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  • Writer's pictureJohn J Lowe

Writing a dissertation

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

A dissertation is not a long essay It is not a thesis which necessitates research and generally leads to a PhD. Dissertations for a Bachelor’s or Master’s qualification can incorporate physical or literary research but on a less comprehensive scale to a PhD. My description of a dissertation is where you nominate a topic with a strong propensity for discussion and debate and which you take on an intellectual journey.

Debate and discuss not just describe and analyse The key words are debate and discussion eg  “Will leaving the EU benefit the UK economically”? This topic offers great scope for balanced debate. For example we can discuss the scope to develop new global markets incorporating elements of speculative risk against the established trade and debate, its potential legacy of success. You will nominate advantages and disadvantages and their subsequent implications and outcomes.

The student writing a dissertation must develop a new mindset. You must defer from a judgemental mentality. You must challenge yourself to debate issues and incorporate new insights. Avoid the right/wrong perspective.

But why complicate issues? Can we not take a topic and decide on a logical conclusion such as “Leaving the EU will put the UK economy at risk ”. This approach which is conclusive and definitive in its composition does not give much scope for balanced debate as you would only cherry pick factors which endorse your premise.

Choose a topic which offers a platform for debate and opportunities to be expansive and elaborative. The tutor is looking for creative argument. They want to be informed and to assess the validity of points made and their interactions. They are looking for clarity and force of argument. Relevancy and intellectual rationale are factors which must permeate your dissertation. Avoid truism and repetition.

Be creative Imagine you are marking dissertations. You will be more engaged and captivated by discussion or argument which may challenge convention and present a persuasive and innovative perspective on your topic. Today’s workplace is technology-driven and short-termist. Change is endemic and this means that students must develop a highly flexible adaptable attitude. Throughout your working career you will constantly meet the new where answers will not be found in manuals. The challenge at work may be a first for applications, for methodologies and for implementation. An intellectually challenging dissertation can prepare you for these exciting work related scenarios where you must think “outside the box” to successfully capture and implement a successful solution.

Formatting and Organising your Dissertation I have attended many lectures on this topical subject and have chosen a structure which worked for me. When you have chosen your title (which should ask a question) you will find yourself gathering information from many sources which you consider highly relevant. When you decide to start the project you will struggle to compile an Introduction which incorporates your intentions regarding your material content and methodology. Where do I start? will be the issue. Your research material may not be coherent though it all appears relevant.

I would recommend that you leave the Introduction [Chapter 1] until later when you have written Chapters 2 and 3. Firstly if you are going to embark on a journey of intellectual debate you need two perspectives to discuss. Therefore start by treating each subject or perspective separately.

There are two sides [Premises ] to every debate My earlier example of “Will leaving the EU benefit the UK economically?” though brief is quite a meaty title. You can plan it like this: treat the EU and the UK economy initially as 2 separate parts [ premises ].

Premise a) EU economy – describe its current function, its composition, philosophy and modus operandi.

Premise b) UK economy- describe its current performance, its main influences, its markets, its strength and vulnerabilities.

Now compare the two premises [Chapter 4] in the context of your title and demonstrate where they compliment each other and circumstances where they conflict. You must retain the focus of your title which refers to economic factors only. Social or cultural benefits for example are outside the remit of your dissertation.

This is a very important section as it is the core intellectual debating chamber. You must not introduce any new references at this stage. Remember your tone and style is one of discussion and debate rather than judgemental. You are not looking for a right or wrong or a clever answer. Your comments will always be contextual and demonstrate your ability and propensity for good debate.

The final section of your dissertation is the conclusion [Chapter 5] which, just to confuse you, can be inconclusive. This is where you may add your own overarching feedback in terms of the intellectual journey you have just made. It may state: From my initial research I believed that leaving the EU would be economically highly disadvantageous for the UK but having explored alternative options, I was surprised that ……

How Long? A Masters dissertation is usually between 10 – 15,000 words. The Faculty or Tutor will give you a guide and some will specify minimum and maximum limits. A single spaced page normally contains about 3,000 characters or 500 words.

Summary A dissertation should be academically challenging. It should develop your intellectual skills whereby when confronted with a project at work with which you are unfamiliar you can confidentially research, interrogate and assess the main issues and apply the similar skills to those you used for your dissertation. The dissertation structure trains you to approach issues with a balanced perspective.

In the work environment you will consciously or unconsciously be making balanced decisions. Corporate directors and business leaders must frequently perform mini dissertations. Board meetings follow the format of the introduction of the facts, the debate and discussion of the subject per the agenda and the recommendations per the gathering of individual votes. And these discussions and debates will determine the corporate strategy and ultimately the future success or failure of the organisation.

Writing a dissertation is not an isolated activity but from my experience as an executive coach it is an excellent opportunity to practice and replicate the challenges of today’s board leaders.

Chapter 1   Title and Introduction

Chapter 2 Premise A                                                                                       

Chapter 3 Premise B

Chapter 4   Compare Premise A with B

Chapter 5   Conclusive Commentary

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