What Not to Do on Your Dissertation - dummies

By Carrie Winstanley

When writing your dissertation, avoiding the following pitfalls will go a long way to help you enjoy a much smoother ride on your journey – and is a sure way of improving your chances of getting a good grade.

Assume you’ve covered everything in your dissertation without checking

If you’ve familiarised yourself with the details of your dissertation guidelines, checking them with your supervisor at each stage of your writing you’re sure of getting done everything you’ve been asked to do. Ignoring your dissertation guidelines and following you own sweet path is inevitably going to make a difference to your overall grade.

Students sometimes realise at the last minute that they’ve forgotten to do an important part of their dissertation such as the abstract or bibliography, so it pays to keep checking as you go along. And your final check is just as important. When you’re near to your submission date, check that you’ve got any last-minute issues sorted.

Add heaps of dissertation appendixes

Don’t assume that you’re going to get extra marks for including all your research notes and photocopies of your favourite journal articles in the appendixes simply because you can’t bear to leave the material out, and want the examiner to see how hard you’ve been working. You won’t get extra marks – you’re going to get marks deducted.

Only include in your appendixes material that sheds a useful light on your research methodologies or background to your arguments. Your examiner is looking for succinct, tight argument, not examples of everything you’ve collected over the past year, making your dissertation the equivalent of an overstuffed shoe box!

Don’t forget there’s a difference between producing meaningful data, and churning out irrelevant data.

Rubbish your dissertation references

Producing an accurate record of all the references you’ve cited in your dissertation may not be your idea of a grand day out. Putting together your ‘Bibliography’ or ‘List of References’ can be long-winded, repetitive and fiddly. But the end result can be a wonderful way of gaining you easy marks.

A clear, accurate bibliography or list of references, presented alphabetically (or numerically) and properly formatted is the answer to an examiner’s prayer. Some marking schedules have a specific set of points allocated to referencing and bibliographies but even where this is not the case, the quality of the referencing is definitely going to affect your final grade.

The purpose of your bibliography or list of references is to give your examiner all the information she needs to track the references down on the library shelves. Although you’ve read some great texts and discovered useful journal articles, if vital information is missing from the reference, making the item almost impossible to follow up, inevitably you’re going to lose valuable credit for your research.

Don’t trick yourself into assuming that nobody is likely to read your bibliography or list of references. Absolutely all examiners look through your bibliography or list of references to check out your sources, and an examiner expects your references to be cited with all the necessary details.

After years on the job, most examiners are eagle-eyed and can spot missing details by just glancing at a page.

Neglect good English in your dissertation

Your dissertation needs to be a credit to you – being written in good English and free from grammar and spelling mistakes. Fortunately spelling and grammar checkers are a boon for pointing out where your writing needs attention. Unfortunately, spelling and grammar checkers aren’t foolproof and you still need to go through your work yourself picking up and correcting errors – sometimes even those words that the spellchecker okayed.

You need to present your ideas and arguments clearly and succinctly. Poor spelling and grammar can get in the way of what you’re trying to say. Have a dictionary on your desk as well as a guide to English grammar, and use them. You also need to be aware of your audience and that the language you’re using is geared to your level of reader.

Communicating in text speak is fine on your mobile or sometimes even in emails. For example, I commonly receive emails that assume ‘ev1 undst txt spk n use it 4 all msgs’. Yes, handy for text messaging but totally inappropriate in your dissertation.

Draw wild dissertation conclusions from limited data

Often students fail to recognise the limitations of the data they’re generating. Remember that you aren’t expected to produce data that’s going to rock the world. An undergraduate dissertation is supposed to be a useful contribution to your field of study, by examining the existing literature and showing that you’ve got to grips with current ideas – and then developing some aspect of your field of study in a thoughtful and scholarly fashion.

Using small samples gives you insufficient evidence to have a major impact on your field of study. However, the evidence you get from taking a small sample is sufficient for an undergraduate dissertation.

You can’t make grand conclusions from a small sample, but this isn’t a problem when it comes to your dissertation; it’s what your examiner expects. If looking at a small group is what you’ve been asked to do, your supervisor understands that producing large amounts of data is well-nigh impossible.

If you have great ideas for future studies, then doing an MA or PhD is your opportunity for doing much more wide-ranging research and for making more of a splash. Keep your undergraduate dissertation in perspective.

Disregard the dissertation word limit

After a few years of marking dissertations, most supervisors can judge from the size and weight of a dissertation if it’s way longer or shorter than expected. Don’t lead yourself into believing that not making use of your 10,000 word limit and producing a much shorter dissertation is going to be welcomed, because it’s going to take less time to mark.

You need to use up your word limit to show the depth and thoroughness that your dissertation requires. If your dissertation is physically thin, it’s going to look suspiciously like you haven’t done enough work. Similarly, you’re going to be mistaken in thinking that going over your word limit demonstrates depth of work or dedication. Being too wordy merely shows that you’re unable to judge what’s relevant and what’s merely incidental.

In your dissertation you’re usually required to provide a statement about the originality of your work and the number of words you’re using. Each A4 page of text contains around 300 to 500 words and it doesn’t take a lot of skill to get a good idea if the student’s claim is way off the word limit.