Writing an MA-Level Dissertation

Writing a dissertation at MA level is a chance for students to complete a thorough and substantial piece of research work on a given topic (usually around 16,000 to 20,000 words but with much dependent on the route your degree is taking). If it is the case you have a dissertation to write, your first task is to identify a wide subject area before becoming more focused. In most universities, students are expected to indicate early on in the year (usually in September) if they intend to complete a dissertation. At this time, they should also submit a list of provisional topics and a brief proposal (of around 500 words plus bibliography) describing the project they are proposing. It is worth noting that the topic for a dissertation need not be related directly to any modules the student has covered. A dissertation proposal is strongly recommended for anyone seeking funding for any PhD or doctoral-type work.   

First Term: Get Support for a Dissertation Proposal

Once a student registers for an MA degree program, they may propose writing a dissertation. However, it is only those projects that are considered feasible that are approved, so getting your proposal just right is essential if you are to be given permission to proceed. The following is the criteria that must be met if a dissertation proposal is to be approved: 

  • The project must be viable from an intellectual perspective;
  • The work should be possible to achieve in terms of word count and time;
  • The project should be feasible in terms of available resources;
  • The project should come within the remit and expertise of staff in the academic institution the student belongs to.

You should also note that a dissertation proposal is considered in terms of its topic and if a supervisor is available. Candidates are normally notified by the end of the first week about the success or otherwise of their proposal. After that, they are usually required to attend a dissertation-training course or workshop during the second week – a compulsory requirement. Any part-time student who wishes to complete a dissertation will need to have their project proposal approved and attend the related course during the first year if they are to avoid having to do additional modules in the second term of the last year i.e. in the event their dissertation proposal is not accepted. Approval decisions are usually issued by the end of the fourth week. If a student finds their initial proposal is rejected, it is recommended they continue with any modules they had chosen. In the case of those whose proposals are approved, they will be expected to drop a second term module option.    

Any student who decides to take three course modules as well as writing a dissertation will usually take two of these modules during the first term and one in the second term. They are also likely to have to write the following:

  • One essay of 6,000 words long to meet the requirements of the foundation module;
  • Two essays of 8,000 words long for the remaining modules.

Any student who decides (or is required) to take four course modules as well as writing a dissertation will usually take two of these modules during each of their terms. They are also likely to have to write the following:

  • One essay of 6,000 words to meet the requirements of the foundation module;
  • Three essays of 6,000 words long for the remaining modules.

It is strongly recommended you do not take in excess of two course modules in any single term (apart from the module on critical theory).

Second Term: Commencing Research

It is advisable for any student whose proposal is accepted to commence dissertation work in the second term. Working out the focus of your work and deciding what you should look up and read can be time-consuming tasks in themselves. Hence, it is best to make an early start.

In the second term, it is likely you will need to prepare a progress report for submission. This report should contain a plan for your dissertation project, made up of these elements: 

  • It is usually possible to get a form for your progress report from your college secretary.
  • The title of your paper and a breakdown of the chapters.
  • A 1,000 word abstract (approximately).
  • A reference list or bibliography.

The report form and your supporting paperwork should be submitted to your course supervisor before the end of the seventh week of the second term. Your course supervisor should then submit this, together with their own report on your progress. Progress reports are usually reviewed by a college’s MA course convenor. If your progress shows any cause for concern, you will be contacted by the course convenor.

After this, it is usual to arrange to meet with your course supervisor according to a mutually-agreed schedule. You will normally be required to hand in written work to your course supervisor on a regular basis, and this person will help you structure your paper and suggest reading materials. 

Third Term: Completing the Research Work and Writing Your Paper

During the third term, you should find your dissertation work is subject to close supervision. Although you are also likely to have to work on other essays over the course of this term, it is essential to continue to do regular work on your MA dissertation, and to make optimum use of the time you spend with your course supervisor. Because most faculty staff have other commitments, such as research work, direct supervision is likely to finish during the eleventh week of the third term. By now, a lot of your dissertation research should be completed, the structure of your paper finalized, and most of the chapters should be written in draft form. The final writing usually takes place over the summer break so that your final paper is ready for submitting early in September.

Submitting Your Dissertation

It is important your dissertation is submitted according to the formatting requirements set out by your college. Here are some useful reminders:

  • You should be consistent in the way you apply whatever formatting style you choose or have been instructed to use – usually APA, Chicago, MHRA or MLA.
  • Endnotes and footnotes are usually included in the overall word count. However, bibliographies are not included.
  • Abstract chapters do not need to be included with the final paper.
  • You are allowed margins up to ten percent under or over the overall length, but you may have three marks deducted where a dissertation is over length by 10 to 24%.
  • Any paper that is 25% longer than the stipulated length will not be accepted.