What is a dissertation? - Essay Prowess

What is a dissertation?


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What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is the independent exploration and extended critical study of a topic which you choose because it particularly interests you. Its final form will be a carefully organized essay based on sustained thought and considerable research. Its length will be between 6,000 and 7,500 words; or between 4,500 to 6,000 words if your dissertation includes a practice-based element.

Assessment of the module is based on two components which together constitute 100% of the final mark: a dissertation plan (15%) and the draft and final dissertation (85%).

The module involves individual supervision designed to support your ambitions and confidence in becoming an independent learner, building on techniques and knowledge developed in previous years, and providing scope for initiative and development.

For the dissertation you will need to demonstrate the ability to thoroughly research a topic, use appropriate methods of investigation, and work methodically and productively. The dissertation mode affords a sophisticated instrument for exploring, testing and presenting ideas at graduate level: it encourages you to deploy a variety of skills and to show how well you can conduct and present an investigation, from researching sources to analysing evidence. It requires you to construct and interpret your chosen material and present it as an integrated and coherent whole. Depending on the aim and choice of subject and material, this may take the form of an argument, a discussion, a critical reflection or exposition.

The subject matter of the dissertation can be theoretical, technical, or historical, and should be closely related to your main field of study. It may be envisaged as one of several different types: for example, visual, technical or other non-­written material may form the subject of the enquiry and comprise an integral part of the whole; the dissertation may be professionally oriented and include field-­work; or it might be academic and theoretical in its source material and methodology.

Dissertation Studios

You will develop your topic independently, but within a specific dissertation ‘interest group’ similar to design studios. Dissertation Studios provide a seven-week-long block of taught programme and incorporate research based specialisms, areas of scholarly interest in history, theory and criticism, industry related practice, and workshop, digital or media based technical studies.

All dissertation studios share the same assessment criteria and follow a basic structure. However they can differ however considerably in the way they approach research and writing. When choosing which studio you would like to join, you should consider not only the studio’s specialism, but look closely at the teaching methods and – maybe most importantly – the tutors’s general interests and expertise. You can learn more about this and the voting process in the Module Milestones section.

CASS Writing

Writing a dissertation requires creative skill and rigour in equal measure. While we encourage innovative approaches to research and writing, and offer you an opportunity to include a practice-based element in your submission, there are certain criteria all students must follow. Some of these are hard to define, such as originality or the quality of your writing. Others, however, have clear outlines. It is very important, for example, that you add footnotes to quotations and reference your source; and that your work adopts a structure that is clear and that supports your argument. Your tutors will help you with this, but it is important that you familiarise yourself with the culture, standards and rules of writing in an academic context.

We have developed a very useful online tool that will answer many of your questions and clearly sets out what a dissertation should look like, how to do research, how to make a bibliography etc. Follow the link on the left to ‘CASS Writing’ and start reading. 


Your work should be easy to handle:

  • The standard format is A4 portrait with A3 foldouts if needed
  • Print on one side of the page only
  • Use a minimum 2 cm margins around your text
  • Essays, case studies or patchworks should securely stapled in the top left-hand corner
  • Dissertations should be securely bound (e.g. no box files)
  • Avoid using acetate or plastic covers or spines as they are more difficult to recycle – use a heavier paper or card instead
  • If you want to use different formats, consult with your supervisor / module leader first


Your work should be easy to read:

  • Use a simple legible font like Helvetica, Arial, Calibri, Palatino, Times New Roman
  • Use black lettering on white or off-white paper
  • Use 12-point font for the text; 10-point for footnotes
  • Use 1.5 spacing for the text; single spacing for footnotes and displayed quotations

Page Numbers

Your work should be easy to reference:

  • Number your pages in a single, continuous sequence, without a break, until the final page
  • Start your page numbers immediately after the Title Page


Your work should be well organized; it needs form and structure to help give it meaning:

The form or structure of a text can most easily be understood as its sections  or parts (e.g. beginning, middle, and end). You can make the structure of your sections more or less obvious to suit the type of assignment, for example:

  • Case Studies: the sections should be clearly visible and have headings and sub-headings.
  • Essays: the sections do not normally have headings but are flagged in the writing itself and how you link your points.
  • Dissertations: the sections should show the structure and its organization in the contents page; it should have clear sections (like a case study), and well linked points (like an essay).

 Contents Page (table of contents)

The Dissertation (because it is a longer, more complex piece of work) needs a table of contents:

  • Think about the hierarchy of your sections and subsections: the table of contents should make your structure and its organization obvious.
  • Give your sections and subsections clear titles.

List of Illustrations

The Dissertations (because it is a longer, more complex and formal piece of work) will need a List of Illustrations.

  • List your images in the order that they appear in the text.
  • Identify the source of your illustration by giving full bibliographic details including page number or equivalent (see Bibliography for more details).


The Bibliography should be after your Conclusion. It is designed to be a one-stop location where the reader can see the published and unpublished sources you have used to research your assignment. All CCS submissions MUST include a full Bibliography thats lists all the sources you have used. If your submission does not have a bibliography it will be deemed ‘incomplete’.

  • Bibliographies should be arranged alphabetically using the author’s surname.
  • A bibliography is a list of all the relevant sources you have consulted – not just books but articles, films, exhibitions, interviews, newspaper articles and websites.
  • Include all the important sources you have used directly (cited) to help construct your assignment or dissertation.
  • Include all the relevant sources you have consulted in general to show what you have learned about your subject.


You MUST detail your use of sources at the exact point of use in your writing. It makes a map for your reader and demonstrates your academic honesty and respect for the integrity of other people’s work as well as your own.

  • For general ideas or information, include the book or other source material in your bibliography. If it is a particularly important book you can refer to it in your footnotes by saying: See Thomas, The Rise of Capitalism, particularly chapter 10.
  • For specific material – a particular idea, interpretation or quotation – give a specific reference, i.e. the page number or equally accurate information about the source.
  • The CASS prefered system of referencing is the ‘Footnoting System’ because footnotes are easier to read in relation to the text. Please consult with your supervisor / module tutor if you want to use Endnotes.


Footnotes have two purposes:

They state the source for your material – ideas, information, facts, theories, explanations. Footnotes can also be used to provide additional information to the main text such as clarifications, comment, further examples. This type of additional information should only be included if you believe it is helpful for the reader.

  • Use footnotes to give details of the sources you are using – this means recording PAGE NUMBERS or equally accurate information to locate your source.
  • Footnotes are a good place to demonstrate the range and depth of your research – show what you know!

Remember, although there is an overlap of information, you need to include both footnotes and a bibliography. This is because they serve different purposes: footnotes demonstrate use of evidence at the relevant point in your text; bibliographies provide a summary list of your sources.

What is a quotation?

A quotation is a group of words taken from a text, speech or other source and repeated by someone other than the original author. A quotation can be direct (word-for-word or verbatim), or abbreviated or summarized using your own words.

  • Quotes are like other voices – so make sure they are in tune with your argument!
  • Quotes can be used to introduce an idea; illuminate an idea; endorse your point of view; argue against; demonstrate your range of sources.
  • It is important to remain truthful to your source. Don’t distort or misrepresent what is said to make it fit your argument better.
  • You can quote something word-for-word, abbreviate it or simply summarise what someone has said – in all cases YOU MUST REFERENCE YOUR SOURCE.
  • You must indicate in your text which bit is the original you speaking and which bit is the original them speaking. There are conventions for doing this that you must follow. If you don’t the reader will be confused. FOLLOW THE CONVENTIONS. These deal with when to use quote marks and when to indent.


When quoting an author word-for-word or using an author’s ideas/ arguments, you must clearly attribute these words or ideas to that author. You mark it in the text (in one of three ways as outlined below) and you provide the reference at the end of the quotation.

1. Short Quotations (less than about 40 words)

Inverted commas: If it is a word-for-word (verbatim) quote, then you must separate these words from the main body of your text by single inverted commas: ‘the quotation’.

Quotations within quotation (i.e., where the quote you are using contains a quote) are indicated using double inverted commas: ‘the quotation “quotes”.’

Italics: There is no need to italicise your quotes or make any other changes to your font, spacing or punctuation.

2. Long Quotations (more than about 40 words)

Indenting: If it is a long word for word quote then you should separate these words from the main body of the text by indenting the quotation on the left hand side. In effect you place the quote within its own paragraph. For example: 

Fashion is neither a conspiracy to seduce us into ‘unnecessary’ expenditure nor is it a realm of unfettered choice and untainted pleasure. In contemporary Western society

it is sometimes associated with glamour and ideal beauty as well as extravagance and self-indulgence. Yet a more equal social system would not necessarily lead to the

abolition of fashion, although this is what the dress reformers believed.1

Inverted commas: Note how quotemarks are not used in this type of longer quotation. It is enough to separate the text into its own paragraph, indent and change font size. Consequently quotations within the quotation have single inverted commas when the quotation is indented.

Italics: There is no need to italicise your quotes or make any other changes to your font or punctuation or add inverted commas.

Line spacing: you may change the line spacing of indented quotes to further differentiate them from the main body of the text.

To shorten a long quotation: you may take out words that are irrelevant for your purposes and replace with ellipsis i.e. […]. For less than a sentence removed use three dots; for a sentence or more removed use four dots [….].

3. Summarising Quotes

You can also reference a text without quoting it directly, e.g.: As Wilson and Taylor have argued, ‘fashion is neither a conspiracy’ nor an ‘untainted pleasure’.2

It has been argued that fashion is neither a conspiracy nor an untainted pleasure.3

All three of these approaches (fn 1, fn 2, fn 3) are footnoted in the same way. The reference at the bottom of the page would read: Wilson and Taylor, 1989, p.227.


Illustrations must be used to illustrate. They should be relevant to your ideas and argument and support your research.

  • Consider the type and atmosphere of your images, and what you will say about them.
  • Refer the reader to the illustrations at the relevant point in your writing to support your argument.
  • Put the number, name and caption just below your image.
  • Put details of the source of the image in your List of Illustrations or put the reference in your footnotes and bibliography.
  • Number the images consecutively through your work; refer to them by their number, e.g. see fig 1.
  • Images should be neat, reproduced clearly, and legible.
  • Images can be integrated throughout the body of the text or reproduced on a separate page directly after you have made reference to it in your text.


These can present the original data or information used in your case study or dissertation that is not easily available elsewhere and that does not fit into the flow of the main body of the text.

  • ‘Appendices’ is the name for more than one ‘Appendix’.
  • Appendices can be used for a variety of types of information: transcripts of interviews, data, survey material, maps, drawings, photographs or plans.
  • If you have used questionnaires it is useful to include a blank copy in an appendix.
  • If you have used special equipment or techniques you may want to include information about it.


A Glossary is a form of appendix. It comprises an alphabetical list of any unusual words, technical terms, abbreviations or acronyms used in the text, together with their definition.

  • It is usually placed at the end of the main text, after the conclusion.
  • Use a glossary if you have more than five unusual or technical terms (if fewer than five terms put them in the introduction as working definitions, or as a footnote).
  • Highlight each term and use a colon to separate it from its definition e.g. Glossary: An alphabetized list of specialized terms with their definition.
  • On first use place, an asterisk in the text by each item defined in the glossary*.
  • List your glossary and its first page number in the table of contents.
  • Etymology: Glossary comes from the Latin ‘foreign words’.

Abstracts are the academic equivalent of the ‘Executive Summary’ in the professional and business world. They serve the same purpose: to provide a succinct summary of any written work, be it a report, a case study, or a paper submitted to a conference or for publication. They are also a useful exercise.

  • An abstract provides a brief outline or overview of a text and its findings.
  • The length is typically between 100 – 300 words, or half a page.
  • It is placed on a separate page before the contents page.
  • It is the one part that might be read by a client or professional or a peer, who would decide, on the basis of reading the abstract, whether it is worth reading the rest in detail.

 Abstracts are also a useful exercise. Writing one helps you reflect on your text and examine whether it does have an idea to it, and whether it has well structured good content.

Plagiarism is attempted fraud. It does not matter whether it is a result of incompetence, inefficiency, lack of understanding of conventions and requirements, poor time management, or deliberate intent to deceive – it still constitutes academic misconduct and will be dealt with by the University accordingly. Plagiarism includes: 

  • Passing off another person’s work as your own (including the work of fellow students).
  • Re-using of an author’s ideas or information without making a clear citation/reference.
  • Paraphrasing the ideas of an author without any citation/ reference.
  • Paraphrasing a section of text using the language of the author, and not your own.
  • Downloading information from the web without giving exact citation/reference.
  • Re-using your own work for subsequent assignments.
  • Buying essays/case studies/dissertations and passing them off as your own.

What is not plagiarism?

  • Your use of well-known proverbs and sayings that have become part of our everyday language.
  • Your use of well-known facts or received knowledge.

How to avoid plagiarism:

  • Take notes correctly in a way that indicates to you what is and is not your own thinking. Be meticulous and use ‘quote marks’.
  • Distinguish your own ideas from those you are researching. You might for example divide your page, use different colour pens, label your notes as you go.
  • When taking notes ensure you have all the information regarding the source so you can reference perfectly.
  • When writing your assignment practice using ‘author-signposting’. Say ‘Smith suggests ….’, or ‘As Jonson argues ….’, ‘According to Baker …’, ‘MacIntosh believes that ….’, ‘Wood is of the opinion …’, as a reminder to give the reference. (You can use abbreviated footnotes in these cases because you have already stated the name).

How it should look like:


John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1972).

Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Souvenir Press, 4th edition, 2013).

Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways (London: Phaidon, 2001).

Francis D. K. Ching, Building Construction Illustrated (Wiley, 2011).

Fred Dubery and John Willats, Perspective and other drawing systems (London: Herbert Press, 1983). 

Diane Waldman and Henri Matisse, Collage, assemblage, and the found object (Phaidon, 1992).

Jonathan Bignall, An Introduction to Television Studies, (Routledge, 2012).  

David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Jeremy Ashton, Film art: an introduction, Vol. 7 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997).

John Backus, Acoustical Foundations of Music (New York: Norton, 1977), pp 67-78.

Thomas Rossing, Richard Moore and Paul Wheeler, The Science of Sound, (Addison Wesley,2002), p. 127.

Chapters in books

 Catherine Ingraham, ‘Initial Proprieties: Architecture and the Space of the Line’ in Sexuality and Space, ed. by Beatriz Colomina (Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), pp. 255-272.

 Melissa Zinkin, ‘Film and the Transcendental Imagination: Kant and Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes’ in Imagination, Philosophy and the Arts, ed. by Matthew Kiernan and Dominic McIver Lopes (London:    Routledge, 2003), pp. 245-258.

 Jean-Claude Risset and David L. Wessel, ‘Exploration of Timbre by Analysis and Synthesis’, inThe Psychology of Music, ed. by Diana Deutsch, 2nd edn (Academic Press, 1999), pp. 113-169.

 Articles and Journals

•          Author’s name, exactly as it appears in the article

•          Title of article, in single quotation marks

•          Title of journal, italicized

•          Series number, in arabic numerals

•          Volume number, in arabic numerals

•          Year(s) of publication, in parentheses unless there is no volume number

•          First and last page numbers of article cited, not preceded by ‘pp.’

•          Page number(s), in parentheses and preceded by ‘p.’ or ‘pp.’, of the particularreference (if necessary.

Dominic Cullinan, ‘Building the structures of belonging’, Architecture Today, 202 (2009), 50-59.

Britany L. Salsbury, ‘Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler: A Feminist View of Weimar Culture’, Woman’s Art Journal, 29 (2008), pp. 23-30.

Ali Momeni and Cyrille Henry, ‘Dynamic independent mapping layers for concurrent control of audio and video synthesis’, Computer Music Journal 30, no. 1 (2006), pp. 49-66.

Michael Z. Newman, ‘Indie culture: In pursuit of the authentic autonomous alternative’, Cinema Journal 48, no. 3 (2009), pp.16-34.

    Edward Tufte, ‘Envisioning information’, Optometry & Vision Science 68.4 (1991), pp. 322-324.

Articles In Newspapers And Magazines

    Philip Hensher, ‘Colour and I are one’, Guardian, 5 October 2013, Review section, p. 14.

    Christopher Fox, ‘Record, cut, stick, loop’, Guardian, 5 October 2013, Review section, p. 13

Online Publications

•          As far as possible follow the style used for printed publications.

•          Author’s name

•          Title of item

•          Title of complete work/resource

•          Publication details (volume, issue, date)

•          Full address (Universal Resource Locator (URL)) or DOI of the resource (in anglebrackets)

Marina L. Levitina, ‘Models of New Femininity and Masculinity in Soviet Russia in the 1920s’,Kinema, Spring (2013), <http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article.php?id=528&feature> [accessed 8 October 2013]

Mary Ann Steane, ‘Lightenings: Niall McLaughlin’s Bishop Edward King Chapel’, Architecture Today, 20 May 2013, <http://www.architecturetoday.co.uk/?p=30237> [accessed 8 October 2013]

Steve Parnell ,‘Review: The Italian Avant-Garde’, IconEye, 3 October 2013, <http://www.iconeye.com/news/reviews-2013/review-the-italian-avant-garde> [accessed 8 October 2013]

Recordings, Films And Digital Media

    Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto no. 5, Mitsuko Uchida, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, cond. by Kurt Sanderling (Phillips, 462 586-2, 1998).

Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, (Island, 171 304-1, 2006).

God’s Own Architect, BBC Four, 12 Aug 2013.

The Grapes of Wrath, dir. by John Ford (20th Century Fox, 1940).


Note: the surname comes first.