Tips on writing an undergraduate thesis
The thesis is an option in the final year of the History and Politics and PPE degree. As well as providing many valuable transferable skills, for those considering moving on to further study, the thesis can provide essential experience in producing original research.
Here, graduate students who wrote theses as undergraduates share tips on what they’ve learnt about the process, and what helped them produce an excellent thesis.
Leah Owen - "Writing a thesis is a great opportunity to do real academic work"
Writing a thesis is a great opportunity to do real academic work, to intervene in a debate about a subject, and to carve out a little niche that you can call your own. Of course, this can seem intimidating, but I think two pieces of advice I got then were particularly helpful to me in overcoming this.
Something that worked for me was to write every day, (no matter how good you think it is at the time). Putting your thoughts to paper - however jumbled at an early stage of the writing process - is one of the best ways to clarify your thoughts, and it’s reassuring to know that you’re always making a little progress each day. I also found it motivating to really engage with the primary source ‘nuts and bolts’ of what you’re studying - going to the source material is a great place to find inspiration to write, and is one of the reasons writing a thesis can be such a rewarding process.
Max Afnan - "It’s the best chance you’ll have to see whether further study is for you"
I thoroughly recommend writing a thesis. Speaking to others who also enjoyed the process of writing theirs, a couple of themes come up consistently. First, find a topic that really engages you, and a question that you think matters. Second, devote enough time to it well before the deadline, so it isn’t a mad rush at the end. A thesis is a chance to do a project that is really yours. You are not just synthesising others’ conclusions, but trying to come up with an original line of argument. In this sense, for anyone considering graduate study, it’s the best chance you’ll have to see whether further study is for you.
Camille White - "Read previous theses and thesis titles to get an idea of what is expected of you"
The two things I found most difficult in writing my own undergrad thesis were 1) deciding on a precise research question, and 2) setting deadlines. For the research question, my advice would be to read previous theses and thesis titles to get an idea of what is expected of you - it can be much more narrow than the research we're normally exposed to. For deadlines, try to break your work down as much as possible and work with your supervisor to set deadlines as you go.
Karl Ljungstrom Kahn - "I am still working on some of the same issues that I began to work on back then"
Writing an undergraduate dissertation may seem daunting: it requires you to think carefully and analytically about a particular (and, ideally, unresolved) question in political science, to develop a theoretical argument, to conduct independent empirical research, and, eventually, to write it all up in a coherent and convincing way. Nonetheless, many - including myself - find it a rewarding experience. Not only is it an opportunity to make a real academic contribution to the literature, but it also allows you to engage more thoroughly with whatever topic you find particularly interesting, over and above what is possible to do in a standard tutorial essay. If you’re thinking about doing graduate work, moreover, it can be a useful springboard: five years after I handed in my undergraduate thesis, I am still working on some of the same issues that I began to work on back then. Ultimately, it is an option that requires hard work, but one that is well worth considering.
Tom Robinson - "Questioning your work is completely normal"
My undergraduate thesis was the first real opportunity I had to undertake substantive research independently. I had to read in much greater depth, conduct my own fieldwork and write considerably more than I had ever done before. At times I doubted the direction of my work and felt swamped by the information I had collected. Writing your thesis, however, is not a quick process. Questioning your work is completely normal and a sign that you are engaged with the issues. The best thing to do is not panic. Talking to my supervisor, other academics and friends helped me the most. It’s remarkable how much clearer your ideas become when you simply talk things through.
Ariadna Tsenina - "I would recommend starting to write regularly early on"
My biggest tip for working on a long-term project like a thesis is to maintain momentum. First, this means that you should choose a thesis topic that genuinely fascinates you - if you have to wake up and motivate yourself to work on something every day, having a strong interest in the subject makes it a lot easier. Second, I would recommend starting to write regularly early on, regardless of where you are at with your thesis - even if you are still narrowing down your research question or have yet to embark on any research. By this I mean not only the practice of writing on a blank page (which is undoubtedly hard to do every day), but also other writing-related tasks such as brainstorming, summarising any relevant information or literature that you come across, editing and restructuring previously written sections, checking references and footnotes for accuracy, making tables and graphs, and other similar activities. This might sound a little counter-intuitive at first as it often feels like you need to finish your research before you can begin to analyse it and write up your thesis. However, my experience has shown that making writing a regular habit early on helps to crystallise your thoughts and you will find yourself gradually chipping away at what was initially a daunting and opaque puzzle to reveal a beautiful piece of original research and refined thought underneath. Good luck!
- Header image: Eric Haney
What is a Bachelor’s or Undergraduate Dissertation?
An undergraduate dissertation (or Bachelors dissertation) is essentially an extended piece of research and writing on a single subject. It is typically completed in the final year of a degree programme and the topic is chosen based on a student’s own area of interest. It allows the student to explore a narrow topic in greater depth than a traditional module. The student works with a single supervisor chosen from their departmental faculty, and this individual provides guidance and support throughout the course of the research.
How does Undergraduate Dissertation differ from Postgraduate Dissertation?
The bachelor’s dissertation varies significantly from postgraduate dissertations. First, it is considerably shorter in length, averaging only 10,000 – 15,000 words. While this is much shorter than a Masters or PhD dissertation, it is much longer than any other piece of writing required in undergraduate programmes.
Secondly, the undergraduate dissertation is not required to contain the same level of originality as postgraduate work. Students are still expected to complete the work independently and cite all sources, but they do not need to present any new ideas. It is sufficient to conduct thorough, sustained research and present a critical discussion of a relatively narrow research topic. It is not necessary to discuss the philosophical context of the research, or to design a distinct methodology.
However, it is important to note that the best bachelor’s dissertations demonstrate genuine critical thinking skills and an ability to combine information derived from many different sources.
Finally, the undergraduate dissertation also varies in the type of research conducted, which will be more focused on texts and documents rather than active field research. For the most part students will examine secondary sources or easily accessible primary sources, and they will not be required to pursue obscure or costly data sources. In some disciplines a practical element may be incorporated into the dissertation, but this is usually performed with less independence than would be expected at the postgraduate level.
Undergraduate Dissertation Requirements
- Topic selection: At the end of the penultimate year of study students will be asked to select an area of research for the dissertation. You should be sure to choose a topic that is likely to hold your interest over a long period of time, as it is difficult and dangerous to change your topic once your research period has begun.
- Finding a supervisor: Depending on the university, there may be a formal process in place for allocating supervisors or students may simply approach a member of faculty that they are interested in working with. It can be helpful to meet with potential supervisors before registering an intended research area, as they can help you to refine your proposed topic and give you suggestions for specific research questions. Once the formal dissertation period begins you will meet with your supervisor regularly to discuss your progress and refine your study.
- Early research: Most students begin general reading around their chosen subject area in the summer before the final year. This period is truly key in developing a broad awareness of the subject, and it prepares you for more targeted research once your final year commences.
- Research outline: Once the undergraduate dissertation module begins (usually at the start of year 3) you will be asked to draft a brief dissertation outline of about 2-3 pages in length. This should include a summary of chapters and a full bibliography. By now you should have decided upon a narrower aspect of your topic, and this should be formulated into a research title with the help of your supervisor.
- Refined research and writing: At this stage your research will be much more targeted, in order to pursue your proposed dissertation agenda. You should also begin writing as soon as possible. Most departments require students to submit a substantial piece of writing (3,000-5,000 words) by the end of the first term. Remember that you should submit at least one draft to your supervisor before this deadline, in order to give you time to make necessary revisions.
- Final dissertation: When you’ve completed the writing process you should have roughly three or four chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. It must all be formatted according to university guidelines, and you must be certain to properly cite all if your sources.
- Binding and submission: Unlike undergraduate essays, the undergraduate dissertation must be professionally bound before being submitted. This is usually done on campus but you need to allow enough time for the process before your submission deadline. The final due date is usually at the end of the second term of the student’s final year.
The marking system for undergraduate dissertations is the same that is used for all other aspects of the undergraduate degree. Students must generally achieve a minimum mark of 40 to pass, but most will aspire to higher marks than this. Marks of 60-69 earn a classification of 2.1, or B; Marks over 70 earn a First classification, or A.
The dissertation is marked as a stand-alone module and it is combined with other module marks to determine the overall degree classification. There is no standard rule for UK universities regarding the weight of the dissertation mark when calculating the degree average, so it’s best to check with your university to understand their individual regulations.
For many students, the undergraduate dissertation provides their first taste of prolonged independent research. This can be a daunting experience but it is helpful to remember that your departmental supervisor can be called upon frequently for advice and support. If you work at a consistent and dedicated pace you will have no problem completing the dissertation on time. You will also develop important research skills that can prepare you for postgraduate study.
Bryan Greetham, 2009. How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation (Palgrave Study Skills). Edition. Palgrave Macmillan.
Manchester Metropolitan University, 2008. Guidance on the Writing of Undergraduate Dissertations. Available: http://www.ioe.mmu.ac.uk/cpd/downloads/UNDERGRAD%20DISSERTATION%20HANDBOOK.pdf. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.
University of Warwick, 2010. Dissertation Guidelines for Undergraduate Study. Available: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/study/cll/currentstudents/undergraduatemodules/ce302dissertation/dissertation_guidelines_2010.pdf. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.
Nicholas Walliman, 2004. Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for Success (SAGE Study Skills Series). 1 Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd.