School of Social and Political Science

Dissertation guidance

Body

All SPS students have access to the SPS Research Training Centre Support for Dissertations Learn hub (accessed via MyEd).   If you do not have access, please email pgtaught.sps@ed.ac.uk.

The Student Development Hub provides general advice on academic writing, including the Graduate School's Learning and Academic Skills Handbook.

Visit the Student Development Hub

Dissertation deadline

The deadline for Taught MSc dissertations in the 2020-2021 academic year is 12 August 2021, 23:59 (UK Time).

Regulations and requirements

The formal requirements and binding regulations that apply can be found in School the MSc Dissertation Handbook 2020-21 (PDF)

There will be variations across programmes, and programme directors and/or subject areas can provide more detailed specific guidance on the scope of dissertations, the general timeline of the dissertation cycle, and the way supervisors are allocated.

Guidelines for writing a master's dissertation

Getting started

Most research begins with a question. Think about which topics and theories you are interested in and what you would like to know more about.

Think about the topics and theories you have studied in your degree programme. Is there some question you feel the body of knowledge in your field does not answer adequately?

Once you have a question in mind, begin looking for information relevant to the topic and its theoretical framework. Read everything you can - academic research and peer-reviewed journals, and information in the popular press and on the Internet.

As you become well-informed about your topic and prior research on the topic, your knowledge should suggest a purpose for your dissertation. When you can articulate this purpose clearly, you are ready to write your dissertation proposal.

Dissertation proposal

This proposal specifies:

  • the purpose of the study
  • the significance of the study
  • a tentative review of the literature on the topic and its theoretical framework (a working bibliography should be attached)
  • your research questions and/or hypotheses
  • how you will collect and analyse your data (your proposed instrumentation should be attached)
Getting advice on your chosen topic

At this point, you are encouraged to go and see any staff members that you feel could advise your on their topic.

After a supervisor is allocated, you should try to set up a first meeting to refine your plans and to plan the process towards completion of the thesis.

At this stage it is very important to have a good understanding of the different sections most dissertations comprise. You will then start to work on drafting a first outline of your dissertation together with your supervisor.

The structure of a dissertation

Each supervisor prefers a distinct approach regarding the structure of a dissertation and is dependent on the kind of project you undertake. Please refer to your course guide and departmental regulations for further information.

A short description of dissertation chapters is provided in the section below. However, bear in mind that these are brief in scope and only advisory. Please refer to the secondary literature at the end of this page for more in-depth information.

Dissertation chapters

The following chapters are commonly used:

Title page

The title itself is an important opportunity to tell the potential reader what your research is about. You will need it to be succinct, specific, descriptive, and representative of the research you have done.

There is likely to be a required format for the title page in your discipline, so you will need to check what that is.

Abstract

The abstract is a very short summary or digest of an article or dissertation whose basic task is to tell a potential reader, searching for scholarly or research-based material by topic or title, whether or not this is what she is looking for.

Writing a good one is quite a craft and there is no substitute for reading lots of abstracts to develop the knack of summarising and selecting the key points.

A good abstract gives information about the problem under investigation, research aims, methods and procedures, results and implications.

A quick test involves checking whether your abstract answers the questions ‘why?’, ‘how?’, ‘what?’ and ‘so what’?.

Acknowledgements (if applicable)

In the acknowledgements, you thank those who have helped you at any stage in the research or writing process; for example:

  • your supervisor
  • other academic and/or technical staff in your School
  • experts in other institutions who may have provided advice or access to information
  • funding bodies
  • those close to you that have given you help or support
Contents page(s)

The contents pages will show up the structure of the dissertation.

Any imbalance in space devoted to different sections of content will become apparent. This is a useful check on whether amalgamation of sections, or creation of further sections or sub-sections is needed.

Introduction

The introduction should discuss:

  • the field of study
  • the research question
  • the hypothesis (if any)
  • the research question that is to be investigated

It should also include a summary of the contents and main arguments in the dissertation.

Literature review

Generally, a literature review is a survey of the work that has previously been published in your subject. It can be a separate assignment or it can form part of a larger body of work, such as a dissertation. It should be comprehensive and relevant in its scope.

A literature review can also mean the process of reviewing the literature. It starts when you pick up your first paper, book, or source, it continues as you research and question, write, and edit the piece, and finishes when you complete your final draft.

What is the purpose of a literature review?

Methodology and Methods

A key part of your dissertation or thesis is the methodology. This is not quite the same as ‘methods’.

The methodology describes the broad philosophical underpinning to your chosen research methods, including whether you are using qualitative or quantitative methods, or a mixture of both, and why.

If you are submitting your dissertation in sections, with the methodology submitted before you actually undertake the research, you should use this section to set out exactly what you plan to do.

The methodology should be linked back to the literature to explain why you are using certain methods, and the academic basis of your choice.

There are numerous research methods that can be used when researching scientific subjects; you should discuss which are the most appropriate for your research with your supervisor.

Here are some helpful pages on the Skills You Need website:

Writing your Dissertation: Methodology – Skills You Need
Research Methods – Skills You Need

Results

This is where you review your own research in relation to the wider context in which it is located.

You can refer back to the rationale that you gave for your research in the literature review, and discuss what your own research has added in this context.

It is important to show that you appreciate the limitations of your research, and how these may affect the validity or usefulness of your findings. Given the acknowledged limitations, you can report on the implications of your findings for theory, research, and practice.

Discussion or Findings

The discussion is arguably the most difficult section to write, as it is predominantly interpretative and discursive.

In this section, you will examine your results in relation to your research questions or hypotheses and, more broadly, in relation to existing research. This will enable you to assess the contribution of your research to the field, and to make suggestions for further research where appropriate.

Useful hints on the DOCEO website in the section on findings and discussion

Conclusions

In this section you will bring together the work of the dissertation by showing how the initial research plan has been addressed in such a way that conclusions may be formed from the evidence of the dissertation.

No new material or references should be placed here. The conclusions should make a statement on the extent to which each of the aims and objectives has been met.

You should bring back your research questions and state clearly your understanding of those questions. Be careful not to make claims that are not substantiated from the evidence you have presented in earlier chapters.

Additional chapters
  • References
  • Appendices
Useful secondary literature and sources
How to write a master's dissertation
  • Biggam, John (2015) Succeeding with your master's dissertation a step-by-step handbook, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education. (available online at DiscoverEd, University Library Catalogue)
  • Hart, Chris (2005) Doing your masters dissertation : realizing your potential as a social scientist, London: SAGE. (available at University Library Catalogue)
  • Rank, Scott (2015) How to Finish Your Dissertation in Six Months, Even if You Don't Know What to Write, Scholarpreneur Press. (free Kindle edition available)
Information on social research methods
  • Bryman, Alan (2015) Social research methods, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (available at University Library Catalogue)
Other book recommendations
  • Bui, Yvonne N. (2015) How to Write a Master's Thesis (2nd Edition), London: SAGE.
  • Joyner, Randy L., Rouse, William A. and Glatthorn, Allan A. (2013) Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide, Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
  • Foss, Sonja K. and Waters, William (2007) Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Student category
Taught MSc