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Writing a dissertation

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Introduction

Most undergraduate business courses and post-graduate MBAs require students to complete a dissertation. This is an extended piece – often structured like a report – which usually involves undertaking research or a project (this may be based your placement or previous work experience) as well as reflection on and discussion of that work.

The focus of this article will be on writing the dissertation – that is, producing the finished report.

The whole project and dissertation process can cause students a lot of grief. It differs from what most have previously produced in requiring more of most things – more research in greater depth, more reading, more time, more independence (students select their own topics and work on them in isolation), more planning, and above all, a more extended piece of writing.

As distinct from an essay, where you critically evaluate other people’s ideas, you will need to report on your own research or work and offer your own thoughts and interpretation. However, you will also need to include and critique the ideas of other writers in order to provide a theoretical framework for your own ideas.

Planning

The first thing to say – and hopefully it is not too late for those of you reading this – is that you need to allow yourself sufficient time for the writing process. You may have done all the right reading, have a waterproof design and brilliant data, but if you don’t allow yourself sufficient time for the write-up you will let yourself down. Writing a dissertation is a much more involved process than the average assignment; you might occasionally have been able to burn the midnight oil over an essay but you are unlikely to be able to be able to keep up that level of intense writing for a longer piece of work.

In fact, it’s best to start thinking about the writing from the start of the project. Probably the first thing to do is to get dissertation guidelines from your institution which should tell you the requirements on length, as well as what academic qualities you are expected to show.

Anglia Business School (Cambridge, UK) requires its students to produce a dissertation of maximum 8,000 words, which should demonstrate:

  • Evidence of scholarly research, which can be empirical (i.e. consciously obtained through surveys etc.) or library-based.
  • Evidence of independent thought.
  • Interpretation of evidence – mere description is not sufficient.
  • An understanding of the topic’s conceptual and theoretical framework.
  • Clarity and lucidity of argument.
  • Ability to use appropriate referencing and bibliographic style.

Once you have determined the length of the dissertation, ensure that it does not remain an abstraction by calculating the number of pages involved – at 300 words per page double spaced, an 8,000 word dissertation would have around 26 pages, more with the addition of prelims and end matter, which do not come within the word count.

Dissertations vary enormously in length – in the UK, some professional bodies require a piece of work of around 5,000 words (17 pages) while a higher level dissertation could be as long as 40,000 words (140 pages) although the latter would be unusual at undergraduate level. Also, note requirements as to what should go into the main body of the text – some organizations require you to put your methodology in the appendix for example.

You should also have a plan for how you do the writing, taking account of:

  • Your available time to write, noting the times you are likely to be relatively alert.
  • What you have to write – do a plan of your chapters and their sections and what you aim to achieve in a given time.
  • The stages of writing: the various drafts, time for your supervisor to comment, time for editing.
  • The final stages – proof reading, and binding (check with your university repro department how long this is likely to take).

You should start to think fairly early on how you will organize your work. This will depend on the basis for the dissertation – research, project, work experience, whether you are exploring one issue, or several, or taking a critical overview – and we shall describe below different types of structures.

If you will be carrying out some kind of research or an organization-based project, you should be able to do some of the writing – at least in draft form – before or while you are doing your field work. Except in some projects which use grounded theory – which involve going back into the field several times with a new perspective – you will establish your research or project design fairly early, and in quantitative research, you will do your literature review before your field work. These chapters can be written up front, which will have the double advantage of getting some of the writing out of the way and also helping you practice the type of writing you will need to master.

Structure

Various structures are possible for your report depending on the type of project and the audience. The main ones are outlined below: others are possible, and you should always discuss your proposed structure with your supervisor.

Generic structure

The following is possibly the most common and assumes an academic audience. The research is likely to be deductive and quantitative, with the literature review preceding data collection.

Structure
Introduction What is the scope of the research and why is it important? What are its objectives? What is the research question/hypothesis? Some essential background, but not too much. Should end with a brief summary of findings and the conclusion. The introduction is a very important part of your dissertation and is worth getting right.
Literature review This will set the research problem in its conceptual framework and gives a critical perspective. It should be a discussion rather than a description, and you should highlight concepts and theories which have a particular bearing on the research.
Research methodology Your research design: what data did you collect; where did you collect it; how did you analyse it; why did you use those methods and what alternative approaches could you have taken. You could also discuss here the setting of the research, and how you selected your sample.
Findings Summarize the data, possibly with charts and tables, indicating the main themes that emerge.
Discussion Note: may be combined with the above. This should be an analysis of the findings, relating back to the conceptual models and the research question. Has the latter fully been answered? Is the research hypothesis supported? Are there any weaknesses or limitations? What is the main contribution to knowledge?
Conclusions What are the main lessons to be learnt from your study? What would you have done differently? What were the main problems and how did you overcome them? What are the implications for the stakeholders concerned, and what are the possible future directions of the research?

Structure for a multi-issue or qualitative dissertation

The above structure assumes a linear progression for the research, and may not be suitable for situations when:

  • You are adopting a qualitative approach, where research and literature review are more interwoven.
  • You are looking at several themes, and the dissertation will benefit from separating these out structurally.

In this case, you may wish to follow a more thematic structure:

Thematic structure
Introduction As above
Literature review Provides an overview
Issue A
Issue B
Issue C
Literature review and description of data collection methods
Research Design  
Issue A
Issue B
Issue C
Presentation and analysis of data; conclusions
Discussion
Summary of findings, along with critique of method, implications for corporate setting, research etc.

An alternative to the above would be to combine the literature review, but have separate chapters/sections for the data.

Structure for a report aimed at a business sponsor

If you have been sponsored by a specific organization, or your college has arranged for a placement on which your dissertation will be based, they may want a different kind of report or presentation. The structure of the report will depend on the scope you have been given, in particular to recommend or implement changes.

If you are limited to analysing a situation and making a proposal for change, or you are reflecting on a project from the past, Maylor and Blackmon (2005, p. 407) recommend that you should concentrate on:

  • analysis of the practical problem
  • potential solutions
  • recommendations and suggestions for implementation.

The academic parts such as the literature review and the research methodology should be either condensed or put in an appendix, although you should include (in the body of the report) enough to show the validity of your recommendations.

If you are tasked with solving a business problem and expected to lead (to some extent) the resulting change, you are into the realm of action research. This is different to applied research and the structure of your report may be able to reflect this – speak to your supervisor to confirm. If so, Dick (1993) recommends:

Dick (1993)
Introduction Describe the situation and the reason for the project or study. Explain the structure of the thesis and the reasons for it.
Research methodology Outline and justify your approach. Explain the topic then consider possible research approaches, emphasizing the need for responsiveness.
Iteration A
Iteration B
Iteration C
etc.
Action research generally consist of a number of ‘plan-implement-review’ cycles. For each stage/major finding, clearly summarize then discuss the conclusions you have reached, your reasoning, the relevant confirming and disconfirming literature, and the implications.
Conclusions What are the overall conclusions of the research or project? What ultimately happened? What does the study contribute – what is now understood that was less well understood before?

Prelims and end matter

The inclusion of prelims and end matter is another way in which the dissertation differs from the more run of the mill piece of written work. The former require Roman as opposed to Arabic numerals for page numbers.

Here is a rough guideline as to what should be included:

Prelims and end matter
Title page Title; author surname and initials; ‘A thesis submitted to…in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of…in month/year’ (wording as directed by institution).
Abstract A short summary covering the topic, the rationale for choosing it, the methodology and the conclusion
Executive summary A short summary giving a background to the issue discussed, the main recommendations, evidence for them, and the methods used to arrive at them.
Contents page List main chapters/sections
List of main figures and diagrams  
Acknowledgements Thank the people who were especially helpful to you in compiling the report.
Main body See above.
References All the works referred to in the body of the report, with full citations.
Bibliography Other sources which you used but did not quote, also listed in full.
Appendices Material that is relevant but not essential to the main report: could include your research instrument, background information etc.

Exactly what to include will depend on your audience and the length of the report: the contents page, list of figures and acknowledgements can be omitted for a short report, while a business-orientated report should have an executive summary rather than an abstract (you may find it useful to leave in the former in an academic report for the benefit of any sponsors).

Presentation

Writing style, presentation and layout are all important in gaining you a good mark.

Layout

We have already talked about how the dissertation will be divided into chapters or sections: within those divisions, there will be others, marked by headings and subheadings. This is another difference from the essay, but one that will work in your favour as these headings can serve as ways of organizing your thoughts as you plan.

Use a font that is easy to read (and one you like as you will get very used to seeing it on the screen!), and make sure you have wide margins.

Writing style

This should be formal, concise and academic. Here are a few guidelines:

  • As you are writing in an academic style, you will be building an argument, which you should support with evidence. Back up assertions with sources, and make sure you give credit for the ideas of others.
  • Avoid illogicalities and errors in reasoning. These include contradicting something you said in one paragraph in the next (or even the same paragraph), complete jumps of sense between or within paragraphs, so that one statement does not follow on from another, deducing incorrect conclusions from evidence.
  • Make sure that everything is relevant to your case. Don’t go off at tangents, and don’t elaborate on points that are secondary.
  • Don’t over justify – all research has constraints. Be honest about yours. Be critical about the limitations of your research, and look at other ways of doing things. The ability to see things from all sides is one of the features of academic writing.
  • Don’t go overboard on political correctness but avoid terms that may be offensive, for example using ‘man’ to refer to either gender.
  • Assume knowledge on the part of the reader – those examining your dissertation will only need definitions of terms that are peculiar to your subject.
  • Provide the reader with signposts. For example, refer to relevant points dealt with in other sections, and provide summaries and rough précis of your intentions for the forthcoming section. Judicious use of headings (see layout, above) will also provide a roadmap through your report.
  • Use tables and diagrams where these will illustrate your point, but use them wisely and not just because they will look decorative.

The stages of writing

It’s helpful to consider writing as a reverse pyramid, in which you start off working on the more conceptual aspects and finish off with the detail of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Here are some stages you might go through:

  1. Make a plan of your dissertation, with your main chapters, and within the chapters, the main sections.
  2. Get your main ideas for your core chapters down on paper, and try and get the argument right.
  3. Read through for logic and structure.
  4. Edit for clarity and readability, making sure that your style is approachable and concise.
  5. Look at grammar, punctuation and spelling, consulting a good dictionary or style guide if you know that you are weak in these areas.

Writing is also a process of pruning – of bits that are not essential to your main thesis, and above all of excess words so you can meet your word length (remember how you never thought you could write that many words?). You will probably find that you can get rid of ‘nice to have but not essential’ material at stage 3, and that at stage 4 you prune your style so that you get rid of unnecessary verbiage. Writing to word limit is very important and is considered a key management attribute.

Putting in references is something best not left to the end – if you have kept good notes on your sources you should be able to put these in as you go along. But you will obviously need to check that all your references are correct before finally submitting your report.

Writing as a group

Group projects can provide particular interpersonal challenges, as teams cope with difference of views, non-performing team members etc., and particular problems can arise at the writing stage. If you split up the chapters amongst different people, then you will get different writing styles and even ideas about what the report is about. Ways of ensuring consistency included swapping around writing and editing, so that the text gets seen by a different pair of eyes, or having an overall ‘master editor’.

Getting to the finishing line

We’ve already mentioned the importance of planning; we can’t over emphasize the importance of allowing yourself enough time at the end for printing and binding – remembering that everyone else will be mobbing the repro department and monopolizing the printers. The other thing to avoid is endlessly tinkering with an otherwise complete report – if you have met your objectives, hand it in.

References

  • Dick, B. (1993), You want to do an action research thesis? Available online at: http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/art/arthesis.html
  • Maylor, H. and Blackmon, K. (2005), Researching Business and Management, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK