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Dissertation Introduction First Person To Climb

Writing a dissertation for either a final-year project or a PhD is a large task. Here are a few thoughts to help along the way.

Preparatory reading

How to write and publish a scientific paper
Robert Day
Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Improving your technical writing skills
Norman Fenton
Queen Mary (University of London), 2003.
This includes further pointers to good advice.
New Oxford style manual
Oxford University Press, 2012.
You need a copy of this next to you while you are writing.
How to run a paper mill
John Woodwark
Information Geometers, 1992.
This is now only available on-line.

Language

Your dissertation should be written in English. If this is not your native language, it is important that you ask someone literate to proof read your dissertation. Your supervisor only has a limited amount of time, so it would be sensible to ask two or three literate friends to read your dissertation before giving it to your supervisor. That way, he or she will be able to concentrate on the technical content without being distracted by the style.

Incidentally, it is a good idea to make sure that one of your readers is not a specialist in your area of research. That way they can check that you have explained the technical concepts in an accessible way.

Grammar

Chapter 27 of Day's book gives some useful advice on the use (and misuse) of English.

  • Tense — You should normally use the present tense when referring to previously published work, and you should use the past tense when referring to your present results. The principal exception to this rule is when describing experiments undertaken by others in the past tense, even if the results that they established are described in the present tense. Results of calculations and statistical analyses should also be in the present tense.
    So "There are six basic emotions [Ekman, 1972]. I have written a computer program that distinguishes them in photographs of human faces."
  • Voice — The active voice is usually more precise and less wordy than the passive voice.
    So "The system distinguished six emotions" rather than "It was found that the system could distinguish six emotions".
  • Person — The general preference nowadays is to write in the first person, although there is still some debate.
  • Number — When writing in the first person, use the singular or plural as appropriate. For a dissertation with one author, do not use the "editorial we" in place of "I". The use of "we" by a single author is outrageously pretentious.
  • The Future Perfect Web site has some useful hints and tips on English usage.

Style

  • Formality — A dissertation is a formal document. Writing in the first person singular is preferred, but remember that you are writing a scientific document not a child's diary. Don't use informal abbreviations like "don't".
  • Repetition — Say everything three times: introduce the ideas, explain them, and then give a summary. You can apply this to the whole dissertation with introductory and closing chapters, and to each chapter with introductory and closing sections. However, do not simply copy entire paragraphs. The three variants of the text serve different purposes and should be written differently.
  • Sidenotes — Avoid remarks in parentheses and excessive use of footnotes. If something matters, say it in the main text. If it doesn't matter, leave it out.
  • References — Citations in brackets are parenthetical remarks. Don't use them as nouns.
    So "Ekman [1972] identifies six basic emotions" rather than "Six basic emotions are identified in [Ekman, 1972]".
  • Simple language — Convoluted sentences with multiple clauses—especially nested using stray punctuation—make it harder for the reader to follow the argument; avoid them. Short sentences are more effective at holding the reader's attention.
  • Try not to use nouns as adjectives. Alas, this is a common problem in Computer Science publications. At the very least, limit the number of nouns that are strung together.

Word processing

Learn how to use your word processor effectively. This will probably be MS Word or LaTeX. In either case, make sure that you now how to include numbered figures, tables of contents, indexes, references and a bibliography efficiently. With MS Word, learn how to use styles consistently. With LaTeX, consider a WYSIWYG editor such as LyX.

Think about your house style for pages and for things like fragments of computer programs.

1. Statement of purpose. Open your dissertation with a clear statement of your purpose for conducting and writing up new research. These opening remarks need not yet precisely articulate specific research questions, but should indicate the definite direction which the dissertation will follow.

2. Define your topic. It is necessary early on to carve out the particular area of study within your chosen academic discipline. This will provide reference points for academics within your field to understand your point of departure when embarking on research.

3. Approach. Outline the basic approach you took to formulating your research questions and clarifying the aims of your dissertation. Discuss the issues that informed and shaped the direction of your project in order to contextualise and rationalise your particular methods and other research decisions.

4. Terminology. The depth of your research into a particular aspect of your field will tend to bring up the need for an intensive and precise use of subject-specific vocabulary. Include a section in your introduction which systematically defines all relevant terms and clarifies ambiguities in your usage of general terms if necessary.

5. Objectives and research questions. Concise, coherent and clear statements of your aims, objectives and research questions must appear in your introductory chapter. These will follow on from your statement of purpose and outline of approach, but nonetheless must be clearly identified and lucidly stated.

6. Rigorous hypotheses. When formulating and stating hypotheses to be tested after the acquisition of new data, be sure to pay due attention to the logical construction of these hypotheses. A proper hypothesis is testable, falsifiable and non-circular.

7. Scope of work. Your introduction should give a clear sense of how you understand the scope and extent of your dissertation, as well as its place within the current research and existing literature of your field. Demonstrate a broad knowledge base through this contextual section of discussion.

8. Significance. A good dissertation goes beyond the basic requirements of review, collection and analysis, and indicates an astute awareness of the significance of its own findings within the academic subject area. The introduction is the initial point at which such discussions emerge.

9. Reasons. Generally speaking, the academic register is based in a replacement of familiarity with formality, and the elimination of the first person from the text. However, in discussing the reasons for selecting your research proposals, there is occasionally some scope for indicating the nature and extent of personal engagement by speaking candidly about your own motivations.

10. Subheadings. For those unaccustomed to writing extended pieces of work such as custom dissertations, the division of an introductory section into several parts might seem unusual. However, the introduction makes up an entire chapter, and for purposes of intelligibility it is useful to employ subheadings here to break up the prose and identify key issues.

Helpful links: Dissertation Examples, Dissertation Proposals

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