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Dissertation (HI961)

Aims and Objectives

This Code of Practice is intended to inform you about how the Department deals with the framing, supervision and examination of your dissertation. It is aimed to focus your thinking about the choice of topic, how you will conduct the research, and the ways in which you will timetable research and writing.

What is a Dissertation?

The dissertation is a piece of academic writing about 15,000 words long (or about 20,000 for History of Medicine students) - roughly the length of two academic articles or book chapters - and you will need to identify a topic which can be dealt with within that length whilst showing originality. It is not a book, nor an essay. You should view it mainly as an opportunity to develop research techniques and methodologies and to present the research in an appropriate format. You will need to follow the style for presentation as listed below.

Thoughts on Originality

A dissertation is normally expected to show a measure of originality. It may be helpful to think of originality as residing either in a source-base (when a dissertation is based on the analysis of a set of usually primary sources which have not been analysed from a particular angle before), or in treatment (when you are offering a novel view of historiographical problems and topics), or in writing (the ‘voice’ will be your own - and total unoriginality, i.e. plagiarism, is obviously to be avoided). Your supervisor will be able to give you guidance the originality of your work at all levels, but it is something you will want to think about from the very beginning.

Your Supervisor

Term 1, Week 4 (Part-time students Year 1, Term 2, Week 9)

You will be assigned a supervisor by the end of Week 4, Term 1 (or Year 1, Term 2, Week 9 if you are a part-time student). The Dissertations lead will lead a session on 'Finding a Supervisor' in Week 2. You are advised to review the staff webpages in the department and identify and speak to potential supervisors as soon as possible after term begins. Ask these faculty members if they are willing, in principle, to serve as your dissertation supervisor. Once you have had this conversation, fill in the form below with the name of your supervisor. If you are having difficulty with this task, please contact the PGT Director for guidance. We always do our best to ensure that students get their first choice of supervisor but in some cases this cannot be guaranteed.

MA Dissertation Supervision Request

Finding a Topic

Term 1, Week 5 (Part-time students Year 1, Term 3, Week 3)

Your first supervision will take the form of a session in which you talk over possible topics, and angles on those topics. Before this meeting you should conduct a brief library search to see if anything has been directly published on your topic already. Keyword search in the British Library catalogue and various online bibliographies that the library subscribes to, will be a very useful first step. The supervisor(s) will point you in the direction of the most relevant bodies of literature and sources for you to investigate. You will follow this up, searching copyright libraries and journals’ databases to build up a working bibliography.

Firming up your Topic

Term 1, Week 7 (Part-time students Year 1, Term 3, Week 9)

In this session you will present your working bibliography to your supervisor, with a view to assessing the current state of the debate. Your topic can now be firmed up, and your supervisor(s) will agree a topic and timespan (and if possible a working dissertation title) and suggest new directions for further work within the topic.

Research Proposal

Term 2, Week 7 (Part-time students Year 2, Term 1, Week 6)

You will submit a formal Research Proposal, with a working dissertation title, via Tabula, based on what you have done thus far. This will be approximately 2,500 words long, and contain as an appendix a full Bibliography of works and research materials to be consulted. The Research Proposal will help you to clarify a number of considerations crucial to the design of a successful research project. (It is essentially the first draft of your dissertation introduction.) You will need to show:

  1. awareness of the existing secondary literature and gaps within it;
  2. central research questions you plan to address and what kinds of answer you are looking for;
  3. what methods you plan to use, including any theories you wish to apply;
  4. what your source-base will be (printed primary sources, major secondary works, manuscripts, etc.);
  5. where you will be consulting these materials (this may involve letters or reconnaissance trips to relevant archives in advance);
  6. a preliminary chapter plan;
  7. a detailed timetable for the research and writing up.

Try to cover as many of these areas as possible in your proposal. You will find it useful to use these topics as section headings in your writing. When your supervisor has read through the Research Proposal, you should go through it together not later than the end of the Spring Term.

Ethics in Research

In most historical research projects there will be no ethical implications, but in cases where your research involves human participants (perhaps involving interviews and the collection of oral histories), or confidential data (perhaps medical records might be among your sources), prior ethical approval will be required.

Any concerns you have about the ethics of your MA Dissertation research should be discussed with your Supervisor in the first instance, but you may also seek advice from the Director of PGT Studies.

If it is decided by your supervisor or the PGT Director that Ethical approval is required, students should complete the Taught MA Ethics Review form and e-mail to the PGT Director cc’d to

The form will be reviewed by a panel of academic staff and students will be notified within 7 working days of the outcome of the review.

Supervisory Contacts and Availability

Spring Term/Summer Term/Vacation

You are required to meet with your supervisor between weeks 1 and 6 in Term 2 (weeks 1-6 in Term 1 of Year 2 for part-time students) to discuss your research proposal and again between weeks 1 and 8 in Term 3 (of Year 2 for part-time students) to discuss the progress of your research.

It is important to understand that, unlike previous assessed coursework, it is expected that your supervisor will read a draft of your research work in advance and offer editorial support. Supervisors can be expected to read an outline of your dissertation (perhaps taken from your draft introduction) and one draft of each chapter, provided this material is submitted to the supervisor by 31 July, or another date agreed between you and your supervisor. The supervisor does not read the final draft of the dissertation. Any material submitted after this date will not be read, nor should you ask your supervisor to read multiple drafts of the same chapter. You may not be able to meet your supervisor in person over the summer break, but you can expect them to respond to a reasonable number of email queries.

It is not expected that drafts will be perfect or complete – that is why they are called drafts! - but before you get it right, you have to get it written. Your supervisor will also be trying to keep the scope of your research realistic, to encourage you to contextualise your research findings, and to raise the sorts of questions which the eventual markers may raise. Normally, however, your supervisor is one of the dissertation markers.