How to write a dissertation
Richard N Griffiths
Faculty of Information Technology, University of Brighton.
A handout prepared for Information Systems and Computing
An inadequate understanding of standards of academic authorship is identified
in previous undergraduate dissertation submissions. In order to remedy
this, a general schema for organising and presenting the material of a
dissertation is proposed. This is given in two ways; as exemplified
by this document itself, and as a series of suggestions. Variations
on the basic schema to account for differing subject matter are indicated.
It is claimed that, whilst this is not the only valid approach that may
be taken to the task, using it will at least lead to a comprehensible final
From past experience of reading undergraduate dissertations, and I have
read a considerable number, it has become clear that a significant
proportion of final year students are not able to differentiate between
the styles of writing appropriate to technical reports, journalistic articles
and academic papers. When they do differentiate, (and the dissertation
is intended to be in the latter style) they may spoil what is basically
a thorough piece of work, by inadequate structuring.
The precise characterisation of the style of an academic paper is beyond
the scope of this document. The best way to appreciate the genre
is to experience it. Read a few! What is presented here is an attempt
to provide guidelines for the gross structuring of such a paper.
Inevitably, there will be topics and approaches for which the detail of
the structure proposed is inappropriate, but it should be possible to accommodate
these by modification. At any rate - all papers should have an introduction,
a discussion section organised in some way or other and a conclusion
The Proposed Solution
A skeleton framework for sectioning a dissertation is given here, together
with some suggestions for content. The major sections of a dissertation
The requirements of each section are discussed below.
The Identification Section
This simply consists of the title of the dissertation, the name of the
author (you) and a stereotyped note as to the status of the document, such
‘An undergraduate dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment
of the requirements of IS315 the Information Technology Applications
module of BA(Hons) in Computing and Information Systems.’
This may simply be laid out in print on a sheet of A4, or as some student’s
choose, it may be ‘dressed-up’ with coloured graphics, pictures out of
magazines, etc. Over-done, this can create the impression that this
is a light weight journalistic article. The same goes for ‘over producing’
the design and layout of the document. For certain topics, (e.g.,
‘desk-top publishing’) going to town on the graphic design may be appropriate.
For others, restraint in the cause of taste, may be exercised. Any
illustrations used should be there to convey information, not as decoration.
This is the whole paper condensed to a paragraph. (It could be longer,
but one paragraph is usually most appropriate.) It is important to
include three things; the main problem addressed, an outline of the solution
offered, and any conclusions reached. Do not hold back on any of
these — you are writing an academic paper, not a thriller, so giving the
game away before the conclusion does not matter!
Here you present the question or problem that the dissertation solves.
If it is not obvious what question your dissertation answers, it will be
difficult to decide what use it is (and at the end of the day, how to assess
it). Obviously, the scale of the question must be constrained by
the resources at your disposal, of which time is a major limitation.
You are not required to be original, or to produce something of world-shattering
importance. (But don't let me stop you if you have got something
like that to write!)
In this piece of work you have simply to demonstrate your competence
at researching a topic within your professional domain and presenting
your findings in an appropriate manner. If the answer to a particular
question would be interesting to you or even better useful to you, then
it is likely to make a good question on which to base the dissertation.
Do not assume, however, that the relevance or interest of the question
is immediately obvious to other readers. In this section, you should
also motivate the question, that is, explain why it is interesting and
A final function for the introduction is to explain how the discussion
has been structured. It may be that several positions in an argument
are examined, or a couple of case studies are presented and analysed.
The aim is to make sure the reader understands why you are giving any particular
piece of information in the place that you do.
This is the main body of the dissertation. It is where you explore
the question that you have posed and give a chain of reasoning that will
justify the conclusions that you present.
It should not be written as one block of text, but should be broken
up into relevant sections. Each section should probably be treated
as for the whole dissertation. i.e. it must have; a descriptive
title, an introduction that explains the question that this section answers
and how it does this, discussion paragraphs that give the substance of
the material and a conclusion that points out the detailed step that this
section justifies — and which is going to be used in the overall discussion.
You may wish to draw attention to these sub-sections by giving them individual
headings, but more often, this becomes cumbersome and they are better left
simply as paragraphs.
Footnotes should be used sparingly, if at all. Generally, all
points should be made in the text of the discussion — and if they can not,
then you must ask if they need to be made at all.
Here you present your answer to the question posed in the introduction,
together with a justification indicating how the chain of reasoning flows
from the discussion. You may wish to indicate any points that were
not able to be resolved and suggest lines of further enquiry.
If you received help from anyone in the preparation of the dissertation,
then it should be acknowledged here. If you have not received any
help, then you have not approached the task effectively! Almost certainly
library staff will have helped you search indexes, teaching staff may have
discussed points with you, contacts in industry may have sent you documents
or given you interviews.
The Bibliography and References
It is vital that you give full references to the literature that
you have consulted. This is appropriate in an academic paper and you risk
accusations of plagiarism if you do not! Use the Harvard System or other
form of referencing. To indicate a reference in the body of the text, the
name of the author, page and date should be given, say (Smith, W;
1984 pp. 321).
Explicit reference should be given for both quoted text, which must
be distinguished by quotation marks, and any paraphrased text. You
may choose to further distinguish quotations by indentation, change of
type face, etc. Where you have abbreviated quoted text, the cuts
should be indicated by three dots (...), called ellipsis.
Any source referred to must appear in the bibliography section, giving;
the name/s of the author/s, the title, the date of publication, in the
case of a journal paper — the name of the journal, in the case of a book
— the publisher. To refer to electronic media, see Li, X & Crane,
Guide-lines for structuring a dissertation have been given by example,
(i.e., the structure of this document) and have been described. It
is suggested that, whilst not every dissertation will fit neatly into the
sections given, most will, and that the result will be understandable as
Further pointers may be found in books on study skills, of which the
library holds several, and also (Bundy, A. et al , 1984).
Lyn Pemberton was helpful in pointing me to the Bundy et al. article.
Aaron Sloman's notes on writing dissertations and theses provided
a model for this effort.
Bundy,A., Du Bulay,B., Howe,J. & Plotkin,G. 1984 "How to get
a Ph.D. in AI", O'Shea,T. & Eisenstadt,M. Artificial Intelligence:
Tools, Techniques and Applications Harper & Row, New York
Li, X. & Crane, N. Bibliographic Formats for Citing Electronic
Information [Online]. Available HTTP://www.uvm.edu/~ncrane/estyles/
[1995, June 8].