Is a dissertation just a longer report?

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Academic Writing, Doing Research, Report Writing

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This guide is designed to show you how to adapt your current report writing practices for doing a longer independent research project like a dissertation.
If you are planning to do a dissertation project that involves some kind of primary data collection (e.g. surveys and questionnaires, interviews, field trips, case studies or scientific experiments) it is likely that your dissertation will take a form similar to a report. However, this is not always the case for all subjects – so double check with your supervisor or your course handbook for the conventions they want you to follow.

Similarities between reports and dissertations

Reports and dissertations can both:

  • Communicate the design and results of an experiment or research process – ‘what you did and what it means’.
  • Have a clear, accurate, formal format divided by headings.
  • Employ a similar research process which involves reading around a subject, designing a method, collecting data, analysing the results and coming to conclusions.
  • Involve applying the analytical and reasoning skills you have developed throughout your degree.

Differences between reports and dissertations

Unlike a report, a dissertation may involve:

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[accordion title=”More choice over your dissertation topic/question”]

The main difference between a report and a dissertation is that a report is often written in response to a set brief which has already been defined for you, whereas a dissertation is an independent research project. This gives you more freedom to design your task and set your own question(s) to research.
An important thing to remember is that a dissertation or research project is intended to give you the opportunity to show that you can apply many of the skills that you have already developed from doing other assignments and reports throughout your course.

You will probably start with some vague ideas about areas that interest you. From these topics, you need to narrow down to a more focused research question that you can answer in the time you have. Remember a dissertation is not a PhD thesis – be guided by the limits on your time, word count and resources.

You can find more on ways to narrow down your research question in this study guide on Planning your dissertation.

How much and what kind of data would you need to gather?
Thinking about the kinds of evidence you need to find to be able to answer your questions can help you gauge if it is too large.
For example, investigating ‘Why has there been a worldwide increase in Sexually Transmitted Diseases in young people?’ would involve comparing a range of different types of data from all over the world – this is too broad and the statistics from some countries may not be readily available.
However, ‘What are the attitudes of 16-25 year olds in the UK to the risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases?’ may be more manageable as it is possible to find statistics and conduct qualitative and quantitative surveys in your local area to measure this.
If you are unsure about methods of data collection, see Analyse This for a basic introduction to qualitative and quantitative data collection methods.


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For a report you may have followed a similar basic outline like this:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Appendices

In a dissertation, these sections may form separate chapters and you may want to break these chapters down with further subheadings to help guide the audience.

For example:

Is selective grazing by goats more effective at maintaining chalk grassland in the Chilterns than grazing by sheep?
Chapter 1. Introduction
1.1 The Chilterns as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
1.2 Difficulties with maintaining chalk grassland habitat
1.2.1 Invasive species
1.2.2 Maintaining low nutrient soil necessary for chalk grassland
Chapter 2. Literature review
2.1 Benefits of select grazing in conservation situations
2.2 Use of livestock to maintain chalk grassland habitats
2.3 Studies of sheep versus goat grazing
2.4 Factors affecting measurement of chalk grassland habitat diversity
Chapter 3. Methodology
3.1 Objectives and hypotheses
3.2 Isolating grazing areas for comparison
3.3 Observation of grazed areas
3.4 Measurement of biomass above ground
3.5 Measurement of soil nutrient content
3.6 Measurement of species diversity
Chapter 4. Results
4.1 Observation of grazing patterns
4.2 Aboveground biomass
4.3 Soil nutrient content
4.4. Species diversity in grazed areas
Chapter 5. Discussion
5.1 Comparison of grazing paterns by sheep and goats
5.2 Relative biomass denisity and the resulting soil quality
5.3 Effect of biomass and soil quaility on species diversity
5.4 Comparison of effects of different livestock grazing
5.5 Need for further mixed grazing studies
Chapter 6. Conclusions
6.1 Need for combination or mixed grazing and implications for conservationists
Appendix 1. Photographs of grazed areas
Appendix 2. Biomass spectrum analysis
Appendix 3. Soil sample analysis
Appendix 4. Species diversity grids

When structuring your dissertation, you need to consider what your audience needs to know and the most logical, clear way of leading them through the information.


[accordion title=”Writing for longer and in more depth about a topic”]

Start writing now! For previous reports you may have waited until you finished all the research before writing up but for a dissertation it is good to keep writing all the way through. It prevents you from having a big rush at the end. It also helps you develop your thinking as you go along.
With a larger project it can be hard to keep all your ideas straight in your head at once, so writing them down makes you think them through fully. Keep jotting down parts of chapters, methods, ideas – they don’t have to be perfect, or even go into your final dissertation, but they will give you something other than a blank screen to work with when you come to do your final draft.

Plan each chapter. A common complaint from lecturers when marking dissertations is that students tend to have the correct chapter headings and basically the right information in each chapter, but the individual points in the chapter don’t follow on from each other. It is the structuring within chapters which lets many people down.

To avoid having muddled points within your chapters, do a brief plan for each chapter: What are the key points you need to include? Can you group similar points together? What point does your audience need to know first, then second, then third, and so on…?

Explain your ideas clearly. You will probably get quite close to your research and understand it in more detail than anyone else. You may be able to follow what you mean, but will an outside reader? Make sure you explain your ideas fully, step-by-step. It can help to talk through your ideas with a friend as they can point out places where you are jumping from A to C without explaining B first!

Remember your research questions. Keep your research questions in front of you as you write. With a longer project it is easy to lose sight of what you need to write about and start rambling off in different directions. If you are concerned you are losing focus, look back at your research question(s) and make sure everything you write helps you to answer these.

Also look back at your literature review when you come to write your discussion – refer to the background literature to help support your own findings.


[accordion title=”A more extensive literature review”]

You may not have needed to do a full literature review in shorter reports but it is likely that you will need to analyse the background literature surrounding your topic for a dissertation.

For more on how to conduct and structure a literature review

If I am doing my own research, why do I need to do a literature review?

  • To place your research in context – how does it fit with what others have researched before? How has previous research (methods and findings) informed the way you decided to carry out your project?
  • To see if there are any gaps that your research might fill.
  • To assess the evidence that other researchers have found – what are the strengths and weaknesses in their studies? How will your research avoid these weaknesses?
  • To see how researchers may differ in their approaches to the topic – which approaches do you find most convincing and why? What approaches or methods are most suitable for your research and why?
  • To find evidence to support your findings – you will need to come back to your background reading to support your interpretations of your results. How do your results compare with what others have found? Do their findings help explain your results?


[accordion title=”The input of a supervisor to guide your research”]

Supervisors are there to guide you and advise you on whether your project is manageable. Their role is not to tell you exactly what to research or to give you a detailed reading list; it is your job to come up with these as part of demonstrating your research skills.

Take your supervisor’s advice seriously, as they have a lot of previous experience in what will work as a dissertation project. However, also remember that you have to ‘own’ your project, so it is alright NOT to do what your supervisor says as long as you have good reasons not to.

Some supervisors give a lot of guidance and others are vaguer – you need to take the initiative to get the most out of your relationship with your supervisor.

Tips for a successful supervision:

  • Agree how many supervisory meetings you will have and when so you know what to expect and how much guidance you can get. Make sure you are aware of any times when your supervisor will be unavailable.
  • Prepare well for your meetings to get the most out of them as you probably won’t have many – do any work you promised to do and have an idea of what advice or guidance you need from the meeting.
  • Ask specific questions to get the information you need
    For example, asking, ‘What books should I read?’ is likely to get an answer along the lines of, ‘Go find out for yourself’.
    However, asking ‘Are the books by Bloggs and Jones useful for this topic, and are there any others you could recommend?’ will show your supervisor that you are already thinking about the topic, so they are more likely to be responsive.
  • Your supervisor will not normally be allowed (or have the time) to read through the whole draft of your dissertation, so help them out by giving them the specific chapters or sections you are most concerned about.
    Asking a general question like, ‘Is this chapter OK?’ may get the equally vague reply, ‘Yes, it is fine’.
    However, asking, ‘Do you think my analysis of the results to Survey 3 is accurate – what can I do to make it more convincing?’ is more likely to start a helpful discussion.
  • Don’t wait for your supervisor to tell you what to do – take control and make a start. If you demonstrate that you are enthusiastic and motivated, your supervisor is more likely to be interested and help you out.




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