The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

3.7 Dissertation content and structure

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Students who have spent most of their undergraduate careers solving problems and tackling exercises are likely to need specific help in constructing a coherent argument through continuous prose and appropriate structuring of material. Furthermore, the dissertation will require them to move beyond the descriptive to analysis and evaluation. These are also key skills that may only be developed through the dissertation in many economics undergraduate programmes.

There are several guides available providing advice to students on how to structure a report on a piece of economic research (e.g. Neugeboren (2005); Greenlaw (2006)).

A typical structure

Introduction pose an interesting question or problem
Literature review survey the literature on your topic
Methods/data formulate your hypothesis and describe your data
Results present your results with the help of graphs and charts
Discussion critique your method and/or discuss any policy implications
Conclusions summarise what you have done; pose questions for further research

From Neugeboren (2005)

Students need further guidance to keep an appropriate balance between the key components. The temptation is to use up too many words in the early sections in introducing the topic and describing the background. This is especially tempting in relation to some projects. For example, a student investigating a question in the context of a particular country may begin by describing the economic conditions of that country, so that the report comes to resemble something more appropriate for economic history or geography than economics. On the other hand, there may be a temptation to take some of the economic analysis for granted, thus missing the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of economic analysis and thereby showcasing their skills to the examiner. This question of knowing what to include and what to omit is a tricky one, and an area in which supervisors will need to be ready to offer guidance. Another challenge is for students to be evaluative and analytic, going beyond description.

At the outset, students often find it intimidating to launch themselves on writing an 8,000 or 10,000 word report. It is important to find a way of overcoming this. One way is to encourage students to draw up a chapter plan at an early stage. This could be based on the general pattern set out above, with the students being asked to draft a few sentences describing the intended content of each chapter, and a target word count. This has the advantage of breaking the overall task into a sequence of shorter pieces of work, which may be less intimidating. Making some examples of previous dissertations available for students to consult may also be helpful, as they are able to see what can be achieved, as well as getting a feel for how to structure a long report.