Writing your dissertation in Geography or Geology
A significant part of most undergraduate and taught masters degrees is the independent research study. In glaciology, this study may often take the form of fieldwork, perhaps underpinned by remote sensing.
There are so many things to research that your dissertation, probably the most significant piece of work you’ve ever undertaken, may seem quite daunting. However, the good news is that most dissertations are formulaic. If you ground your dissertation well in the literature, understand the key unknowns, and have a specific research question and hypothesis to test, you’re off to a great start.
Planning your time
Planning your time is a key component to writing your dissertation. You should aim to have a full first draft well before the deadline – at least a couple of weeks. So work out when you’ll do your fieldwork or data collection, and then work out a schedule for completing the dat analysis, interpretation and writing. Give yourself strict deadlines and stick to them – otherwise, you’ll be back against the wall, handing in a first, unedited draft of your dissertation. And that’s a great way to lose marks.
Designing your research project
Planning your project well is hugely important, and can make a massive difference to your final mark. A succinct, well thought-through dissertation is a joy to mark. A rambling, wide-ranging, ill-planned dissertation makes a marker’s heart sink.
In the first instance, think about what you’re interested in. Which modules sparked enthusiasm? What did you do well in? Think also about your skills. Are you a field-based scientist, or do you prefer to work on a computer? Do you want to travel somewhere abroad or within your own country to do your dissertation, or do you need to do it somewhere easy? All these things should help you narrow down what you want to do.
Make a list on a sheet of paper, writing down in one column your interests, in another your skills and techniques you understand, and in another regions of interest to you – places you either want to visit for fieldwork or want to study remotely using satellite images or aerial photographs.
Once you have identified the kind of thing that you’re interested in, do your reading. Read up on all the published literature in your area of interest, both geographically and scientifically. Work out what the key research questions are. Where can you make an original contribution?
Once you have understood the published literature, it is time to start designing your research project. Read the Research Design page. You must identify a key research question and have clear, achievable aims and objectives. Work out the logistics and methods. What data sets will you need access to? Where will you undertake fieldwork? Do you have the correct programmes installed on your computer?
The best dissertations often use a combination of techniques, such as fieldwork and remote sensing, remote sensing and numerical modelling, or sedimentology and lab-work, processing samples for sedimentary petrology. That way, it is easier to apply what could otherwise be a parochial and small scale study more widely.
Secondly, the best dissertations are succinct, attempting to answer one small question well rather than trying to solve a huge conundrum that would actually take many years of research to do. You have less time than you think – research always takes longer than it should. Try and narrow down your ideas until you have a neat, achievable research question that you can answer in the limited time available.
Discuss your ideas with your dissertation advisor. They’ll be able to give you guidance and make suggestions. To get the best out of your limited time with them, prepare carefully for your supervision, making sure that you go in with ideas that you are ready to discuss. Do not expect them to give you a project to do – it is up to you to come up with something that is interesting.
Undertaking the research
Once you have worked out your research question, aims, objectives and methods, it’s time to get cracking. Do not put it off and delay – you won’t be able to do it all in the week before it’s due.
Make sure that you’re using the correct techniques. Read up in the literature, and check with your dissertation advisor that you’re on the right track. It will be difficult to correct later, so taking time now to make sure that you plan it well is vital.
Writing your dissertation
OK, you’ve got bag loads of data, collected lots of samples and processed them in the lab. Now you have to write it up. But where to start? It seems so huge! The good news is that dissertations are fairly formulaic. You can start by planning it out, adding in as much detail to the plan as you can. Then all you need to do is add flesh to your structure.
The key in writing a good dissertation is to make sure that it is well structured (doesn’t repeat itself), it is well grounded in the literature and is well designed (check! we did that when we planned it), and ends with sound conclusions, supported by the data. Take a look at this writing style guide for some hints and tips.
You may need to start off with acknowledgements and an Abstract. Your acknowledgements shouldn’t thank your parents, dog, best friend forever or budgie, but should instead acknowledge people who have helped you, or given you data. You may need to thank landowners for permission to enter their property, lab technicians for assistance with lab work, colleagues who assisted with fieldwork, or anyone who contributed any data that you have used. Failing to write proper acknowledgements could be construed as plagiarism, so be careful.
You can find some guidelines on how to write an effective abstract here.
In the introduction, you should set out your rationale first. Why is this work important? Read the rationales in a number of papers (usually the first paragraph) and write something similar about your own work.
Put in a brief summary of the key state of the art of the literature to date, and point out what is currently still unknown – these key unknowns form the basis for your research questions.
Next lay out your research agenda. Specify your aims and objectives, and outline your hypothesis or research question.
Introduce your study area. Include a map and state why this study area is relevant. Why are you answering your research question here, at this site?
2. Literature Review
In this section, demonstrate that you have understood the key literature. Set out the current key findings, and outline what we already know. But point out key unknowns and any discrepancies.
In this section, you need to convince the examiner that the methods you have used are robust and appropriate. Provide enough detail and information that they can be sure that you have avoided bias and error as far as possible. Refer to the literature and demonstrate that your methods are reliable.
In this section, give your results clearly and concisely. Do not attempt to interpret them – that should come later. You should tabulate your results clearly and provide maps and photographs where appropriate.
Thoroughly investigate your data. Perhaps you can do statistical analysis to see whether your variables are related, or analyse the data in a GIS? Spend lots of time working through your data, identifying patterns, trends and correlations.
OK, now you can interpret your results. Follow standard guidelines for interpreting your data.
The Discussion is probably the hardest part, and the most important. Here, you need to place your data within the wider context. Luckily, you have already identified key unknowns in the literature, and worked out research questions based on gaps in our scientific knowledge. Does your data help you answer those questions? What are the broader implications of your data?
Spend some time on this section. It is difficult to get right, but the best dissertations will write a profound Discussion that clearly shows that they have understood the relevance of their work.
Brilliant, you are nearly there! Your conclusions should summarise your work to date. You should not add in any new ideas at this stage. State your research question, and show if you have answered it. It is not a failure if not – perhaps your research has actually thrown up some new, really interesting questions. If you had a hypothesis, did you test it? What was the result?
Your conclusions should be concise but should summaries your aims, methods, study site, your results and their interpretation and implications.
Now you need to add your bibliography. If you have used software such as Endnote, check it carefully to make sure there are no errors. Ensure that all references cited in text are in the bibliography, and vice versa. Poor referencing is a shoddy way to loose marks.
Pepper your dissertation liberally with figures. Figures should be self-explanatory, they should stand alone (you shouldn’t need to look at another figure to understand it), and they should always have a clear, concise caption.
Photographs during fieldwork are essential, and provide illustrations for the landforms you are mapping.
Maps should always have a key, north arrow, a scale and should be clear to read. They should usually have an ‘extent’ inset, showing your study area within the wider context of its location (e.g., if your project is in the Lake District, you may have several maps of different levels and detail, each one with an inset showing where it is within the wider context of the Lake District and the UK). If in doubt, keep it simple.
If your study is a sedimentological analysis, you will need to have detailed section logs following standardised keys. Read the literature and make sure you conform to the guidelines.
Draw your figures up in good illustration packages. Free packages on the internet include The Gimp, but you may have access to Illustrator or CorelDraw through your institution. There are plenty of tutorials on the internet that help you learn these packages. Take the time to learn these packages and draw your figures up professionally. Do not draw in pencil and glue in, or photocopy them in!
The first draft
Brilliant, you’ve got a whole first draft! That’s great, well done! Put it aside and don’t look at it for a few days, preferably at least a week. You need to take a break from it.
A few days later, print it off, pick up a red pen, and go through it ruthlessly. Check each reference. Check your structure. Have you repeated yourself? Could that paragraph be written more succinctly? Check your spelling and grammar, and look carefully for typos. Most first drafts are too long. Not a problem – this is where you weed out the waffle and edit it downwards.
The final draft
You may go through several cycles of reading, editing and revision of your dissertation. It is well worth taking the time to go through it several times. By the end, you will have a polished, well-written study that hopefully is worthy of a high mark. Submit it and go to the pub for a well-deserved pint. Well done!