Academic Integrity - Referencing, Citation & Avoiding Plagiarism: Writing Dissertations or Theses
Dissertations or Theses
A dissertation or thesis is a research project that asks a question(s) and sets out to answer that question(s) through research and inquiry. It is completed in an structured, critical and academically rigorous fashion (GradCoach, 2021).
This eight step guide is designed to help you get started when undertaking an undergraduate or masters dissertation or thesis. It also includes a wealth of links to other resources where further help can be found.
Eight Step Dissertation or Thesis Guide
Breaking down a large task, such as a dissertation, will make your project seem more manageable and allow you to better take control of your time. Make a list of all the task you have to do from beginning to submission. Working backwards can sometimes help with this. Then, order these by date for when they should be completed. Print out the planning template in the 'Further Reading' section below to make a start.
Print out your dissertation action plan and put it somewhere prominent so you can actively check your progress and make any changes necessary. Regularly spend time tracking your process and thinking ahead. In your action plan, you do not need to do each section of the dissertation in sequence. Different parts such as methodology, results, literature review can be worked on and drafted at the same time to get a head start on the writing process. These can then be revised and completed for their deadline.
Begin to set up a filling system for research you have found, your notes, sections of your thesis, course materials. This filing system should be for both print and online materials. Review this throughout your project. Make back-ups of your thesis/dissertation and all necessary files as you go and save to the cloud or somewhere else safe. Accidents can happen, so this can avoid unnecessary pain.
Read, read, and read more. Choosing a topic will require dedicated reading time. As you read, create a list of possible topics that you can narrow down. Your research will need to advance the research knowledge in some way. This maybe small, such as applying a new theory or looking at a slightly different population.
Chose an area that will interest you for the duration of the dissertation or even beyond. Review lectures and previous assignments from every year of your course. Review current journals from the Library in your area. Go to UCD Connect and select eJournals. Try to identify a gap in the literature. This will require dedicated reading time to become familiar with the area.
Look at the research interests of your possible supervisors. Go to UCD Research to do this. Review any previous dissertations available from your school. Note the Library does not hold undergraduate or masters dissertations. Include choosing a topic in the first draft of your project plan, otherwise you may spend too long on this part.
Questions to ask of potential topics
- Life experience – do you have any personal connection or life experience with the topic, to make it interesting and easy to relate to?
- Can this topic be researched in the allowed timeframe?
- Is there adequate research literature to draw on? Spend some time on OneSearch and Library Databases for your subject area.
- Will the supervisor for that topic be someone you can work with?
- Do you have the adequate skills and resources to carry out research in this area?
- Scope of topic - is the topic too broad? Make sure it is focused clearly so that you can frame a specific research question or thesis statement. Alternatively, if it is too narrow, there may not be enough literature for you to draw from. Think Goldilocks and her perfect bowl of porridge.
- Ethics approval – will this topic require ethics approval? This can take time and may make the dissertation unmanageable in the time frame. Discuss this with your supervisor before any choice on such a topic.
Research Question, Thesis Statement, Hypothesis
Depending on the guidelines provided by your school you will need to go on to develop a research question, a thesis statement and perhaps a hypothesis.
A research question(s) needs to clearly capture what gap in the research you want to answer. It needs to be broad enough to sustain your dissertation and specific enough that you can answer it clearly and within the timeframe. Once decided, you may find our "Approaching your Research Question" of use.
A thesis statement serves as the main argument that drives your paper forward. It shows the emphasis of your argument and indicates its methodology. It focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also make a comment about your position in relation to the topic. Your thesis statement should tell your reader what the paper is about and also help guide your writing and keep your argument focused (UCD Writing Centre, 2021).
The hypothesis is formulated before you start. It states what you expect to happen. Your research then tests this hypothesis to see if there is evidence to support it or not (Cottrell, 2019, p.355).
Each discipline and perhaps topic will have a particular structure. Ensure you check your dissertation or thesis guidelines for this. If not present, discuss with your supervisor. It is very important to get advice on this before you start. Some headings that appear in many disciplines would be the following
- Literature Review
- Themed Chapters
- References and Bibliography
For detailed examples of dissertation structures in different disciplines go to the University of Leeds 'Final Chapter'.Note that it is essential to always consult with your supervisor on an agreed structure for your thesis or dissertation.
A literature review is an overview of the research relating to your research topic. It allows you to demonstrate what has been written on the topic and where your research fits in to that area. You can use it to acquaint yourself fully with the research area, theories, methodologies, key researchers, and anything else of note. It will provide a framework for your research and the evidence needed to support your research question and methodology.
- Use UCD Library’s OneSearch and Databases from UCD Connect to search the literature. Consult the Library’s Subject Guides for Databases in your subject area.
- Make an appointment for help searching the literature with your liaison librarian.
- Use the Library’s video tutorials on how best to search library resources.
- Collect your references as you search (see below). This is essential.
- Begin by searching and reading abstracts to identify a set of articles of interest. Gather a number of these, then identify which ones you want to read in detail.
- Follow up on any citations or references in those articles to track the beginnings of the research idea.
- Read literature review articles in your subject area to see the writing style and to find out who the main researchers are on your topic.
- Read actively and critically. Take organized and attractive notes you can easily consult.
- Use your notes for the basis of your literature review. As you take notes, practice capturing the content of the researcher’s work or themes of interest in two or three lines, that could be included in your literature review. Make sure that you are not simply describing or summarising the literature; you should analyse, compare, synthesise, and critically evaluate what you read. Avoid just highlighting text in articles or books, as this is not memorable after the first reading. Date every set of notes you make, and file for easy retrieval.
- Visit UCD Writing Centre for help. They can work with you to get the best out of your writing.
Begin your Reference List or Bibliography as soon as you begin your research.
If you do this using EndNote or another reference management software, this is easy and can be done as you search. See our EndNote guide for details.
If you are manually creating your references, create a References Master List as you begin searching. Copy full reference details of each source, formatted in the required reference style. Use the Academic Integrity Guide for different style formats such as Harvard, APA, MLA etc.
In your notes, ensure you cite each source you are referring to with an author and page number. This will save an enormous amount of time and agony at the end of your dissertation. See our guide on Note Taking.
- Have a clear naming system for versions of your thesis so that you do not over-write any work. For example ‘Methodology Draft 1’ or ‘Methodology 210201’.
- Start multiple sections at the same time. This will allow flexibility in your work in case of writers block, and better distribute your writing time across sections.
- Try to avoid perfectionism. Do not spend a long time perfecting one element, such as the literature review, at the expense of other elements such as your results, discussion or conclusion.
- Getting parts of sections down on paper in some form is good writing practice. You can start with headings and fill in notes underneath. It is better to have written multiple drafts of your thesis to give you time to formulate your ideas and stand back from your writing while not against a deadline.
- Date every piece of writing you draft, whether notes or thesis content. Never delete something you have written, just file it for possible re-use.
- If you are carrying out quantitative or qualitative research, write up the results as you get them. Write up the methodology also, while it is fresh in your mind. This can be redrafted and polished off at a later stage. Remember to include all necessary references and citations.
- Write the introduction last. This ensures you have covered everything in the body of your dissertation that has been set out in the introduction.
- Leave enough time for the conclusion so that you are not under time pressure, and cannot give your dissertation the finish it deserves. You can even start drafting this before you have all your results, just to get a format created that can be worked on.
- Keep reading. Do not stop reading once your literature review is completed. Continue to look for new articles on your subject area, that you might need to acknowledge in your dissertation.
- Talk to other students, friends and family members about your thesis. Explain the ideas and methodology. This will help you clarify the content and address weaknesses.
Ensure you have included editing and proofing in your dissertation action plan. Taking a break of a day or two from your piece can be helpful to allow you see it with fresh eyes.
Ask fellow students, friends and family to review your work for spelling, grammar or other mistakes. Return the favour if possible. Asking anyone else to write your work is not acceptable and would be plagiarism. See our advice on avoiding plagiarism.
Do not just work on screen. If you can, print out draft versions rather than working onscreen completely. This can really help with editing.
Read your work out loud. This has been proven as one of the best methods in editing - for spotting lack of punctuation, overly long sentences, grammatical mistakes, repetitive words, and much more.
Before submission, return to the requirements for the dissertation provided by your programme or school. Check off every aspect of the requirements to ensure you have included all elements requested. Double check the submission date.
If you are required to submit a printed and bound version of your dissertation or thesis, ensure you have left adequate time to get this completed.
Allison, B. and Race, P. (2004) The student's guide to preparing dissertations and theses. London: Routledge Falmer. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/ygr634tv.
Cottrell, S. (2019) The study skills handbook. 5th edn. London: Macmillan International Higher Education. https://tinyurl.com/yhumjxgc.
Gradcoach, Jansan, D. (2021) What exactly is a dissertation (or thesis)? Available at: https://gradcoach.com/what-is-a-dissertation/.
Greetham, B. (2019) How to write your undergraduate dissertation. 3rd edn. London: Red Globe Press. https://tinyurl.com/yk6y5kt3.
Joyner, R. L., Rouse, W. A. J. D. and Glatthorn, A. A. (2018) Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: A step-by-step guide. Thousand Oaks: Corwin. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/yhkldw85.
McMillan, K. and Weyers, J. D. B. (2012) The study skills book. Harlow: Pearson. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/ygk8a9ps.
The University Library, University of Leeds (2021) Final chapter. Available at: https://resources.library.leeds.ac.uk/final-chapter/index.html.
Thomas, G. (2017) Doing research. London: Palgrave. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/yfwkxjty.
UCD Library, University College Dublin (2021a) Academic integrity guide. Available at: https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity.
UCD Library, University College Dublin (2021b) Active reading and note-taking. Available at: https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity/activereadingandnotetaking.
UCD Library, University College Dublin (2021c) Critical thinking. Available at: https://libguides.ucd.ie/academicintegrity/criticalthinking.
UCD Library, University College Dublin (2021d) Library contacts for Colleges and Schools. Available at: https://www.ucd.ie/library/contact/clls/.
UCD Library, University College Dublin (2021e)Literature Review. Available at: https://libguides.ucd.ie/litreview/intro.
UCD Library, University College Dublin (2021f) Subject Guides. Available at: https://www.ucd.ie/library/students/.
UCD Research (2021). UCD Research: People. Available at: https://people.ucd.ie/.
UCD Writing Centre (2021) UCD Writing Centre. Available at: https://www.ucd.ie/writingcentre/.
Your ideas: This guide was written by Jenny Collery, if you have ideas for additional content, please contact Jenny.