Marking dissertations – a joy not a chore!

This blog has been a little quiet recently. January isn’t usually an overly optimistic month – dark nights, HMRC tax returns, and the post-Christmas period really do make it the worst month of the year in my opinion, even for someone who ranks Winter as the best season of the year.

I’ve been doing lots of teaching this semester on what makes a good dissertation, including good research design and execution. I’ve been asked by lots of students ‘what makes a good dissertation’ or ‘how do I do a good dissertation’? The simple answer is that the best dissertations identify clear aims, design their research carefully, use appropriate methods, and ensure that their conclusions are based on the data. Sometimes, enough work isn’t put in at the research design phase, which is by far the most important stage of the dissertation. If you set out to answer a question that you can’t answer or for which you can’t possibly collect the data in the time allowed, then you are heading for disaster!

My undergraduate dissertation got a 2:2 precisely because I set out to answer a question that was impossible to answer. I set out to predict the future, asking ‘if the Environmental Stewardship Scheme (agri-environment scheme) would lead to an improved farmland biodiversity numbers by 2020’, writing in 2010. That is a fine example of setting yourself a mountain to climb – there was no possible data that I could collect that would have answered the question. The examiners and I would have needed a crystal ball or a time machine.

The best dissertations do something a little original, but set themselves a narrow focus. This ensures that data collection is manageable and creates a clear focus in the results and discussion. My best piece of advice is to put most of your time into the design phase. Once you know you’ve set yourself manageable tasks, the project will seem a lot easier, although there will be the inevitable setbacks along the way. There always is with research! Although you probably shouldn’t do this in the social sciences, and you certainly can’t with grounded theory, I always advise a ‘backward mapping approach’ taught to me by Professor Sutherland at Cambridge. If you have some idea about what your results might look like, and what you might want to get out of the dissertation, you will know the right questions to ask to help you get there. A map is of no use if you don’t know what your destination is.

Anyway, the reason I’ve written a blog tonight on a delayed late train back to Liverpool is because I’ve received a significant pile of dissertations to mark from our ENV students at UEA. Now some staff might find this marking a bit of a chore, but I don’t; indeed, I’ve offered to do extra ones this year. It’s so fantastic to read about all the interesting work that our students have done. No project is perfect, of course, but then again nor is any piece of academic work. There are the projects where the student hasn’t thought carefully about the research design, but I’ve had plenty of brilliant projects this year where design and execution have been on point. I’ve even got marks of about 75-80 out of my locker, which for those who know me is incredibly rare – grade inflation isn’t my thing, but two dissertations that I marked this year were fantastic. I will update this blog after the marks have been released so that I can give proper praise to the two students in question! I’ve marked dissertations on topics such as food waste recycling, participation in local democracy, coastal flood management in Suffolk, and factors affecting people’s dietary decision-making. It’s been a very varied and interesting year.

To conclude, for all those students knocking on my door with new dissertation ideas, I stress the importance of reading around your topic area and coming up with an answerable, manageable research question. Staff can help, of course, but if you put in the hard yards at an early stage, it will pay off in the end!

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