissertation is your abstract. This shouldn't be more than a couple of hundred words and is essentially a very brief overview of everything you discuss within your dissertation. It should state what it is looking at, how you have carried out your research (the literature review and findings), what the findings say and a suggestion for further research. It should be incredibly clear and concise and straight to the point. You have to leave this till last because you will not know exactly how your dissertation will pan out until you have written it.

The best thing you can do is not leave everything to the last minute. I hear so many stories of students who are up all night for multiple days trying to get their dissertation finished in time. As long as you carry out all the research and note-making as soon as you can, the part of actually writing your dissertation should be easy and not take you very long to do at all.

Hopefully this post has cleared everything up for you about your dissertation and how you can get a first in yours. If you have any further questions, please feel free to leave a comment, email me, or DM me on Twitter or Instagram. Alternatively, if you have done a dissertation yourself and want to leave some advice to those just beginning their dissertations, please feel free to leave that advice in the comments below.

Finally, best of luck with your dissertation (and your final year of university) and I hope everything goes as you hope it will.

Love Beth xx

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