The Dissertation

The Dissertation

General Guidance

This general guidance is to assist with MSc dissertations (long essays). 

Your dissertation provides you with an opportunity to write a substantial piece of academic work on a topic of interest to you.  It is an opportunity to produce a work of scholarship, using the academic skills you have developed.  Regardless of topic, your dissertation will demonstrate the following skills:

  • defining and outlining a research topic;
  • defining a clear research question;
  • identifying the salient issues;
  • finding or generating the relevant information;
  • evaluating its reliability and validity;
  • weighing up the evidence on all sides of a debate; 
  • arriving at a well-argued conclusion;
  • organising and presenting the results of your work critically, cogently and coherently.

Forms of dissertation

There are two major forms of dissertation:

  • A piece of empirical research, conducted on a topic or issue of relevance to social policy. 
  • A literature-based long essay providing an analysis of a specific research question of relevance to social policy. 

There is no preference as to which type of dissertation you write.

Research topic and research question

Choosing a topic

Your first task is to choose a topic that interests you.  You need to find a manageable topic – one that has not been researched excessively nor so under-researched that there is no literature available for you to build on.  Your supervisor will be able to help you to do this. 

Research question

Having read relevant literature, you need to focus more specifically on a 'research question'.  This is of fundamental importance as it will ensure that your dissertation has a clear focus.  It is not the same as your research topic, but is a specific question that you want to try and answer.  Your research question needs to be defined with care and your supervisor will help you to do this.  Your research question can assist with structuring of your dissertation. 

Methodology

As you are choosing your topic and defining your research question you will also have to decide upon the conceptual approach, or 'methodology', that you will adopt. Methodology concerns the relationship between your theoretical stance and the manner in which you conduct your investigation. Most Social Policy dissertations do not fit neatly into any one methodological category or 'paradigm', but broadly speaking they are likely to tend towards one of three broad schools of thought:

Empiricist

All dissertations involve the use of empirical evidence (even if it is existing evidence reported in the relevant literature), but what is called empiricism is an approach to evidence that is aligned to the conventions associated with the natural sciences. It is concerned to explain external realities from an objective standpoint.

Interpretive

These are no less rigorous in their use of evidence than empiricist approaches, but interpretivism is a stance that characterises a major strand within the social sciences. It is concerned to understand the nature or meaning of the social world from the subjective standpoint of the people involved. It tends to deal in processes of qualitative observation.

Critical or criticalist

Any theoretical approach can result in criticism of social policy, but a critical(ist) approach to the use of evidence is one that is grounded in the analysis of social conflict or relationships of power (for example, Marxism, feminism, or post-structuralism). A critical(ist) approach may draw on elements of either or both of the other approaches insofar as they help to explain or understand social policy, but it is sceptical of empiricism and interpretivism because they do not necessarily question the underlying basis of the status quo.

Many Social Policy dissertations are 'applied' rather than 'theoretical', and you may find it difficult to be explicit about your chosen methodology. It is important nonetheless to acknowledge that no dissertation can be free from the conceptual assumptions and the values that you yourself bring to it. You are encouraged to take any of these approaches, but you are required explicitly to reflect within the dissertation upon the basis of your approach.

Dissertation structure

Please note that these structures are not meant to be prescriptive, but can form a starting point for thinking about your structure.  In terms of content, the aspects mentioned below should normally be included.  Remember to seek the advice or your supervisor about the exact structure you choose to adopt.

Empirical Study

If you are doing a piece of empirical research, a common structure is as follows:

  • Abstract/summary
  • Introduction, including research question and structure of essay
  • Literature review and policy context
  • Methodology and research methods
  • Findings and analysis
  • Discussion and implications for policy
  • Conclusion
  •  References
  • [Appendix – e.g., interview schedule if used]

It is also a good idea to look at the structure used in published peer-reviewed empirical studies.

Abstract
The abstract (summary) outlines what you did and what you found.

Introduction
The introduction will give details of the research topic you have decided to focus on, why the topic is of interest, what the gaps are in knowledge, how your dissertation 'adds value' to previous research (i.e., what is new).  It should also include your research question (and any sub-question(s)).  The introduction should provide a brief overview of the structure of your dissertation (i.e., what different sections/chapters will focus on).

Literature review and policy context
The literature review should include literature that is pertinent to your research topic and the policy context.  It should critically evaluate earlier work in the field, paying due attention to its contributions, and to any methodological problems and limitations involved. 

Your literature review might draw on:

  • policy documents
  • legislation  
  • statistics – from government sources, from surveys
  • research studies
  • relevant theory

Having identified gaps in the literature and ways in which you can add value to the research, you need to give your research question and explain how answering this adds to knowledge.  This is one of the most important parts of your dissertation as it links with your methods and can help with structuring your dissertation.

Methodology and research methods
Give details of the methods you have used (sample, procedure etc.).  Why have you used these methods? How do they enable you to answer the research question? Why are you using a quantitative or qualitative approach? What are the strengths and limitations of your methods?  To what extent, if any, will you be able to generalise on the basis of your research?

If you are carrying out primary research you need to say how you obtained your sample, how you have ensured anonymity of participants, and any other ethical issues.  You need to explain how you obtained data, via interviews, questionnaires etc.  If you are carrying out secondary data analysis you need to describe the data set you are using and relevant variables.

If you have carried out empirical work, remember the need for informed consent and confidentiality (do not use actual names of individuals or organisations, institutions etc.).  (See Research Ethics)

Your own personal safety is important when you are carrying out primary research (see Personal Safety and Risk Assessment)

Results/findings
These can be presented in different ways and will vary depending on whether your research uses  quantitative or qualitative methods.

Discussion and conclusions (these can be separate sections)
The discussion links your findings with the research question and literature review.  Where there are differences, discuss possible reasons.  It is important in this section that you reflect critically on the limitations of the empirical research you have undertaken.  The conclusions drawn should be substantiated from within the body of the essay.  What are the implications for policy and for future research?

Literature based dissertation

For a literature based dissertation a possible structure is as follows:

  • Abstract/summary
  • Introduction - explain the purpose of the long essay, give research question, describe the structure
  • Describe types of source material used (methodology and research methods)
  • Critically analyse theory, concepts and bodies of research and other literature relating to your research question
  • Discussion and implications for policy
  • Conclusion
  • References

A well-argued dissertation is easy to follow.  Essentially, you are trying to tell the reader a story.  You will aid clarity if you break up the argument into clear steps. 

Abstract
The abstract outlines what you did and what you concluded.

Introduction
This will give details of the research topic you have decided to focus on, why the topic is of interest, what the gaps are in knowledge, how your dissertation 'adds value' to previous research (i.e., what is new).  It should also include your research question (and any sub-question(s)).  The research question should help with structuring your dissertation.  You may be putting forward a particular argument and you can give this in your introduction with the issues that you are going to address.  The introduction should provide a brief overview of the structure (i.e., sections or chapters).

Methodology and research methods
This is likely to be a short section giving details of the types of material you have used, books, peer-reviewed articles, grey literature, press reports, internet based materials.  It will also highlight any limitations.  You need to be aware that some internet sites may be putting forward particular perspectives, so you will need to take this into account in your dissertation.  You should also be aware of the limitations of 'grey' research (i.e., material that has not been through a peer review process).

Analysis of literature
You are likely to have several chapters/sections that focus on different aspects of your research question/argument.  You will also need to explore the policy context.  Your analysis might draw on:

  • policy documents
  • legislation  
  • statistics – from government sources, from surveys
  • research studies
  • relevant theory

Your analysis should critically evaluate earlier work in the field, paying due attention to its contributions, and to any methodological problems and limitations involved.  It should also pay due attention to theoretical problems and controversies, and to key findings.

Since there is no major empirical component to the dissertation, the examiners will pay particular attention to matters of scholarship. They will expect your dissertation to be especially thorough and critical in its handling of the issues and in its development of the arguments it puts forward.

Discussion and conclusions (these can be separate sections)
The discussion links your findings with the research question.  The conclusions drawn should be substantiated from within the body of the dissertation.  What are the implications for policy? Are there implications for future research?

Dissertation length

No dissertation should exceed 10,000  words in length.  This 10,000 words refers to the abstract and the main body of the text along with any of the following that you may also include:

  • title page (not the Department Summative Coursework Cover Sheet)
  • acknowledgements
  • list of acronyms
  • glossary of terms
  • table of contents
  • statistical tables and illustrative material
  • footnotes/endnotes
  • index

The reference list (bibliography) and appendices are NOT included in this word limit.  Whilst examiners may choose to refer to the appendices during marking, you should not include any material in this section that you expect to be read and contribute to your final mark.

Presentation and layout

Presentation is very important:

  • Do not try to put too much on one page
  • Use 1.5 or double-spacing
  • Use 3cm on all margins
  • Number your pages
  • Leave a blank line between paragraphs 
  • Check your spelling and punctuation
  • Keep the number of fonts to a minimum
  • Arrange for your work to be bound (spiral [wire or plastic], tape, or slide binding will suffice) with the Department Summative Coursework Cover Sheet as the front page of each copy.
Headings

Headings and sub-headings will help to organise the material better and will also improve presentation. 

Major headings should be in uppercase and sub-headings in title case.  For example: 

THE HISTORY OF SOCIAL POLICY

The Modern Period in Social Planning

Tables and Figures

Tables, graphs, figures must be clearly numbered, titled and sourced.  It is advisable to use the chapter number as a prefix. Tables in chapter 2 will, therefore, be numbered Table 2.1, Table 2.2 etc.  Figures will be numbered in the same way, i.e. Figure 2.1, Figure 2.2 etc.

Citation, Referencing and Plagiarism

Please refer to 

Study Skills

Plagiarism

Support from your supervisor

Students should meet with their supervisor to discuss the approach, coverage, questions to be asked, and the outline structure and research design of the dissertation.  It is the student's responsibility to submit to the supervisor, with reasonable notice, material that can form the basis of discussion in these meetings.  In order to maximise the meetings' productivity it is also advisable that you give to your supervisor a list of topics for discussion (e.g. problems and questions that you have) in advance of the meeting date.  Remember that if you do not approach your supervisor he/she will not necessarily chase you - the initiative is your responsibility. 

Students can expect comment on written work (an outline, particular chapters or a draft) if it is received by supervisors by week 7 of the summer term.  It should be noted that students cannot expect to receive support from supervisors after the end of the summer term.  Academics are expected to spend the summer vacation on research and writing, as well as attending meetings and conferences and taking holidays, so do not rely on contact with your supervisor after that date.  Even before that date however you should not expect your supervisor to give meticulous detailed comments on drafts:  the purpose of the Dissertation is to give you a chance to show your capacities to contribute to academic discussion and debate and it should be your own effort.

SA4C1: Long Essay and the Research Process

This is a non-assessed course which aims to provide an understanding of issues associated with the research process for all students undertaking MSc degrees in the Department of Social Policy. All students taking MSc Social Policy Programmes are strongly encouraged to attend SA4C1.

It includes:

  • the process of framing a research question
  • hypothesis building and/or using conceptual frameworks
  • issues in the methodology of social policy research
  • selecting the appropriate methods
  • the place of different research methods (qualitative and quantitative) in social policy
  • the process of writing a dissertation
  • constructing an argument
  • plagiarism

The course consists of two lectures in the Michaelmas term and three lectures in the Lent Term. For more information see here.

Deadline for submission

Two bound copies of the dissertation must be submitted to the course administrator on or before 30 August 2018 at 12:00 (midday). For part time students, this applies to your second year of study.

**Please note: Three bound copies are required for students on MSc Global Population Health.

Please also refer to the summative coursework submission guidelines in the Examination and assessment section.