a step-by-step guide to post-graduate writing
Many students find the idea of writing a masters dissertation at postgraduate level a daunting prospect. And that’s quite understandable. They will probably never before have had to produce a work of 10,000 to 15,000 words; they will be uncertain about its content; and they will almost certainly never have seen what a dissertation looks like. John Biggam’s book is a guide to the entire process of developing postgraduate writing skills, from start to finish, and the most useful aspect of his approach is that he breaks the procedure down into separate steps and explains each of them in detail.
He starts from what is often the most puzzling stage of all – defining the project. Many students know the topic which interests them most, but turning this into a research proposal can be a long and frustrating process. It’s easy to lose a lot of time changing your mind and pursuing ideas which shift amorphously the very moment you think you have pinned them down.
He offers templates to help solve this problem, outlines the key issues at each stage, and even points to the most common traps that students fall into. This is valuable advice – and it comes from a research supervisor who has seen hundreds and hundreds of examples.
His chapters follow the stages of the process of producing the dissertation itself. How to define the project; making a start with the writing; doing a literature review; choosing the right research methods; dealing with the evidence and producing a conclusion; writing an abstract; and how to present the finished work.
Embedded within all this there are other important issues such as how to create structure, how to define your terms, and how to link one part of your writing to the next so as to create a continuous argument.
He also deals with the issue which many students right up to PhD level find difficult – how to quote from secondary sources and use a referencing system accu rately. He recommends the Harvard system as being popular with both students and tutors alike. Also included is how to conduct both qualitative and quantitative surveys, and what to do with the results when they have been assembled.
One of the suggestions he makes more than once which I thought very useful is that students should make their claims clearly and boldly. Your piece of research may be modestly (and wisely) limited in scope, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t treat it as something important, even if it is only to make your purpose clear to the person reading and assessing it.
He also offers some very good tips for dealing with the oral defence of your work – the viva – and he ends with what many students will probably find the most useful of all – sample extracts of introductions, literature reviews, research methods, project structures, and questionnaires.
Read the advice, follow it, even use the book as a source of reference, and I’m fairly confident that it will help you to produce a masters dissertation that succeeds. Just like it says on the tin.
© Roy Johnson 2008
John Biggam, Succeeding with your Masters Dissertation, Berkshire: Open University Press, 2008, pp.268, ISBN 0335227198