Skills for Learning

Dissertations & Literature Reviews

Overview

Dissertations are extended projects in which you choose, research and write about a specific topic. Dissertations are an opportunity to explore an aspect of your subject in detail. You are responsible for managing your dissertation, though you will be assigned a supervisor. Dissertations are typically empirical (based on your own research) or theoretical (based on others’ research/arguments).

Literature reviews can be individual assignments or chapters in a larger project (such as a dissertation or research report). Literature reviews position your research in relation to what has come before it. They provide an overview of the research that has led you to your topic. In a literature review, you must analyse, pass judgment on, and compare and contrast previous studies. When included in a larger project, literature reviews highlight gaps or limitations, and justify further research.

Dissertation structure and content

Not all dissertations will follow this exact structure. Check your module handbook or assignment brief for further guidance. Speak with your course tutor to discover the best approach for your assignment. 

To decide what to include: 

  1. Think about your project from an outsider’s perspective. What do they need to know and in what order? What is the most clear and logical way for you to present your research?  

  1. Discuss your project with your supervisor. Be open about ideas or concerns you have around the structure and content.  

  1. Find academic journals or past students’ work with a similar research methodology to yours. What can you learn from their structure? We keep some examples of our students' dissertations and theses in the Library. For more information, look at our FAQ answer 'Can I find copies of past dissertations in the Library?  You can also access dissertations and theses completed by students at other universities. To do this, look at our FAQ answer 'Are there other dissertations I can look at?'

To find out more about the purpose of each section, click on the corresponding heading below.

Empirical (research-based)

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Abstract: provides a brief summary of your whole dissertation.

The abstract outlines the purpose of your research and your methodology (where necessary). You should summarise your main findings and conclusion.

Top tips! Give the reader a sense of why your project is interesting and valuable. Write in the past tense. Aim for about half a page.

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Contents page: lists all the sections of your dissertation with the page numbers. Do this last by using the automatic function in Word.

Introduction: introduces the reader to your research project.

Provide context to the topic and define key terms. Ensure that the scope of your investigation is clear. Outline your aims and objectives, and provide a brief description of your research methods. Finally, give an indication of your conclusion/findings.

Top tips! Start broad (background information) and get more specific (your research aims and findings). Try writing the introduction after the literature review and methodology chapters. This way, you will have a better idea of your research aims.

Literature Review: positions your research in relation to what has come before it.

The literature review will summarise prior research on the topic, such as journal articles, books, government reports and data. You should introduce key themes, concepts, theories or methods that provide context for your own research. Analyse and evaluate the literature by drawing comparisons and highlighting strengths and weaknesses. The literature review should justify the need for your research and highlight areas for further investigation. Avoid introducing your own ideas at this point; instead, compare and comment on existing ideas.

Top tips! Your literature review is not a descriptive summary of various sources. You need to synthesise (bring together) and critically analyse prior research.

Find out more about literature reviews elsewhere on this topic page.

Find out more about critical thinking.

Methodology: provides a succinct and accurate record of the methodology used and justifies your choice of methods.  

In this section, you describe the qualitative and/or quantitative methods* used to carry out your research/experiment. You must justify your chosen research methodology and explain how it helps you answer your research question. Where appropriate, explain the rationale behind choices such as procedures, equipment, participants and sample size. You may need to reference specific guidelines that you have used, especially in subjects such as healthcare. If your research involves people, you may also need to demonstrate how it fulfils ethical guidelines. 

Top tips! Your account should be sufficiently detailed so that someone else could replicate your research. Write in the passive voice. Remember, at this point you are not reporting any findings. 

*Qualitative research is based on opinions and ideas, while quantitative research is based on numerical data.

Find out more about the research process.

Findings/Results: presents the data collected from your research in a suitable format. 

Provide a summary of the results of your research/experiment. Consider the most effective methods for presenting your data, such as charts, graphs or tables. Present all your findings honestly. Do not change any data, even if it is not what you expected to find.  

Top tips! Whilst you might acknowledge trends or themes in the data, at this stage, you won’t be analysing it closely. If you are conducting qualitative research, this section may be combined with the discussion section. Important additional documents, such as transcriptions or questionnaires, can be added to your appendices.  

Discussion: addresses your research aims by analysing your findings. 

In this chapter, you interpret and discuss your results and draw conclusions. Identify trends, themes or issues that arise from the findings and discuss their significance in detail. These themes can also provide the basis for the structure of this section. You can draw upon information and concepts from your literature review to help interpret your findings. For example, you can show how your findings build upon or contradict earlier research.  

Top tips! Ensure that the points you make are backed up with evidence from your findings. Refer back to relevant information from your literature review to discuss and interpret your findings.  

Find out more about critical thinking.

 

Conclusion: summarises your main points.  

Provide an overview of your main findings and demonstrate how you have met your research objectives. Set your research into a wider context by showing how it contributes to current academic debates. Discuss the implications of your research and put forward any recommendations. 

Top tips! Do not introduce any new information in this section. Your conclusion should mirror the content of your introduction but offer more conclusive answers.  

Reference List / Bibliography: a complete list of all sources used.  

List all the sources that you have consulted in the process of your research. Your Reference List or Bibliography must follow specific guidelines for your discipline (e.g. Harvard or OSCOLA). Look through your module handbook or speak to your supervisor for more information. 

Find out more about referencing and academic integrity.

Appendix (single) or Appendices (plural): presents raw data and/or transcripts that aren’t in the main body of your dissertation. 

You may have to be selective in the data you present in your findings section. If this is the case, you may choose to present the raw data/extended version in an appendix. If you conduct qualitative research, such as interviews, you will include the transcripts in your appendix. Appendices are not usually included in the word count. 

Top tips! Discuss with your supervisor whether you will need an appendix and what to include. 

Theoretical (argument-based)

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Abstract: provides a brief summary of your whole dissertation. 

The abstract outlines the purpose of your research and your methodology (where necessary). You should summarise your main findings and conclusion. 

Top tips! Give the reader a sense of why your project is interesting and valuable. Write in the past tense. Aim for about half a page. 

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Contents page: lists all the sections of your dissertation with the page numbers. Do this last by using the automatic function in Word.

Introduction: introduces the reader to your research project. 

Provide context to the topic and define key terms. Ensure that the scope of your investigation is clear. Outline your aims and objectives, and provide a brief description of your research methods. Introduce your argument and explain why your research topic is important. Finally, give an indication of your conclusion/findings. 

Top tips! Start broad (background information) and get more specific (your research aims and findings). Try writing the introduction after the literature review and methodology chapters. This way, you will have a better idea of your research aims.  

Literature Review: summarises prior research on the topic, such as journal articles, books, government reports and data. You should introduce key themes, concepts, theories or methods that provide context for your own research. Analyse and evaluate the literature by drawing comparisons and highlighting strengths and weaknesses. The literature review should justify the need for your research and highlight areas for further investigation. Avoid introducing your own ideas at this point; instead, compare and comment on existing ideas. 

Many (although not all) theoretical dissertations will include a separate literature review. You may decide to include this as a separate chapter. Otherwise, you can integrate it into your introduction or first themed chapter. 

Top tips! Your literature review is not a descriptive summary of various sources. You need to synthesise (bring together) and critically analyse prior research. 

Find out more about literature reviews elsewhere on this topic page.

Find out more about critical thinking.

Main Body: divide the main body of your research into chapters organised by chronology or themes. Each chapter should be like a mini-essay that helps you answer your research questions. Like an essay, each chapter should have an introduction, main body and conclusion. Develop your argument and demonstrate critical thinking by drawing on relevant sources. Compare and contrast ideas, and make suggestions or recommendations where relevant. Explain how each chapter helps answer your main research question. 

Top tips! Divide each chapter into chunks and use subheadings where necessary to structure your work.  

Find out more about critical thinking. 

Conclusion: summarises your main points.  

Provide an overview of your main findings and demonstrate how you have met your research objectives. Set your research into a wider context by showing how it contributes to current academic debates. Discuss the implications of your research and put forward any recommendations. 

Top tips! Do not introduce any new information in this section. Your conclusion should mirror the content of your introduction but offer more conclusive answers.  

Reference List / Bibliography: a complete list of all the sources used.  

List all the sources that you have consulted in the process of your research. Your Reference List or Bibliography must follow specific guidelines for your discipline (e.g. Harvard or OSCOLA). Look through your module handbook or speak to your supervisor for more information. 

Find out more about referencing and academic integrity.

Appendix (single) or Appendices (plural): presents any data, such as images or tables, that aren’t in the main body of your dissertation. 

You may have to be selective about the information you include in the main body of your dissertation. If this is the case, you may place data such as images or tables in the appendix. Appendices are not usually included in the word count. 

Top tips! Discuss with your supervisor whether you will need an appendix and what to include.

Literature reviews structure and content

Include an introduction, even if the literature review is part of a dissertation or larger project. Outline the importance of the topic – why this subject? Why now? Define major trends, gaps or changes in the topic. List the key points your literature review will cover, starting with the most significant.

Start with the broad context, examining the background to your topic. Finish with the more specific details of your research area. Group information thematically (e.g. by methodology, issues or definitions). Paraphrase and summarise the key ideas in your own words. You should analyse and interpret the sources, comparing and contrasting ideas. Avoid simply listing or describing sources. In each chapter, explain how the content helps answer your main research question. 

Top tips! Divide your overall topic or research question into chunks, using subheadings to group together content. Demonstrate your critical thinking by judging the strengths, weaknesses and/or gaps in existing research. 

Find out more about critical thinking. 

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Pull together the key themes and ideas the literature review has explored. Acknowledge any gaps, weaknesses or significant issues in your topic. State what further research needs to be done on the topic. Finish by summarising your review. If the literature review is a dissertation chapter, explain how the information links to your project.

Dissertation and literature review style and language

Dissertations and literature reviews are structured assignments that explore a particular topic. In both types of writing, you need to research and analyse others’ studies and ideas. You must explain how the information you find is relevant to your topic or research area. Dissertations and literature reviews are flowing pieces of writing that develop logically. Your language should be formal and contain terminology relevant to your subject area. 

dissertation tends to be an argument-based, deep exploration of a topic. The style of your writing may vary slightly in each chapter. For example, your results chapter should display factual information, whereas your analysis chapter should be argument-based and analytical. Nonetheless, make sure your language, tone and abbreviations are consistent within each section itself. As dissertations have a large word count, it is important to structure your work with headings and a contents page. Use signposting language to help your reader understand the flow of your writing. Charts, tables or images may help you communicate specific information.   

Top tips! To signpost in your dissertation, use the ‘Signalling Transition’ section of the Manchester Academic Phrasebank

Literature reviews examine a large body of information relevant to a topic or project. You should paraphrase or summarise others’ ideas, writing concisely and clearly. Focus on the key ideas in the literature, explaining their significance in relation to your topic.  

Top tips! For advice on paraphrasing and referencing correctly, take a look at the Academic Integrity module in MyBeckett. 

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