Wednesday, 11 September 2013

English Dissertation: What is it?

English Dissertation: What is it?

You’re (almost) on your own!

This dissertation itself is an extended project that will run the length of your final year.  You will have the opportunity to define your own area of interest and identify an area within it that you can research.  You will be able to research different aspects of it, identifying appropriate sources.  You will be able to write up your own conclusions with a depth, and sustained argument unlike any of your other assessments.  Through the dissertation, students are able to develop and demonstrate new levels of independence (both intellectually and in terms of using academic skills).

  • You will not be given an essay title.
  • You will not be given learning outcomes.
  • You will not be given a reading list.
The responsibility is yours to find a problem or issue, within a specific area, which you can research – and this is what makes the module both exciting … and daunting.  Think about your other assignments as learning to ride a bike.  The dissertation is when the stabilisers come are removed and the hand comes off the back wheel:  You are riding under your own steam, and are a fully-fledged undergraduate!

Why does independence matter?

It is this level of independence that makes your dissertation the ‘main event’ of any undergraduate degree.  It is where you demonstrate, more clearly than anywhere else, that sense of ‘graduateness’ which is associated with critical thinkers, and which employers still look for in job applicants.  No other equivalent qualification demands that you demonstrate the intellectual insight that can identify problems that need addressing.  No other equivalent qualification demands that you demonstrate the research skills and initiative needed to find the right information for any given task.  No other equivalent qualification demands that you demonstrate the analytical and evaluative thinking skills needed to draw convincing conclusions from the information you have found.

This is what employers want.  Not just people who can do what you tell them, but people who can work out how to do it better, without the need for constant supervision.  People with proven skills in time management and problem solving.

Aside from such practical values, the dissertation is often the most rewarding and satisfying experience degree students have.  Although (and this I guarantee) you will feel moments of utter despair and inadequacy, moments of frustration and of feeling overwhelmed – the fact that you have met such difficulties means the work you finally produce will be something you are more proud of that anything else you have achieved on this course.  Undergraduate dissertations, beautifully bound, tend to sit on the bookshelves of graduates proudly throughout their life: a constant reminder that they can achieve even those things that appeared impossible at the time.


Don’t be.  You are not going to be expected to do this without support.   You will have a supervisor who can guide you and offer you advice throughout.  Not only that, you have this module to introduce you to the skills and approaches needed for a dissertation project, so that when you come to begin your own you will feel more confident that you know what is expected of you, and how to meet those expectations.

For more information about dissertations, here is a useful video (can't remember where from, but I think it was Sheffield Hallam University) discussing the value of dissertation modules:

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