University Edinburgh Masters Dissertations

Advice and resources to support you throughout your dissertation.

Dissertations at Postgraduate level

Dissertations come in many shapes and forms, but there are some factors that are common to all; your dissertation will require a large investment of time and involvement. This in-depth engagement and knowledge with the topic should allow a higher level of analysis and insight to be attained.

Download our sheet suggesting ways to improve your analytical process relating to dissertations:

Dissertation choice

Whether you are choosing your dissertation from a selection of dissertation topics or you are proposing your own dissertation title, there are many factors to consider.

  • How feasible is your project?
  • Is there a starting point for your work, i.e. previous or related research?
  • Do you have enough time to complete it?
  • Do you have enough available resources to work with?
  • Do you have something to say about this topic?
  • Are you interested in the topic?

These are only suggestions of some of the questions that you may want to think about before deciding on your dissertation topic/title. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for choosing your topic is your interest in it. You may be working on your dissertation for many months, therefore having a genuine interest in the topic may help you maintain momentum and make progress with your work.

Remember a good source of advice concerning dissertation choice would be your Supervisor or Programme Director.

To help you get started thinking about your options, download our Choosing your Dissertation topic worksheet:

Planning for your dissertation

A dissertation is a large piece of work completed at a high level of critical analysis - to achieve this you will have to allow time. Try looking at previous dissertations; some Schools hold previous dissertations for viewing. This will give you an idea of the level your work should be at and the amount of work you will have to do as well as the amount of time you will have to devote to achieve this.

You will need time to undertake background research into your topic area  as well as reading around your subject throughout your dissertation experience. If you have experiments, fieldwork, interviews or project placements to undertake, remember to allocate enough time to complete these. Further time will be needed to analyse your data and produce appropriate representations of your results. You will also need time to think critically about your dissertation and deciding on your conclusions. Finally you will bring these all together when you begin writing your dissertation.

Review our Assignments: planning and drafting webpage

Review our Managing your time webpage

Dissertation planner

This is a generic resource for dissertations that should be taken as such. You should consult with your course handbook, course webpage, programme director or supervisor for subject specific guidance surrounding your dissertation.

This can be used to help you consider what stage you are at and get you thinking about possible directions / considerations. It may be used as a word document on your computer, printed off and inserted into your dissertation file or popped up on your wall.

We have left blank spaces within the planner which can be used to produce subject/course/dissertation specific entries.

Writing your dissertation

You should not underestimate the time that should be allocated to writing your dissertation. Writing will involve planning, background research, and drafting.

Drafts are essential check points where you can review your progress and determine if your dissertation is on track.

First draft: For example, your first draft may sketch out your first thoughts, arguments and potential structure, and you may want to review and check these: are you focussed on the right topics? Is your structure and line of thought sensible? This is also a good time to set up your format requirements (e.g. page layouts, references).

Middle drafts: In middle drafts you may be expanding and refining your ideas. You may also find that as you are writing the direction that your dissertation is moving in changes; for example this could be due to your literature research producing new avenues of thought or your experiments turning up unexpected results. You may need to therefore review the focus of your initial question, and review whether your arguments or conclusions are still sensible.

Final draft(s): In your final draft(s) you may be focussed more on ensuring your presentation, spelling and grammar are appropriate and polished, all your references are included and follow the appropriate format guidance, etc.

It is a good idea to take draft stops at all these stages; at a draft stop, you will leave writing for a day and become the examiner of your own work. You will look at your work with an analytical eye, looking for ways to improve. Would a reader find your dissertation manageable to follow: are your ideas linking, have you signposted on from one section to the next, etc? Imagine you are reading your work as someone who is not so familiar with the topic: would they understand your arguments? Is there anything you need to explain more fully? Remember also to look back at your question/title, does your dissertation address it? Does it follow a logical structure?

To look at the academic writing process in more detail you may find it helpful to look at:

This is a generic resource for dissertations that should be taken as such. You should consult with your course / programme handbook, course webpage, programme director or project supervisor for subject-specific guidance surrounding your dissertation.

Advice and resources to support you throughout your dissertation or work based project.

This is a generic resource for dissertations, and work based proejcts.  For convenience we have used the term 'dissertation' to cover large projects which are part of your postgraduate study.

For subject-specific guidance surrounding your dissertation, consult your School / programme handbook or website, or talk to your Programme Director or Project Supervisor.

Dissertations at postgraduate level

Dissertations come in many shapes and forms, but there are some factors that are common to all, particularly in terms of the process involved. All dissertations require a large investment of time and effort.

The document below suggests ways for breaking down the process of writing a dissertation

Critical engagement is a key requirement for all dissertations.

Further information on critical thinking

Planning

Writing a dissertation involves a considerable amount of work and a high level of critical analysis, so planning and time management are essential.

Looking at other dissertations in your department will give you an idea of what’s expected. Most schools hold copies of previous dissertations; check with your department.

Planning involves estimating and alloting time for research activities. You will need to find, select and critically engage with relevant background reading. Depending on the nature of your project, you may also carry out experiments, fieldwork, interviews or project placements, as well as data analysis and interpretation. And you will, of course, need to synthesise your ideas, thoughts, findings and conclusions in writing, in a clear and concise way.

Planning resources

Time management

Academic time management involves planning for all the different activites such as a dissertation, lectures, tutorial, assignments, and exams which will be a part of your time as a postgraduate.

Time management for students

Dissertation planner

Use the planner to identify what stage you are at and to think about possible directions. Blank spaces within the planner will enable you to tailor the planner to your own project and produce subject/programme/dissertation specific entries.  The planner is a pdf format, if you cannot open this please contact iad.masters@ed.ac.uk to request a paper copy.

Dissertation planner

Choosing a topic

Whether you are choosing your dissertation from a selection of topics or proposing your own topic, it’s a good idea to consider questions such as the following before you decide on a topic/project:

  • How feasible is this project?
  • How does it relate to existing research?
  • How much time would you need to complete it?
  • Which relevant resources are available to work with?
  • Do you have something to say about this topic?
  • Are you interested in the topic?

Perhaps one of the most important reasons for choosing a particular topic is your interest in it. You will be working on your dissertation for several months, and having a genuine interest in the topic will help you stay engaged and maintain momentum.

Remember that your superviser or Programme Director may be good sources of advice when deciding on a topic.

Work based projects

Some Schools also offer the opportunity to undertake a work based project as an alternative to the traditional dissertation.  If your School offers this then you will be given information in Semester 1.  A work based project can be very useful to students who wish to gain work experience, or have an interest in a particular project.  More information on work based projects can be found on the ‘Making the Most of Masters’ (MMM) website.  MMM is an inter-university collaboration supporting work based learning at a postgraduate level, primarily through work based projects as an alternative to the traditional dissertation.

Making the Most of Masters

Writing

It is easy to underestimate the time involved in writing a dissertation, which includes several stages – from pre-writing and reviewing the literature to drafting, revision, editing and proofreading.

Drafts are essential check points for reviewing your progress and determining if your dissertation is on track.

First draft: Your first draft may sketch your initial thoughts, arguments and potential structure. Once you have a first draft, you may want to review and check. Is your content sufficiently focused? Are your structure and line of thought clear and sound?

Middle drafts: In middle drafts you will be expanding and refining your ideas. You  may find that as you are writing, the direction of your dissertation changes. This could be because your review of the literature produces new avenues of thought, or because your results turn up unexpected results. If that happens, you may have to adjust the focus of your research question and consider whether your arguments or conclusions are still related and relevant.

Final draft(s): Going through your final draft(s) you will need to make sure that your writing style is appropriate, that spelling and grammar are correct, that all your references are included, that the referencing style is consistent, and that you have followed any other relevant guidelines.

It is a good idea to take ‘draft stops’ at all the above stages. A draft stop is a point where you  leave writing for a day or two to come back to it with fresh eyes. This allows you to spot mistakes more easily and to identify areas where cutting, expanding or rewriting will improve your text.

Look at your text through the eyes of an editor or an examiner. Is it easy to follow? Are your ideas connected? Have you signposted sufficiently?

Further information

Developing your English

Writing at postgraduate level

Critical thinking

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