Writing a dissertation – tips for undergrad journalism students

These tips are based on my experience of supervising undergrad students last year. It’s not meant to be a supplement for reading a decent book on writing dissertations or, indeed, information from a tutor.

1) Get the info you need: What’s the word count? What are the key deadlines? Stick this by your bed, by your computer and on the fridge door….you’ll need to refer to it a lot.Some of my students have used Tom’s Planner to get themselves organised. But the free version is rather limited (e.g. you can’t print). You may be better off using good old Google Sheets.

Make contact with your supervisor  – ask him/her for a marking criteria. A marking criteria takes the guesswork out of writing a dissertation. It tells you what level you need to reach to obtain a particular grade.

2) Buy a book about writing dissertations: The appropriately titled Writing Your Dissertation: The bestselling guide to planning, preparing and presenting first-class work (The How to Series)by Derek Swetnam isn’t a bad start.It’s cheap and quick to read.

Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for Success by Nicholas Walliman is also worth a look.

3) Choose a decent topic: You have to live with it for a quite a while, so make it something you’re really interested in. You’ll have to work your topic into some kind of hypothesis, so it needs to be feasible and pretty specific. Many university libraries keep copies of those dissertations that got first grades, so you could go there to get some ideas.

4) More about topics: I’ve noticed that weaker students choose (what they consider to be) “safe” topics.These tend to be old topics which have been “done to death”. A lot of this is down to confidence and a fear of biting off more than they can chew.   

5) Good students (that’s you, right?) tend be in tune with the key controversies in the media. They read things like Media Guardian,, Press Gazette, British Journalism Review, media blogs and academic journals (e.g. Journalism Practice and Journalism Studies)- they know what’s happening in the industry. These students choose topics that are timely and challenging. Think also about the units or modules you have enjoyed on the course. What areas would you like to do more research in.

6) Some students find it helpful to ‘map’ the topic early on. I recommend, FreeMind, a free bit of software which will get you thinking creatively about a topic. You can output attractive looking mind maps which could be included in your research portfolio or appendix.

7) It’s stating the obvious, but good students read widely. This takes time and planning. You need to keep a note of what you read. Cock this bit up and writing a bibliography will be a nightmare. Use Post-It notes to mark relevant articles and take photocopies before the books have to be returned to the library. As you read, make sure you reflect on the theories. Always consider
how/why it is relevant to your hypothesis.

  • EverNote is essential for organising your research . It can store just about anything that is in digital format and make it searchable. You can even snap a picture on your phone of an interesting page from a book and store it.
  • Dropbox is great for backing-up your drafts on your laptop, mobile, tablet…just about everywhere. You will thank me for this should your laptop explode on hand-in day (yep, it REALLY does happen. No, your supervisor won’t be able to write you a note). Other cloud services are available such as iCloud (Mac users only) and Google Drive.

8) Some students find it helpful to think in terms of “theory” and “practice”: First, you need a deep theoretical underpinning to a dissertation, so you must read widely. But as you read, it is important to think about how you can apply theories to modern day practice in journalism and your hypothesis.Youmay feel that some of the theories of the great thinkers are old and perhaps a bit irrelevant. Make a note of this.

9) Try to think ofmodern examples that appear to challenge the old established theories. That said, you may do research that suggests that the old theories are still sound. It’s the quality of this application of theory-to-practice which is a key.

10) Consider using management tools like Refworks. This can be used purely online or you can download the software to your own PC or Mac (the latter integrates with Word). It’s not the most intuitive bit of software, but it allows you to search numerous different library catalogues, keep notes of what you are reading (both books, journals and websites) and outputs it into the correct referencing format.

11) Upload your drafts to a blog. It’s important to get feedback on your writing early on. Ask friends, family, supervisors or experts…anyone who you can persuade to read your work and comment on it. 

12) Meet your supervisor regularly. Try not to annoy them by missing appointments or bombarding them with pages of work a day before final deadline.Your supervisor will help you reflect on your reading and discuss conclusions. Reflection is something best achieved over a period of many months – it can’t be rushed. If like me you need reminding of appointments use Google Calender – it will email you.

I also like ‘get things done’ software.  Remember the Milk is getting on a bit. It is free to use and it has apps for all the main mobile devices. The buzz is all about Wunderlist at the moment. Starting a diss is quite daunting, so it really helps to break up the project into small tasks and then give them deadlines. You can bung all of this into RTM or Wunderlust and it will remind you when tasks are due.

13) Referencing – two bits of advice: A) Be consistent B) Talk to a librarian – they tend to know lots about it. People get confused with how to reference websites and newspaper articles, so take particular care here. Neil’s Toolbox can help with getting your references into Harvard format.

14) Don’t say “It’s Crap”, but you should not be afraid to criticise a theory if you feel it is out of date, or contradicts your own research. Good dissertations are not just based on the past, but make predictions about the future. How is the subject likely to develop in five years time? 

15) The university library may not have all the textbooks you require. By joining the British Library you’ll gain access to the British Newspaper Library –  the only large, integrated national
newspaper (and magazine) service in the world.
The Newspaper Library is based up in Colindale, north west London. Before making a trip up there, check the website for membership requirements and opening times.

16) Watch out for  plagiarism :  This is a huge problem. Where I work we use TurnItIn.  This compares student work with a huge database of articles to detect silmilarities.The makers of the software really don’t miss a trick and are also marketing a system aimed at students called WriteCheck, so students can check their work against the TurnItIn database before submission. Extreme care needs to be taken here. WriteCheck also produces a short and vaguely amusing guide to how it is relatively easy to be caught out.

17) Don’t buy your dissertation!: If writing a diss sounds like hard work and a lot of  hassle you may be tempted to not bother. Why not pay someone else to do all the hard work for you. I believe you may be able to get it done for couple of hundred quid and  money like this goes a long way in countries like India or the Philippines (no doubt this where the poor sod who writes your dissertation will be living). Adverts seem to regularly appear around campus for companies offering such services and most students seem to be aware of them.

In all the years I have been supervising undergrads, only one of my students has pulled this particular trick as far as I’m aware.. The reality is that it is very difficult to detect. Indeed this is one of the biggest problems we face. Of course, TurnItIn won’t help with detection as the work is usually original. It’s just not written by anyone in the UK.

So as a tutor you must do some detective work. You rely on knowing the student and looking at the standard of previous assignments.

In this particularly case the dissertation was excellent. I am guessing the student paid for the  deluxe, ‘get me a first’, service. I even took a photocopy of the lit review section – it’s one of the best I had ever seen.

But there were plenty of things that didn’t stack up. As I supervisor I hadn’t seen any early drafts (which is very unusual). Attendance at tutorials had been very poor and there were  phrases that sounded slightly odd and elements that seemed to be generic.

Part of the assessment is the defence, where students have to explain their dissertation face-to-face to assessors. The student concerned didn’t attend, indeed at this stage they seemed to disappear off the face of the earth and didn’t even show up to the academic misconduct panel.

Needless to say, buying your dissertation has very serious consequences for the student.  For tutors, it takes ages to sort out. I also felt surprisingly hurt that a student had tried such a trick and  wasn’t expecting to take it as personally as I did.

2 Responses to Writing a dissertation – tips for undergrad journalism students

  1. Dissertation Writing January 2, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    thanx for sharing this valued tips for dissertation writing, i really appreciate your work, it must help to the students who really dont know about dissertation writing.

  2. dissertation buy October 24, 2009 at 12:16 pm #

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