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A dissertation is an extended essay based on an extended reading and some independent and novel research work at undergraduate or postgraduate (masters) level. A dissertation comprises both the process of doing a piece of research and the written document that describes that process, and presents and discusses the results.  A Master’s level project needs to demonstrate an element of originality, and be informed by relevant academic debates and an understanding of advanced level research practice.  Its novelty may be exhibited in several ways, for example, examining a new question, issue, or problem; collecting new data; or giving a new interpretation to existing data, literature, procedures, legislation, or methodology.


The quality of the presentation of the final dissertation thesis is important.  A selection of theses is reviewed by the External Examiners for each Masters programme and every year they comment on the poor quality of some of the submitted theses.  It is very difficult to identify good research in a thesis with poor English, poorly presented text, tables and figures, and poor referencing.


It should be noted that sufficient time needs to be allocated to the production and presentation of your project thesis.  Students often underestimate how long a document of this length takes to produce, particularly if they wish to gain feedback from their supervisor along the way.  Final pagination, proof reading, checking references and making corrections may take considerable time.  In the past, students have lost significant marks through having to submit a thesis of compromised quality as a result of a last minute rush to complete.  Note: you will NOT be allowed to make any corrections after the deadline, so it is very important that you leave sufficient time to proof read your work carefully prior to submission.

Role of your Supervisor

Each student is provided with an academic project supervisor.  The role of your academic supervisor is to help, advice, and guide you on the academic content of your thesis, and to be one of the markers of the thesis when it is submitted.  Your supervisor is allocated time to supervise your project, although this is limited. Your success or failure in your dissertation or thesis can be largely influenced by your actions or inactions when dealing with your supervisor. Although an external marker is also consulted when marking the dissertation, it must be noted that your supervisor has a higher authority in determining your final grade.

In order to get an excellent grade in your dissertation, you must do the following:

  • Ensure that chapter(s) your supervisor request you to submit are handed in on or before the stipulated deadline. This shows your level of seriousness.
  • Ask enough question. Ensure that the grey areas and adequately addressed and discuss the aspects of the project that are likely to pose a challenge.
  • Ensure that all your supervisor’s comments and suggestion are implemented if the time permits. Failure to implement the aforementioned can be detrimental to your final grade.



Report Structure

Your thesis should have a coherent structure, i.e. each section should logically flow from the previous section and provide a foundation for the subsequent section.  The content should be succinct and repetition of material should be avoided, other than in the conclusions.  There will be subtle differences in the way you structure your thesis depending on whether you undertake a traditional ‘project’ which draws on primary data you have collected, or a ‘dissertation’ which we apply to describe a project thesis that uses only secondary data in the analysis undertaken.  Both should present a logical and reasoned argument and use appropriate facts and figures and analysis of these to support them.

Project Aim and Objectives

The project aim and objectives must be communicated in a clear and concise manner, as these are the raison d’être for the project.  These may be presented as part of a short introductory chapter, which outlines the problem/questions being addressed in the thesis and how it is constructed to meet these.  Alternatively, you may choose to present your objectives at the end of the main literature review (see below).  Either is acceptable.  However, if you do include a short introductory chapter then you should ensure that the material it presents is not simply duplicated in the subsequent literature review.  Experience suggests that it is generally best to just have a single chapter that introduces the research to avoid potential repetition.

Project Context

The main opening chapter of the thesis should provide the background/context for the project.  This will be the same for either a project or dissertation thesis.  This chapter should include a thorough review of the relevant literature, legislation, and/or technical documentation that provides suitable context for the project.  You need to demonstrate an awareness of current research, academic thinking and/or relevant legislation or policy in relation to the subject matter of your project, and also show an understanding of relevant concepts and ideas and how they can be applied.  This may also include some kind of evaluation or critique of this literature, in terms of the current state of knowledge and understanding, particularly where this conflicts or demonstrates inconsistencies.

In most incidences, this introduction/literature review will focus on material which is directly relevant to the project, rather than reviewing more general theoretical concepts or wider research.  Also note that policy, legislation or key concepts that are extremely well known to the reader can often be referred to briefly in a manner that assumes prior knowledge, rather than reviewed in depth.  The final decision about the depth in which you explore particular concepts and issues relates to the precise nature of the project itself.  If you are uncertain about the level of detail required, you should discuss this with your University supervisor.  As a broad guideline, we would recommend that you devote no more than 4-5,000 words to this chapter.

Project Design and Methodology

You need to provide a clear and appropriate research plan and methodology for your dissertation, which needs to be fully justified and evaluated (and includes appropriate cited references).  It is also important that your design and methodology is philosophically or theoretically consistent with your aims and objectives.  If you are evaluating existing data, methodologies, procedures, etc., you need to specify the analytical methods and evaluation criteria you utilise, and provide justification for this approach.  If you collect primary data for your project, you must clearly state how this was collected and how it has been analysed, including details of any statistical analysis (together with justification for the choice of methods).  Sufficient information should be provided in your methodology to enable someone to repeat your work.


Data and/or sample collection methods you adopt need to be safe (for you and any participants) and ethically sound.  Make sure you read the guidance on these issues contained in the relevant E-learning material and the online Ethics pages and that you appropriately assess the risks of any field or laboratory work used to collect data.


Common mistakes with the research methodology chapter

Results and Discussion

These elements may be presented together or as separate chapters, depending on your project.  It is important that you organise your results in a logical way that clearly relates to your aim and objectives.  If you collect data as part of your project, it will require thorough analysis using techniques that are appropriate to your aim, objectives and methods used, and suitable presentation in flow charts, tables and/or graphs.  If the objective of the project is the production of an environmental management plan, or similar (which should be provided in the appendix of the report), then the plan will require critical evaluation and discussion.


For a dissertation, your ‘results’ might be a set of case studies of different organisations, countries, etc., presented as evidence of contrasting practice in different fields.  Your analysis should attempt to draw out and evaluate the differences between them with respect to different practices, approaches, protocols or legislation.  It may also be appropriate to provide an overarching framework in your analysis which has been applied in other similar studies.

Common mistakes in results and discussion chapters 

The following are general guidelines to the assessment criteria for MSc project thesis






Research Aim and Objectives

–     Is it appropriate to the research undertaken?

–     Does it provide an appropriate summary of the research?

–     Does it appropriately ‘set the scene’ for the thesis?

–     Are they clear and sufficiently demanding?

Topic-related Literature Review and Use of References Does the literature review critically analyse a sufficient range of relevant and up-to-date literature, and clearly provide context for the research?
Research Methodology Does the thesis critically review relevant methods; make a case for the appropriateness of the researcher’s chosen method(s); provide sufficient detail of the method(s) used; justify the analytical methods and/or evaluation criteria used; and demonstrate an awareness of the limitations of these methods?
Analysis of Results & Discussion





Are the results well-founded, is the analysis appropriate and in-depth, and does the discussion synthesise the findings and relevant concepts from the Literature Review?

Does this appropriately integrate and generalise findings; does it address the aim and objectives?

Are appropriate suggestions for further research &/or ‘policy recommendations’ included?

Presentation Appropriate spelling, grammar, punctuation, layout of pages, and presentation and use of suitable figures & tables.  Correct use of the stipulated referencing style, appropriate supporting material in appendices and good overall organisation.





 Title Page

The report should start with a title page containing the project title, the author’s name, year of submission, etc. It is important that the title accurately reflects the content of the thesis as briefly as possible. Try to keep the title as short as possible, i.e. no more than 20 words in total.


An abstract of up to a maximum of 300 words should be provided immediately after the title page and research declaration.  The abstract provides the reader with a synopsis of the key findings in the thesis.  It should summarise the purpose of the research, the problem addressed, the key conclusions and any recommendations.


A comprehensive list of the report content should be provided following the abstract detailing the chapter headings and all subheadings with their respective page numbers, plus separate lists of figures and tables.  You may also wish to include a glossary of abbreviations at the end of the contents pages.


It is protocol to give credit to individuals, groups or companies who have provided assistance in the research and preparation of the thesis.


The structure of the thesis will, to some extent, depend on the nature of the project undertaken.  The following structure may not necessarily be appropriate for all project theses, so these comments should be used as a guideline.


The first chapter should be an introduction to the report. This should provide the background /context for the project.  The introduction should include a short review of the relevant literature, legislation and/or technical documentation that provides context for the project.  It should provide the context for the particular research approach being used.    You should present your aims and objectives at the end of your introductory chapter.


What is a literature review?

It is a critical and evaluative account of what has been published on a chosen research topic. Its purpose is to summarise, synthesise and analyse the arguments of others. (It is not an academic research paper, the main purpose of which is to support your own argument.) You should describe and analyse the knowledge that exists and what gaps occur in research related to your field of interest. (This should clarify the relationship between your own research and the work that has previously been done.) It should reveal similarities and differences, consistencies and inconsistencies and controversies in previous research.

A literature review is organised around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organised. You should assess previous studies and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. You also have to think about which themes and issues your sources have in common.




Your methods chapter should provide a rationale for the research framework and state how the project was actually carried out, including the data collection methods, criteria utilised for designing procedures, criteria for case study selection, criteria used for evaluation of information, methods used for data and statistical analysis, etc.  Each of these should be appropriately justified and supported with cited references.  The limitations of your methodology should also be identified.


The main content of the report is your presentation, description, analysis, critical evaluation and discussion of your findings.  You may choose to have more than one results chapter and/or a separate discussion chapter, particularly if you are undertaking a dissertation.  Your results must be discussed with reference and/or comparison to the relevant literature.


The main outcomes of the project are summarised in the conclusion and should relate back to the original aim and objectives.  Recommendations for future study or for changes to ‘policy’ should be included.


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