The Dissertation

General guidance 

This general guidance is to assist with MSc dissertations (long essays).  These notes should be read in conjunction with any other specific MSc programme guidance you have been given.

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.

1. 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.

2. Research topic and research question

2.1 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. 

2.2 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. 

3. 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:

3.1 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.

3.2 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.

3.3 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.

4. 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.

4.1 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.

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

4.1.2 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).

4.1.3 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.

4.1.4 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)

4.1.5 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?

4.2 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. 

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

4.2.2 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).

4.2.3 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).

4.2.4 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.

4.2.5 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?

5. 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.

*MSc Population and Development students should disregard this 10,000 word limit and refer to their programme specific guidance.

6. 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.
6.1 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 Modern Period in Social Planning

6.2 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.

7. Citation, Referencing and Plagiarism

Please refer to Basic study skills|.

8. 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.

9. 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 (Weeks 8 and 9) and three lectures in the Lent Term (Weeks 2, 4 and 6).

10. Availability of past MSc Dissertations

The Department makes available a selection of the highest quality dissertations for students to access.  Please contact your Programme Administrator for details.

11. Deadline for Submission

Two **bound copies of the dissertation must be submitted to the course administrator on or before 1 September at 12:00 (midday) or if this falls on a weekend, the first week day after 1 September.  For part time students, this applies to the September following your second year of study.

**Please note: Three bound copies are required for students on MSc Health, Population and Society; MSc Health Policy, Planning and Financing; MSc International Health Planning: or MSc International Health Policy (Health Economics).

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

Personal safety and risk assessment

School policy and good practice now require a risk assessment where students are engaged in academic work away from LSE which produces what can be termed 'serious additional risk'. 

Over the summer months many of you will be undertaking fieldwork for your dissertations. For some this will involve poring over the latest Government policies, but for others it will mean going out to talk to stakeholders and policy makers. Many of you will be staying in the UK whilst others will be going further afield to carry out research. With so many variables and permutations it is impossible to offer specific advice about personal safety. However the following general points should be kept in mind at all times:

  • Your fieldwork is an important part of your dissertation. HOWEVER you should never do anything or go anywhere that you believe would put you at personal risk.
  • You should always ensure that you let someone know where you are going, when you are planning to return and when you have returned.
  • If you are going out to interview stakeholder groups take due care. Where possible go with someone else or hold focus groups. Do not put yourself at risk in order to obtain information. It is NEVER worth it.
  • Use common sense at all times when thinking about where and how to gather your information and always pay due care and attention to your own health and safety.
  • If you are travelling to a country where you are not a citizen and have no right to health care you should take out insurance to cover your costs should you fall ill or require some form of assistance. Seek advice from the Students' Union, from NatWest (next to the Old Building), or from travel companies.
  • In addition, if you are travelling to a country where you are not normally resident you should check to be sure that you have all of your immunisations current and do not require any further medical treatment before you travel. It is worth seeking advice from the Travel Clinic which is in Mortimer Market (off Capper Street), London WC1E 6AU; this is part of the Outpatients Clinic of the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. Country specific information is also available on the Department of Health website.
  • Finally, you should check the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice web pages for specific information regarding the country to which you are travelling.

We expect all students to behave responsibly and comply with this advice. The School can accept no responsibility for problems you encounter as a result of failure to do so. 

Along with ethical issues, students should discuss the risk assessment issues of their research work with their supervisors in the first instance.

Students should also be familiar with the School's risk assessment policy|.  The information at this link is for PhD students but you can still take note of the guidelines and discuss the questionnaire with your supervisor before conducting any fieldwork.

PLEASE DO NOT contact the Research Degrees Unit (or submit the fieldwork forms), as they deal with PhD students only.

Research ethics

All students are expected to discuss the ethical implications of their research with their supervisors.  Where appropriate a research ethics checklist and a research ethics review questionnaire may need to be completed. These are available via the LSE research ethics link below.

The conduct of research is a vital part of the life of the department.  Not only is it integral to the work of all academic staff, many students in the course of their studies will undertake a piece of primary research for the purposes of a dissertation or thesis.  Although any particular empirical investigation may be modest in scope, if it entails human participants, it is nonetheless essential that staff, students and supervisors should consider and address any ethical implications that may pertain to the project.  While some students will receive explicit instruction in relation to research ethics as part of a taught research methods course, others may not. In either event, it is a requirement that dissertations or theses that are based on data directly gathered from human participants should include a statement to demonstrate that the research has been conducted in accordance with appropriate ethical principles.

School policy

Please refer to the LSE research ethics policy|.

Ensuring the ethical propriety of their research is a requirement of all academic staff and this is something to which a variety of bodies concerned with the governance and funding of research are increasingly attentive – not only in the UK, but also in many other countries in which LSE based researchers may seek to conduct their investigations.

Certain overseas governments have procedures for the approval of all or any research that directly involves their citizens.  Collaborating agencies may require that proposed research be independently vetted. In unusually sensitive cases it may be sensible for this to be done in any event.  In such instances the School has recently established a Research Ethics Committee that may be consulted.

Although it would not usually apply to student research projects, there are certain circumstances in which a piece of research may have to be subject to prior independent ethical scrutiny and approval.  For example, any research that involves patients of the UK National Health Service must have approval by a Local Research Ethics Committee.

In addition, the following research would also need ethical approval:

  • research involving vulnerable groups; sensitive topics
  • research involving groups where permission of a gatekeeper is required for access to members
  • research conducted without full informed consent
  • research involving access to records of confidential information
  • research which would induce unacceptable psychological stress, anxiety, pain or humiliation.

Essential considerations

There are currently no published research ethics guidelines specific to Social Policy as an academic subject (but see Dean, H. [ed.] [1996] Ethics and Social Policy Research, published by the Social Policy Association).  However, a number of other bodies do publish such guidelines, amongst which some of the most helpful are those of the Social Research Association|.

These emphasise that anybody engaged in social research has obligations:

  • To society at large.  The purpose of social research is so far as possible to advance human understanding and not exclusively the interests of the researcher, of any particular organisation, group or government.
  • To other researchers. All researchers, including students, have a responsibility to make sure that what they do does not prejudice the work of others who may be conducting or who may seek in future to conduct similar investigations.
  • To participants. People who are interviewed or observed in the course of social research should come to no harm as a result.  The two most widely discussed principles in this connection are informed consent and confidentiality: participants should clearly understand the purposes of the research and must explicitly agree to take part; and they should have a right, if they choose, to have any personal data treated in confidence.  Because research in social policy may well involve individuals or groups who are unusually vulnerable or marginalised, adhering to these principles can sometimes be problematic.  Additionally, it may be necessary to anticipate, for example, that participation in certain kinds of research may occasion emotional distress to the individuals concerned, or that the reporting of research - even when participants have been anonymised - may indirectly harm or unintentionally stigmatise those who took part, or the groups or communities to which they belong.

It should also be recognised that researchers have a responsibility to themselves and the School has a responsibility for the safety of staff and students involved in research.  Certain kinds of research may expose the investigator to danger, including the risk of violence from participants or because of the inherently hazardous nature of the environment in which the investigation is to be conducted.  In such instances, attention should be paid to the ways in which such risks may be minimised.

The wider context

Social policy research will often be directly concerned with the experiences of the users of human services and/or the needs of disadvantaged social groups.  In this context, there is a wider ethical imperative that people should not be objectified as the 'subjects' of research, but that, wherever possible, they should be empowered as participants in the research process.  Ideally, this might mean that service users and the members of disadvantaged groups should have a say in how research is designed and conducted.  At the very least, it means that researchers have a responsibility fairly and accurately to represent the interests, and to give expression to the voices, of the participants.

The Department of Social Policy at the LSE is naturally concerned to promote the highest ethical standards in the research undertaken by staff and students.  It is recognised, however, that such standards are not self-evident or devoid of controversy.  For example, guidelines, codes of practice and protocols are necessary and useful, but restrictively interpreted they can constrain or inhibit research with a wider ethical purpose. What is most important is that ethical considerations, when they apply, are properly and openly discussed.

Research methods

All students taking MSc Social Policy programmes are strongly encouraged to attend SA4C1: Long Essay and the Research Process| (see the Guidance notes for MSc dissertations|).

Students are also encouraged to attend (audit) research methods courses in the Methodology Institute (MY).  MY400 Fundamentals of Social Science Research Design provides a grounding in social science research methods. If you are planning to do quantitative or qualitative research for your dissertation, it might also be useful to audit other relevant MY courses.

There is also a very useful Moodle resource developed by Dr Sunil Kumar entitled SA452.3(a) Researching and Writing Assessed Essays and Dissertations. The resource has been designed to be self-taught and provides a clear explanation of the purpose of each of the research components (for example, literature review, research question) and how the components are inter-related in writing your essays and dissertation.

Recommended reading

The following texts provide useful information about research methods used in the social sciences:

May, T. (1997) Social research: Issues, methods and processes, Open University Press.

Robson, C. (1993) Real world research: A resource for social scientists and practitioner-researchers, Oxford University Press.

Wallimann, N. (2001) Your research project: A step-by-step guide for the first-time researcher, Sage.