What is a Dissertation?
A dissertation is a structured piece of writing. It is generally a response to a thesis, (a question or topic) and develops a logical argument about that thesis.It is normally rather longer than the essays you have written, and is typically divided into chapters.
Dissertations may cover similar ground to essays you have written for your course, but will investigate the area in greater detail.
While you might be used to being given titles for essays, with dissertations it’s normal to choose your own title.
Dissertations test your ability to carry out independent research
There is a bigger emphasis on methodology (how you carried out your research) than in standard essays
Dissertations can take many different forms. One of the main differences between dissertations is whether they include primary research (data collected only for the purposes of the dissertation), or are entirely secondary research (data that already exists). Whether you do a primary or secondary study is dictated by a number of considerations including normal practice for your subject, personal preference, and existing research in your field. Primary research can take many different forms: you might collect data through questionnaires and interviews, carry out an experiment, or do fieldwork.
It is important to consider the ethics of your research project, particularly if you are doing primary research. If the research involves human subjects, you need to consider what the impact of doing the research will have on them.
Dissertations typically include an abstract, a detailed introduction, a methodology, a literature review (for secondary studies this will be extended), results, discussion and conclusion. For more details of what’s involved in structuring a dissertation, see our other guides.
Why is a Dissertation so Important?
The dissertation is likely to be the most important piece of writing you are asked to do, and it is also likely that it will contribute significantly to your final grade. It is seen as a way of indicating your capacities as a researcher.
A dissertation demonstrates that a student is capable of identifying his or her own area of interest; able to explore a subject in depth; manage a research project; define a suitable question, and use the appropriate research tools.
It is traditional in social sciences and humanities to see the dissertation as the final piece of study done for a course.
A dissertation can also be seen as a way of proving you can do your discipline, rather than just write about it. This distinction is particularly relevant to social science dissertations, less so to more academic disciplines like philosophy.
Alternatives to dissertations exist for some subjects and institutions. For example, you might have the option of writing an extended essay, carry out a learning project or similar.
University of Birmingham (2013) ‘Guide to Undergraduate Dissertations’, [online] (cited 15th February 2013) available from
University of Leicester (2013) ‘Writing a dissertation’, [online] (cited 15th February 2013) available from
University of Manchester (2013) ‘What is a dissertation’, [online] (cited 15th February 2013) available from
University of Reading (2013) ‘Researching your Dissertation’, [online] (cited 15th February 2013) available from
University of Southampton (2013) ‘What is a dissertation’, [online] (cited 15th February 2013) available from