How to write an undergraduate dissertation

Dear Undergraduate at UoM,

I am completing my PhD at the University of Manchester. I can understand your anxiety in completing well. However, your question has too many parts as it relates to life goals and academic goals. For now, here are the top 7 tips for succeeding at your University course, especially in your writing.

Dissertation – Plan, Research, Write, Edit

Many undergraduates I’m teaching tend to do their dissertations a few days before the deadline, thinking that they have the resources to complete it well. You could be confident in the topic, but this confidence does not necessarily mean scoring a good mark for your dissertation.
1. Select the topics. 
You would have been given the topics early enough. Shortlist your favourite 3 topics. You may decide based on your knowledge in that area, wanting to research more in that topic, and/or you have sufficient reading materials and resources to use for your research.
2. Look at the Keywords in the question.
There will be keywords in your question. Circle or highlight these keywords and start writing down the ideas and sub-topics around these keywords, including names and events that you have been taught on your course or through your library search.
Once you have listed all the keywords, ideas, names, etc for the 3 topics, decide now which topic you’d like to focus on, based on the availability of resources. A good way to decide is to go with the topic that has many references. But choose also a question that allows you to form a reasonable argument around it, i.e. you need to find evidence (as well as counter evidence) through your research.
3. Scanning and Close Reading
Once you have chosen your topic, go back to the list and look for all the readings you can around that topic. You must include a few published books and academic journals in your dissertation, and not limit everything to “google searches”.

In the book, go to the contents  (first few pages) and index page (last few pages) and scan for the keywords around your topic. Read the relevant pages in detail. If there are case studies that keep recurring in this book and the next, you would probably need to take note of it and include it somehow in your discussions.

4. References

As you move from book to book, or from journal article to journal article, take note of (i) quotes you want to use, (ii) data and facts you want to cite, and (iii) bibliographic information which you will need when your dissertation is written. The bibliography or references can take up a lot of time in terms of formatting. Be consistent.

5. Start Writing.
You will need to have arguments and evidence to support your arguments. At your level, you will need to consider counter-arguments as well. So find academic sources to support your philosophical stance, and attack the counter-arguments, and convince your reader that your argument is sound and logical.

Your language should avoid contractions, short forms, and informal language.
Remember to summarise or paraphrase events and facts that you are using from published sources, and acknowledge your sources later as in-text citation and references.
6. Proofreading and Editing
Once your draft is done, take a day off, relax, and come back to it later to proofread. Assume you want to mark this paper, so be harsh on yourself. Look out for:(i) consistent layout, e.g. double-line spacing, font size, font type
(ii) grammatical errors — please do a spell check
(iii) logical fallacies in reasoning
(iv) progressive development of ideas, with sufficient evidence
(v) accurate citations and referencing
(vi) keep to your word limit.
7. Submit it
Some of you will need to submit it electronically through Turnitin. Make sure you know the sequence of doing it. Sometimes you need a day just to get used to the protocols and get IT support. If you are familiar with it, go ahead and make sure you have submitted the final copy, not your drafts. Make sure that your student ID has been written down correctly, and check to see if your name needs to be left anonymous.
Now, it’s time to celebrate.
For other matters related to your future, do make connections and involve yourself in societies and organisations that you might want to continue in some way or other. This is the most exciting time of the academic year, so enjoy and have fun with many different things — without neglecting your priorities in your studies.

Also, please keep the networks alive as you may need references from your academic supervisors and tutors when you apply for a job.

[This article is in response to a question on Quora: “I’m going into my final year of university as an undergraduate. What advice would you give for success in my dissertation, exams, and life for this coming year?” See link here.]

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