Writing a dissertation and what is expected

The following notes are intended to provide the student with an overview of what is expected, or required, in relation to undertaking/completing a dissertation, and to assist the student avoid some of the inevitable confusion that surrounds the commencement of a dissertation. However, it is also assumed that these notes will be readily superseded as students achieve sufficient ‘independent' momentum and understanding.

The rationale for this document

My own experience of supervising dissertations (together with supporting anecdotal evidence) suggests that a supervisor's initial contact/first meeting, whether with an MBA, MA or MSc student, frequently results in a commonly occurring pattern of relatively fundamental queries and questions. This document, therefore, is intended to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the initial contact/first meeting between the academic supervisor and the student, and to provide an agenda for subsequent meetings.

“Facts are always convincing, it is the conclusions drawn from the facts that need to be questioned!” Sherlock Holmes.

The first/early meeting(s) with a supervisor

The first meeting between a supervisor and a student usually, perhaps necessarily, focuses on the proposed content of a dissertation, rather than the regulations or administrative process – understandably, supervisors tend to find the proposed topic more interesting than the administrative process. It is also possible that supervisors will not be familiar with the regulations or the administrative process. Equally, supervisors often assume, sometimes incorrectly, that students will have read and understood any pre-commencement documentation, prior to their first meeting.

Despite these uncertainties, and the inevitable need for some early ‘manoeuvring' and ‘clarification', the first meeting is often very influential in determining the subsequent direction and focus of the entire dissertation. Students are advised, therefore, to thoroughly prepare for their first meeting with their supervisor and not to just ‘let it happen'.

It would also be expedient for the student to assess the ‘availability' of the supervisor, particularly in the event of the student experiencing a serious difficulty (a crisis) that cannot wait until the next routine meeting.

Approving draft chapters

Don't expect a supervisor to routinely read/approve draft chapters, especially prior to a supervisor/student meeting, particularly if the chapter(s) might be revised before the meeting.

The changing relationship between supervisor and student

Students should appreciate that their relationship with their supervisor will necessarily change/evolve from tutor, and then to mentor, and then, finally, to examiner. The fundamental requirements of a dissertation are that it should involve the student in ‘sustained independent study' and that the dissertation, as submitted, is ‘substantially the student's own work'. Clearly, the supervisor has a responsibility to ensure that these ‘fundamentals' are not compromised. In other words, the student should appreciate that he or she will achieve a more sustainable relationship with their supervisor if they seek discussion with their supervisor, rather than simply asking ‘what shall I do?' or even ‘is what I've done O.K?'

The proposal

The proposal is a blueprint of what you intend to do and why it would be useful (to your sponsor), if you did. It will be used to ascertain if what you propose is feasible and viable in relation to the expectations of the relevant university. The proposal must contain a substantial introduction (a first draft of chapter 1, perhaps – see below) and clearly stated objectives and outcomes. The more detail you provide the more useful will be the feedback from your academic supervisor.

This ‘blueprint' will set in motion 12 months, or more, of work.

It is, therefore, unlikely that a one-page outline will be sufficient.

a one-page outline is simply not sufficient.

“A child of five could understand this… send someone to get a child of five!”

Groucho Marks

Resourcing the dissertation

Do not guess (speculate) about what resources or sponsor's support is available to you – find out. Don't assume that you will magically acquire the necessary resources or information to complete your dissertation at the eleventh hour (Harry Potter is fiction). Some dissertations are considerably more difficult than others, simply because ‘key informant' access and availability were not adequately considered at the proposal stage. Remember that whatever you do for ‘proposal' purposes, can be incorporated into your dissertation - work done is work done.

The more detailed the proposal, the more likely it is that you will find a suitable (the most appropriate) supervisor. Supervisors don't like getting involved in something that they might regret later.

write a proposal to interest and excite a potential supervisor

how many chapters?

Use five or more chapters of equal length, suggested as follows:

Introduction, literature review, methodology, results and discussion, conclusions and outcomes (recommendations). It is important that all chapters are about the same length. In other words, the methodology chapter is no less important than the results chapter etc. Write about 10-15% more words than stipulated - because everyone else will write too much and your dissertation will look ‘light' if you don't.

five 5000+ word chapters

The introduction (chapter 1)

Use the introduction chapter (chapter 1) to set the scene. The introduction is particularly important to help ‘one time readers' to quickly and easily understand and appreciate what the dissertation is about. Use a short case study and/or diagrams and/or anecdotal examples to simplify the introduction as much as possible. In this chapter, some general speculation is permissible if it provides a clearer explanation of why you've chosen this project (to solve this problem) rather than some other project (problem).

The introduction chapter should conclude with the words...

“and therefore my objectives are”........

ensure your objectives are derived from your ‘introduction'

The introduction chapter should contain sufficient clarity to enable the one-time-reader to easily appreciate what the dissertation objectives are, even if not formally stated – although dissertation objectives should always be formally stated.

The literature review (chapter 2)

“…more has been written about Business Management than is actually known.”

David Farmer

Emeritus Professor, University of Wales, March 1995.

The primary purpose of the ‘review of literature' chapter is for you to ascertain, and to demonstrate to others, that you are not re-inventing the wheel. In other words, it is not acceptable to do no more than rediscover what others have already discovered - the onus is on the student to demonstrate that the wheel has at least been ‘improved'.

Use existing knowledge to further knowledge

Choose 8-10 journal articles to review

Generally, scientific journal articles have more academic credibility than books. Although books provide useful background, journal articles more easily imply the depth of understanding that your dissertation needs to achieve. Scientific journal articles, therefore, are ultimately the most useful. Although it might be necessary to at least browse a dozen or so journals and many dozens of articles, it is better to identify, and discuss in depth, no more than 8-10 journal articles for literature review purposes. Other interesting and relevant but discarded journal articles can be listed in the bibliography to indicate that you've extensively searched (researched) the literature.

The methodology (chapter 3)

This is the most important chapter but also the most difficult to write. A methodology is not just a statement that chronicles what you did. Issues surrounding research methodologies are extremely complex. It can be a difficult task, for both academic supervisor and student, to determine to what extent students need to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of research methodology – discuss this with your academic supervisor. Generally, students should decide whether their dissertation is to be under-pinned by a quantitative or qualitative methodology. Don't try to use both methodologies - the potential benefits are not worth the added confusion.

For a useful (initial) discussion about methodology see:

Jean Lee, S. (1992), Quantitative versus Qualitative Research Methods – Two Approaches to Organisational Studies. Asia Pacific Journal of Management. 9 (1), p.87-94.

Most business management dissertations use a qualitative methodology. A qualitative methodology often primarily involves key respondent interview data. A qualitative methodology can seem, at first, an easy (soft) option, but it is always very time-consuming, and it can be more difficult to persuade an ‘examiner' that your dissertation's outcomes are reliable and credible.

It should be appreciated that you (the student) will, most probably, rapidly become more ‘expert' than the supervisor, and others, in relation to the specific problem being explored and discussed in the dissertation (especially if a qualitative methodology is used). This means that a supervisor might be confronted with an assertion that black has been discovered to be white. The primary purpose of the methodology chapter is to describe an appropriate method (a formula) for solving ‘the problem' being investigated – a method that is generally understood to provide ‘correct' answers. This means that examiners and others can approve the methodology ‘formula' and by implication, approve your assertion that ‘black is white', without having to independently repeat your investigation (your experiment). In other words, your conclusions (your solution) are less likely to be challenged or disputed, if your methodology chapter is credibly persuasive and thoughtful.

Although the dissertation is not an opportunity for the student to write down what they think they know, the student should acknowledge that what they know (prior learning) will significantly influence what they (subsequently) learn.

In a dynamic environment, results and discussion are similar to creating a photograph of a moving automobile. Even if a technologically advanced camera is used and the photograph is in focus and correctly exposed, it only depicts where the automobile was in the past, not where it is now or where it will be in the future.

Lei, Hitt and Bettis (1996), Dynamic Core Competencies… Journal of Management, 22(4), pages 549-570 (adapted).

The results and discussion (chapter 4)

Generally, your results will involve the presentation of data that was not (and is not) widely available from existing (published) sources. In other words, data that, it could be argued (and you may need to), did not exist until you created it. The understanding needed to ‘solve' the problem being investigated must be directly, and solely, derived from the results chapter/the data.

However, it is also appropriate, in this chapter, to use the literature to discuss and interpret the primary data in respect of its significance and relevance to the ‘research objectives'. In many respects, the results and discussion chapter (chapter 4) provides ‘the facts' from which the conclusions and outcomes are derived. Inadequate data must result in inadequate ‘outcomes'.

The conclusion and outcomes (recommendations) (chapter 5)

In some respects, this chapter seeks (needs) to present the reader with a ‘summation' of what was ‘achieved' in the previous chapters. This chapter often chronicles the most significant content of previous chapters. However, this chapter is also an opportunity for the researcher to integrate the content from the other chapters into a synthesised ‘final' whole. This means that the ‘conclusions and outcomes' chapter must be a stand-alone chapter that contributes far more to the overall dissertation than simply a synopsis of previous chapters. Indeed, many would argue that this chapter is easily the most important because it provides the answer to the problem being investigated - other chapters are merely contributory to the outcomes chapter (it could be argued).

This chapter (or possibly in a subsequent chapter) should also discuss whether the ‘research was successfully completed including, in the student's opinion, the reasons for the success or the failure. It is also entirely appropriate for the student to ‘disclose' to the reader, any significant milestones in their understanding, awareness and appreciation. In other words, the student should discuss, and explore, the benefits (to them) of undertaking and completing a research dissertation/project. This could/should take the form of a personal statement that is both informative and insightful. This statement can also serve to usefully indicate the student's progression from ‘beginner' to ‘finisher' and should reflect both the ‘exit' ability/awareness and maturity of the student.

It should also be appreciated that the academic supervisor may need to ‘defend' your dissertation with both the second marker and the external examiner, to achieve the grade/mark that the academic supervisor believes is appropriate. However, the supervisor is usually more ‘informed' than the other examiners in relation to the student's commitment, enthusiasm and achievement. This ‘personal statement', therefore, can also serve to ‘personalise' the student's overall achievement and provide all the examiners with a more equal understanding of what you've accomplishment, and in what (adverse) circumstances.

 

Miscellaneous

Write as much as you can as soon as you can

As you write, amendments to content and structure will become apparent – often as a result of the highly productive exercise of arguing with yourself as you write (playing with the words).

Say what you're going to say, say it, and then say what you've said

Throughout your dissertation, adopt the “say what you're going to say, say it, and then say what you've said” approach. This applies to each chapter, as well as the whole document.

Using a storyline

Help the reader to quickly absorb and understand the chapters by devising a unifying theme (a storyline) that is common to all chapters.

Be suggestive!

Use language that acknowledges that you might not be ‘entirely' correct in any assertion that you offer the reader (write with humility). For example, use phrases such as; this suggests that, it would seem, the probability is, the available evidence indicates, it could be argued that etc.

Know the rules if you want to win

A dissertation has some similarity with a game. You need to understand the rules if you want to play (and win).

The most important readers will only read your script once

The most significant people involved in the game (apart from the academic supervisor) are the external examiner(s) and the 2nd reader. Remember that these individuals will only read your script once. Your script must, therefore, be entirely coherent and meaningful to someone reading it for the first time.

Match objectives with outcome

Objectives and intended outcomes should be included in the ‘dissertation proposal' document - this provides early direction and facilitates initial discussion with the supervisor. However, it is inevitable that a dissertation will be ‘judged' to ascertain whether the stated objectives have been achieved. It is important, therefore, that the dissertation objectives reflect what was actually achieved, rather than what was ‘envisaged' or intended in the proposal document.

Do not speculate – keep your personal baggage in the closet

Generally, the dissertation must NOT contain speculation. This includes your personal opinions, no matter how informed or knowledgeable you think you are. It is possible that YOU have particular/special knowledge that, to some extent, is why you've decided to choose a particular dissertation topic/theme, rather than another. However, it is not considered appropriate for a researcher to be a primary source of ‘evidence' (primary data) to his or her own research/investigation.

suggestion ‘access' to an abundance of key informants is often the ‘critically' importance requirement for a successful dissertation.

A chronicle of what you do (or did) for your employer is not enough

A satisfactory dissertation is unlikely to be an essay that simply chronicles the work you do for your employer/sponsor firm – this includes an essay about a work problem together with a speculative suggestion of how the problem might, in theory, be solved.

Truth or perception

It is important to appreciate that it is often (nearly always) more important to understand what people in organisations believe to be true, rather than what is actually true. Indeed, students who rely on key informant interview data are exploring the respondent's perceptions of what is true, rather than what is true. As a consequence, it might be argued that truth is what people perceive to be true.

ensure that you help your supervisor to help you

Do your best to help the supervisor to help you. A supervisor may inadvertently offer inappropriate advice because he or she may misunderstand, or not be aware of, what difficulties or problems you are experiencing.

don't try to accomplish too much

A successful dissertation is likely to be a detailed and comprehensive analysis of a little, rather than a generalised overview of a lot.

most students attempt far more than can be achieved.

The role of serendipity

Serendipity is the facility of making fortunate discoveries by accident, and was coined by Horace Walpole, from the Persian fairytale The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the heroes possess this ability. In other words, successful knowledge acquisition often involves chance and good fortune. Luck and good fortune are more likely if the student is consistently inquisitive and enquiring.

Choosing a supervisor

Although it is desirable that a supervisor is thoroughly familiar with the subject or topic that is being researched, it is often decisively more important that the supervisor is familiar with the intended methodology and has an enthusiasm for supervision. The ultimate subject or topic of a dissertation is often not the subject or topic that was initially envisaged in the student's proposal document. It is less important than is often assumed, therefore, that a supervisor with particular specialist knowledge is recruited. Indeed, it could be argued that selecting a ‘specialist knowledge' supervisor might limit the student's opportunity to develop his or her own ideas and themes.

Praise and criticism

In the early stages of a supervisory relationship, it is easy to destroy a student's self-confidence by criticism, or give him or her a false sense of confidence by too much praise. It is a difficult line to follow and, sometimes, the supervisor will get it wrong. Students should cautiously consider both the criticism and the praise that they receive.

Time management

Regrettably, the most carefully calculated work schedule is seldom (never) maintained. Indeed, the consequences of ‘falling behind' can result in unnecessary and unhelpful anxiety. Simply, a dissertation cannot be ‘scheduled'. Knowledge acquisition and understanding seldom occur to comply with pre-determined work schedules. However, students must be determined to complete their dissertation within a specified time. Without this ‘determination', it is likely that you will never finish. The dissertation will consume as much time as you have.

If you think you have forever, it will take forever.

Comparative analysis

It is often expedient for students to adopt a study doctrine that could be referred to as comparative analysis. This involves examining a series of separate, although related, procedures, processes, situations, or, perhaps, scenarios. The necessary rigour of the dissertation, as well as the quality of its outcomes (the conclusions and recommendations), is achieved as a direct consequence of the process of comparative analysis. The dissertation becomes, therefore, a series of relatively short, and more manageable, case studies or case histories, rather than a single complex whole involving, necessarily, extremely detailed data and exhaustive analysis of a single event. Comparative analysis is a valid and accepted procedure for acquiring knowledge and understanding, especially in relation to problems that would otherwise be too complex to be manageable

Note, however, that the individual cases or examples, need to be linked by a single theme or concept that is encapsulated within the dissertation title, and the stated objectives of the dissertation.

Although ‘comparative analysis' is a useful means of managing the apparent complexity of the dissertation process, it is essential to discuss its use with an (your) academic supervisor.

Plagiarism and collusion

A dissertation is intended to involve the student in a sustained period of independent study. However, it is also expected that students will both use ‘informants' (and other primary data sources) and the published literature (and other secondary data sources). To comply with very strict university regulations regarding plagiarism and collusion, students must always acknowledge the source(s) of all data, information and ideas that are not entirely the result of their own independent work. In other words, it is entirely acceptable (required and expected) to use other people's thoughts and ideas, as long as the origin of those thoughts and ideas are properly acknowledged. This form of ‘acknowledgement' is known as citing. Various methods of ‘citing' exist. It is important that whatever method is used, it is used consistently throughout the dissertation.

  • properly cite the source of what is not entirely
  • the result of your own work
  • citing references
  • Provide a list of references used, at the end of your dissertation as follows:
  • Jean Lee, S. (1992), Quantitative versus Qualitative Research Methods – Two Approaches to Organisational Studies. Asia Pacific Journal of Management. 9 (1), p.87-94.

In your text cite as follows:

There is incontrovertible evidence that engineers know little about business and management (Jean Lee, 1992).

Or

Jean Lee (1992) refers to “incontrovertible evidence that engineers know little about business and management”.

If you are citing a book, include relevant page numbers.

Different expectations of sponsor and university

It must be acknowledged that, for most students, the requirement of the dissertation project is that it should be of relevance and interest to the student's sponsoring firm. However, the outcome expectations of a sponsor and an academic institution may differ significantly. The student must endeavour to meet both expectations. This might mean that different reporting styles (different documents) are used to adequately comply with the expectations of both sponsor and university.

Commercial or military restricted data

Quite obviously, students cannot undertake a project that cannot be properly reported and assessed because it includes commercial or military restricted data. However, students often discard good projects because they considerably over-estimate the degree of ‘sensitivity' that their dissertation involves.

To some extent, if your dissertation topic cannot be subsequently (on completion) ‘publicised' to a wide audience, it may not be the best choice of topic.

Journal publication

For a variety of reasons, students should always seek to publish their research findings (ideas and conclusions) in an appropriate academic scientific journal, if it achieves the necessary level of quality and originality. Discuss this ‘opportunity' with your academic supervisor.

However, if it is confirmed that the dissertation needs a commercial or military restricted classification, then it is acceptable, for example, to code data to obscure the identities of firms and individuals (firm A, respondent B etc.). It might also be possible to limit the circulation of the dissertation report to a ‘need to know' group, involving the supervisor, 2nd reader and the external examiner. For more information about projects that involve commercial or military restricted or sensitive information, contact the project administrator, industrial advisor or academic supervisor

The appendices

Remember that the appendices will not be read by anyone other than you. Don't hide important results or data in an appendix. The appendix should not be included in the word count.

In summary

  • Introduce the problem (the introduction)
  • Define the problem (the objectives)
  • Check if (how) the literature can help (literature review)
  • Devise a method of investigating the problem (the methodology)
  • Present and interpret the data you've collected (the results)
  • Discuss the results and arrive at conclusions (the solution to the problem).
  • Provide recommendations and indicate what further investigation is necessary - problems are never entirely solved