How to Prepare for a Master’s Dissertation

Postgraduate Community Assistant and MA student, Anna De Witt, has written about what to expect when starting to tackle your dissertation. 

Knowing whether or not a taught post-graduate course (PGT) is for you can be difficult. There are a lot of things to consider from deciding which course and university to choose, to funding and finances. Something that isn’t always at the forefront of new and prospective student’s minds, however, are dissertations. Personally, it was one of the last things on my mind because there were so many other exciting things to think about when starting my course.

There can be a lot of mystery and even feelings of stress surrounding the idea of dissertations. This is why is important to talk about prior to or at the beginning of a post-graduate level course. Everyone comes into their courses from different backgrounds; some students may have completed a dissertation (or a similar type of project) for their undergraduate degree, while others haven’t done anything like it before.

It’s important to understand that both are okay and if you’re looking for more information on dissertations, you’ve come to the right place. This post will be devoted to giving you an overview of what a Master’s dissertation is and what to expect, so that you either, feel more prepared if you are already committed to a course at Queen’s, or so that if you are still considering post-graduate level study you can make informed choices.

What is a dissertation?

Dissertations are original research undertaken by you as a student, most often at the end of your course. It is a way to show what you have learned and how well you are able to apply it. Another way to think of a dissertation is that it is one big essay or assignment, much like the smaller research assignments you might have done during your last degree or those you will do during the autumn and spring terms of your PGT course.

It’s not just an exam though. People also forget that dissertations are a chance for you to explore something that you are really interested in or a problem that you want to solve. You can be really creative and study whatever you would like within your subject. If you think of dissertations in this way, they are less intimidating and can actually be rewarding and even fun.

What will I do during the dissertation?

Dissertations also are slightly different depending on your course and subject matter. For example, if you are in Biological Sciences your dissertation might involve lab work, whereas Anthropology or Sociology might involve interviewing people or observing events. Others might be very theoretical and entirely based on reviewing other academic’s work, analysing a government policy or a historical document.

Most dissertations also have a minimum required word count. This too, depends on each course. Some courses only require around 7000 or 8000 words, while other require up to 20,000 words.

Planning, choosing a topic and a supervisor usually happens during the spring or autumn before starting the research and writing. However, for many courses most of the dissertation work happens over three months during the summer. This time is usually devoted to just your research without attending classes for your course. Basically, you structure your days during and work mostly independently. It will be important to create a schedule for yourself or with your supervisor to keep your work on track for the deadline. Dissertations at a master’s level require you to take responsibility and initiative, but you will also meet with the supervisor for support periodically throughout the summer.

While it might seem like you have a lot of free time, in my experience I have found that this is not the case. Plus, even if you are not as busy as you would like, the graduate school remains open and you can continue to take the extra personal and professional development classes offered through the summer.

My rough dissertation schedule and plan

Aren’t dissertations just boring, stressful and maybe even too difficult for me? What are the benefits of doing a PGT dissertation?

Dissertations and post-graduate level courses like a master’s degree are a great way to learn, gain some expertise about a specific area of study and can even be fun and rewarding. The dissertation is a great way to explore something you learned about in your modules or something you didn’t get the chance to learn but that you would like to explore further.

While there are requirements you must follow for your course, the dissertation is a chance to be creative and learn about what interests you. You might explore a little-known topic in a new way or contribute to the discovery of something new. Your dissertation might pave the way to solving the problem or contribute a new perspective. At least for my course, the advice was to pick something we were concerned or angry about. By doing this you are more likely to stay motivated because you are emotionally invested in the project.

 As an international student I wanted to use my dissertation to learn about Northern Ireland while I was living here. I choose to do fieldwork and work with a local organisation, meaning that I got to explore new parts of Belfast and learn about what is going on in the community to address local issues. While not possible this past year because of health, safety and travel concerns, in the past, others on my course chose to conduct their research in their home country or a completely different country, where they spent part of the summer. There are so many possibilities for creativity and innovation if you want to make your dissertation exciting and meaningful.

Of course, many students find dissertations stressful and challenging experiences too. You might be nervous about what your supervisor, friends and family or course mates think of your work. Or maybe you feel as if you could never fill in 15,000. This is normal and is often because dissertations are new experiences in which you explore complicated and unfamiliar topics. To be honest, they are a lot of work. Many students also have a desire to do well, but these things do not mean that a dissertation is all stress nor beyond your abilities.

It’s important to know that your course will help you prepare. Throughout the autumn and spring, most courses require students to take research design and methods modules that will allow you to learn about and practice the skills necessary to successfully complete your dissertation. Once you find or are assigned a supervisor, they will also help by making suggestions about your research ideas and offer recommendations on where to start or what to read. Your course mates will most likely feel similar too and you can help each other stay positive, motivated and take breaks when needed.

In my experience, when it comes time to start researching and writing you will feel capable, prepared and supported even if you have never done a dissertation before or feel apprehensive. Plus, choosing a topic you are passionate about or a fun way to research will help to keep you motivated even when you experience challenges or setbacks along the way.

Do I have to know what my dissertation will be about early on or before starting my course?

No. In my case I had a vague idea of what I was interested in when I started, but this was incredibly broad and not very helpful for me. Many people do not know what they want to do when they start. That is perfectly fine! Your time on the course will help you to identify more specific areas of interest to narrow down your topic. This is part of the learning process. You aren’t expected to know everything before you start your course. Plus, even people who do know what they want to write their dissertation on might end up changing their minds as they learn throughout their modules. Personally, I ended up completely changing my ideas several times before I finally landed on one.

Does the subject or outcome of my dissertation and research have to be ground-breaking?

Especially as a master’s student, many people think that dissertations have to be something revolutionary. While this can make the research interesting, this is not a requirement for a good dissertation. I remember the head of my school, telling us that our dissertations don’t have to and probably won’t change the world. Hearing this took a lot of pressure off my course mates and I to come up with the most interesting, ground-breaking or complicated topic to research. Many people on my course, Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, especially feel like they have to contribute to improving or saving the world. I can see how people on other courses might feel like they have to find the cure for a disease or start the next multi-million-pound company too. Something of this scale is unlikely and that is okay; your work is still important. The dissertation is a learning experience for youand a way for you to contribute your perspectives to your field. Again, as long as you’re interested in the topic you choose and you are learning, that is what is important.

Does it have to be related to the job or career I want?

 No. The topic certainly can be something directly related to the job you want, but it does not have to be. Even if you do not choose a topic related to your future career, the dissertation is still good experience that can be used to showcase your skills and knowledge in a job application. For example, dissertations are a great way to learn about project planning and management—a skill many jobs ask for. Otherwise your dissertation might give you experience working in a lab, with people, reviewing policies or writing reports. It’s also a great entry point if you are considering going into a research related profession or want to continue on to a PhD.

If nothing else, your dissertation will demonstrate that you are passionate about a subject, able to work independently, committed and hardworking, and capable of learning about a complex topic in depth. These are all valuable skills that employers are looking for across a range of different jobs. Above all, however, putting in the amount of effort required to complete a dissertation and exercising your new skills in the process is a personally rewarding experience. Doing a dissertation is an investment in yourself, no matter the outcome.

For more information about dissertations for your course contact the school which your course is part of. Contact information for each school can be found at:

Photo: Anna De Witt
Anna De Witt

MA student in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice from Minnesota, USA

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