When approaching your project, remember that there are three core elements to any project: thinking, research and writing.
These elements are not separate, but each element influences the others. Thus your thinking should inform both your research and your writing, but similarly your research will stimulate your thinking and assist your writing. Your writing will also help develop your research and your thinking. So all the elements are mutually reinforcing.
Nevertheless, we will stress the thinking element as this tends to be ‘invisible’ and is thus forgotten about. Understandably a student will want to feel that he or she is doing something; writing a few hundred words, reading a paper (or even downloading it) all feel like work. In that context it is easy to forget that thinking is essential for a dissertation (or indeed any) project.
Of course thinking great thoughts is not sufficient either! The great thoughts must be based on information and knowledge (research) and must be reduced to written form.
Before getting down to these requirements, let me stress four preliminary points.
First, the dissertation is the culmination of your degree. It is premised on the idea that you have been participating in seminars, reading for your courses, discussing law with your colleagues and tutors. All of these experiences provide the environment in which you develop your skills. The readings, seminar questions and discussions have been designed to prepare you to write an independent piece of research. If you have a doubt or a query in the dissertation process, try and reflect on what you have learned from the experience so far.
Second, as the culmination of your degree it is likely a larger component of it than other modules. At Ulster the Masters dissertation is worth one-third of the overall marks. This gives you some idea of the work commitment involved. It also means it is a fantastic opportunity to improve your overall grade!
Third, the dissertation is also vital as it is the clearest demonstration that you have developed important skills as an independent researcher; the project is largely selected, designed and executed by you, with supervision.
Finally, enjoy your dissertation: this is a project based on something you have chosen presumably because you are interested in it, and it is a project where you get to design your own research approach. It is very much about you and your interests, so enjoy.
The dissertation or research project needs to show that the author has thought deeply and thoroughly about the project. This is manifested in a number of ways. Has the student chosen an appropriate topic? Does the student have a clear purpose? Does the student demonstrate critical thinking? Has the student thought through his or her approach? Has the student planned appropriately?
You may find it helpful to choose a topic in which you have an interest, or some experience; or where you have studied some aspect of it in a module. You may have the possibility to choose a topic which has no connection to a module you have chosen. Whatever topic you choose remember that you will have to devote several hundred hours to it, so it should be one which will sustain your interest.
If choosing a topic about which you are passionate, do stop to consider whether you might not be too passionate or involved in the topic: you must still be able to exercise critical judgement and if you are too close to the topic this may be difficult.
This may also be a challenge if you have been directly affected by the topic, either personally or professionally. This works both ways. Having a personal or professional interest means that you are likely to have more detailed knowledge, insight, networks. At the same time there are challenges about being too close to a topic to exercise critical judgement.
When choosing a topic be aware that some topics are very popular. Often this is because a particular topic is, well, topical. Some years ago, it was popular to write dissertations on the law regulating drones and later lethal autonomous weapons; topics like the right to die or assisted suicide also tend to be popular at different periods. This does not mean that you should not do a popular topic, but you should consider how you can bring a fresh perspective. You could for instance take a more socio-legal perspective or take a different theoretical approach.
You might also want to be strategic about selecting essay topics and a dissertation topic that develops your profile as an expert in a particular area. So rather than thinking of your dissertation as an isolated exercise, think about how you would present your corpus of work for the programme as developing specialist expertise, culminating in your dissertation.
The topic should have some significance, not just to you but to others. This might be because it is intellectually interesting or because it addresses a problem.
It should also be manageable given the timeframe open to you; consider Walliman’s advice – will you be able to draw conclusions, is the project well delineated and do-able (Walliman Chapter 1)?
Finally, when thinking of a topic, think about your own skills and knowledge. While doing a dissertation you will develop your skills and knowledge but it would be a risk to select a project where you have no prior knowledge and where you lack the relevant skills. If contemplating such an ambitious step think seriously about how you will gather the knowledge and develop the skills in the few months available to you.
A dissertation, even more than an essay, is not simply a long document about a topic, much less an ‘information dump’. It is important to realise that a dissertation does not just describe, or examine, or analyse, or study a particular area of law. A dissertation must have a purpose to it; there must be a point to the dissertation. This is expressed in different ways.
The most common way of expressing this requirement is to say that a dissertation must have a research question ie what is it you want to learn. Or there may be a requirement that a dissertation have a central thesis. Or that it have a central argument, though note well that here that argument has a technical meaning. ‘Argument’ here means that it is reasoned answer to a question. The following are not arguments: background, introductions, quotes, descriptions, summaries, explanations, examples, questions, rhetorical questions, statements of opinion/ agreement / disagreement (Cottrell 2005 Ch. 4)
You should reflect on what your purpose, or research question, or argument is. You should try and make this explicit, both to yourself and to your reader. Making this purpose explicit to yourself will assist you in choosing research approaches and methods, in how you read, and in structuring your dissertation. Making it explicit to your reader will help the reader understand your dissertation. Furthermore the assessment of your dissertation will largely turn on how successfully you answer your research question, on how convincingly you develop your thesis or argument. If your purpose is unclear to yourself or your reader, then it is likely that the dissertation will be confused.
The language of ‘research question’ or ‘thesis’ highlights an important point. Your dissertation must be based on an open-minded approach, one that makes judgements based on evidence, even if the author does not instinctively like the conclusion. This requirement is also implicit in the academic understanding of what an argument is. All of this goes to critical thinking that we will discuss soon. The term ‘argument’ does highlight other important aspects of the dissertation exercise: your dissertation must come to a conclusion (based on evidence) and this conclusion may involve taking sides.
Thus essays or dissertations which start off with ‘I will examine what the Court has said on issue X, explore the advantages and disadvantages of the Court’s approach and then come to a conclusion’ will rarely get high marks – they tend to become descriptive and lack a clear point. Presumably the hypothetical author intends to be open-minded and balanced; this is good but you write the essay after having done the open-minded and balanced research. You should be able to give some clearer indication of your argument and even your conclusion.
Try and make your purpose / research question / argument as precise as possible. In particular avoid very general or vague statements of your purpose. Your purpose should not simply be to ‘describe the law pertaining to the use of force’ or to ‘examine the law relating to privacy’. Rather your question might be ‘has the Iraq invasion established a new rule on the use of force in international law?’ or ‘how can the law effectively protect privacy in the Twitter age?’ (For more on trying to make your question precise, see Finch and Fafinski, Ch 13).
In your reading, your writing and of course your thinking, you must demonstrate critical thinking. Critical thinking is one of the most important, if not the most important, skill you should develop at University. See the Further Reading page for more reading on critical thinking.
Critical here does not mean ‘negative’ much less ‘nihilistic’. Be a ‘critic, not a cynic’ (Paul and Elder 2001: 381). Critical here means that one exercises independent powers of judgement; that one has the courage to think for oneself (Kant, What is Enlightenment?). Borrowing again from Kant, we might say that critical thinking requires an ever unquiet or restless reason; that is to say a questioning attitude. Critical thinking is all about asking the right questions (Browne and Keeley 2007; see also this poster). We often say we are looking for ‘deep’ thinking rather than ‘surface’ thinking, i.e. show that you are engaging with the material, questioning it.
These questions may go to understanding what someone is saying (what is the author’s purpose here? Can I restate it in my own words?), but should also involve substantive points: what is the evidence for a position? Are the reasons for this position convincing? Is there other evidence that needs to be considered? Question whether the evidence and reasons are accurate, consistent, relevant, convincing? Is there a better interpretation of the evidence? Are there implicit assumptions and if so, are these justifiable? Do not take anyone’s views – treatise writer, judge, tutor – for granted. Demand evidence and reasons for any position.
Read court cases carefully – make sure to read minority or dissenting opinions as these often give great insight into alternatives to the majority approach. When discussing court cases with more than one judge, consider the status of each judge (is the judge giving an individual opinion, a dissenting opinion, an opinion in which other judges concur?). Be careful relying on the first speech – it may be a dissent or partial dissent (e.g. Lord Bingham in Al Skeini). Remember that judges frequently summarise others’ views, eg counsel before them; judges in previous cases; other judges in the same case. Do not assume that everything a judge says is his or her own view.
Critical thinking and deep reading are very important because not every piece of work you read will itself be entirely rigorous or up to date – so it is important for you to make up your own mind. Consider the context in which a writer is writing: a view from Jennings in 1954 may not be accurate when describing the situation in the 21st Century. It is better to make your own mistakes trying to use your own understanding rather than repeating others’ mistakes!
Critical thinking also requires that you think from the viewpoint of others (Paul and Elder 2006 refer to this as ‘wide’ thinking). If you are writing a dissertation about the Iraq invasion and want to argue that it was illegal, think carefully about how the matter would appear to someone who did not agree with you (an advisor to the UK Government, an academic who has defended the invasion, a member of the Iraqi opposition). Can you enter into the assumptions and viewpoints of someone else and think through what is required to convince him or her?
Critical thinking means being self-critical. Thus you have to examine your own assumptions and try and make them explicit and justify them. Avoid ‘wishful thinking’ (Grünfeld et al 2010 suggest human rights scholars are prone to this). Do not attack ‘straw men’ i.e. anonymous unidentifiable people with whom you disagree.
Show awareness of nuance and complexity; avoid broad statements about e.g. broad statements about a specific culture or religion’s respect for human rights. Be careful about reductionist arguments or ‘either-or’ (black/white or Manichean) thinking. At the same time do not use complexity or nuance to hide behind: you need to give a clear precise answer to the question (even if it is a complicated answer).
Be wary of terms that are question-begging or loaded (‘undoubtedly’ ‘obviously’ ‘it is clear that’, ‘that view is absurd!’), that encourage complicity (‘we all know’, ‘no sane person would’), appeal to fashion (‘it is no longer the 1950s!’), or that are vague or vacuous (‘quite’ ‘very’ ‘fairly’). Do not shy away from strongly worded conclusions if these are justified (the stronger the conclusion the greater the justification required).
Whilst at the upper levels of the marking scale, we speak of ‘originality’ this is a very high standard, more commonly associated with PhDs. We are really looking for a distinctive approach, that you are speaking in a distinctive voice (your own!), maybe looking at a fairly small area that has not been well covered before, and showing a sense of judgment.
You should think carefully about anything you read or write. Is it clear, accurate and precise (Paul and Edler 54, 128)?
You need to avoid broad statements or generalizations that may oversimplify matters:
- Human Rights Law. ‘The ECHR protects only civil and political rights’ is so broad and simplistic as to be wrong. Better: ‘The ECHR explicitly recognises mainly civil and political rights, but also includes the prohibition of forced labour, the right to respect for family life, the right to form trade unions, the right to marry, the right to property and the right to education’.
- Constitutional law. ‘Conventions are unwritten practices which evolve over time’ is again too broad and simplistic. Some conventions can be written down (ministerial code) and some can be created at a specific moment in time (eg Sewell, Salisbury).
Some statements may be an unfortunate slip of the typing key: ‘other international treaties such as the UDHR’ is misleading and wrong. Similarly if you write that the ECtHR banned the Turkish Welfare Party in the Refah Paritisi case you are wrong (the Turkish constitutional court banned it; the ECtHR held that the ban was compatible with Turkey’s obligations under the ECHR). Similarly ‘the PSNI was required to be 50:50 Catholic: Protestant’ is wrong; what should be said is that ‘there was temporary quota requirement that 50% of PSNI recruits be Catholic’. Again, ‘Article 3 of the European Convention protects the right to vote’ is wrong: ‘Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention protects the right to vote’ is okay.
Try to include specifics rather than generalities. For instance, do not say ‘Few countries have ratified Protocol 12’ but rather ‘As of 21 October 2009 only 17 countries of 47 COE member states have ratified Protocol 12’.
Avoid purely descriptive pieces. Look through your papers – which parts are quotes, description, summary, background; which parts are your actual arguments or evaluations.
Avoid inserting material simply because it somehow looks relevant. It may well be relevant, but you need to be explicit about how it contributes to the argument.
Be careful when summarising. Do not do too much summarising (i.e. demonstrating knowledge). Bloom identifies a hierarchy of intellectual skills: knowledge is the lowest level. Markers are looking to see more than knowledge. They are looking to see if you understand what you have read and what you have written, can you apply it to different circumstances, can you analyse it, can you synethesis different elements and can you evaluate the material before you? Bloom’s Taxonomy is discussed in Finch and Fafinski; for a poster, click here). Some versions of Bloom’s Taxonomy swap synthesis (creation) with evaluation.
This is probably the aspect of dissertation writing that tends to intimidate students, especially when framed in terms of ‘methodology’, ‘theory’ or ‘framework’. See Cryer et al for discussion of these different ways of describing what they call methodology (Cryer et al 2011: 5).
Law students and indeed academics sometimes react to questions about methodology by saying that this is what other disciplines do, that lawyers just ‘read cases and books and then come to conclusions’, or even that they use a ‘legal’ methodology.
It follows though from what we have said about critical thinking that we can and must say more than this. To say that one has a ‘legal’ methodology implies that the lawyers, judges, academics and philosophers who have contributed to the millennia old debates about law were mistaken in thinking that there was any controversy.
For instance, even if you wish to take a doctrinal or black-letter analysis, you still need to think about how to approach questions of interpretation or precedent. Lawyers disagree about how to approach these questions and have numerous and different ways of analysing rules (Twining and Miers 2010). If you want to consider a project concerning policy or law reform you need to consider why a particular policy should be favoured. This takes you into normative and empirical questions. Or you could take an approach which is more explicitly critical of the law; eg you might want to take a critical legal scholar (CLS), feminist or Derridean or queer theory approach or a comparative approach.
Comparative pieces can be tricky. Think about why you are comparing – is it to find a ‘better solution’, is it to understand something about the nature of law, is it to understand something about different legal cultures? Be cautious about ‘better solution’ comparative law – it is not necessarily easy to transplant legal rules or institutions from one jurisdiction to another.
When choosing your approach, consider whether you have an adequate grounding in the approach. It would be a high risk strategy to adopt (eg) a deconstructionist approach if you have no prior experience with deconstruction.
For more on these different approaches see Salter and Mason 2007; Cryer et al 2011.
Planning and supervision
You need to devote some thought to how you will work on your dissertation. A dissertation is a substantial piece of work – even just in terms of sheer length a dissertation may be twice the length of an average journal article in a UK law review.
To address such a challenge it is necessary to start planning (and thinking and reading and writing) early. It will be a more manageable task if you start early and break the project down into components that are doable. You can’t just sit down and write 10-20,000 words but you can sit down and identify what you need to read, locate it, read it, write notes, do a chapter outline, write first draft of a chapter section, check your references, write a first draft of the next three sections, etc.
Identify the deadline for your project and work back from that in terms of what you need to do – what material do you need to collect? What are the different chapters you will need to write?
You will find it helpful to break the project up into smaller tasks and timetable when you will need to do them.
If you plan to do any sort of empirical work –interviews, surveys, site visits – it is especially important that you start planning early. You may well have ethics procedures to comply with, and the practicalities or arranging interviews, visits etc can take a considerable amount of time. And you will need to consider the timetables of other people.
Meet with your supervisor early in the project. You should have some idea as to what you want to talk about -and ideally some sort of dissertation outline (see Finch and Fafinski Ch 13) – before you approach your supervisor, but do not leave it too late. You will need to factor your supervisor’s schedule into your own, especially if your dissertation needs to be completed over the summer.
Ethics and Integrity
All research projects should consider whether there are issues of ethics and integrity to be addressed. While often discussions of ethics and integrity focus on research involving human participants, principles of ethics and integrity are relevant to all research projects.
The responsibility to give credit for others’ work is an ethical requirement. This is why consideration of referencing and plagiarism is important.
Similarly, you need to consider whether your research might do any harm. You should consider whether there are any equality dimensions to your project: eg is there a difference in how men and women experience the phenomena being examined? Has allowance been made for this in the research design?
More onerous ethical obligations arise if you want to do empirical work involving interviewing other people. The ethical obligations will generally escalate as the contact with human persons becomes more sensitive. There are ethical issues involved in interviewing professionals and expert for instance. Greater obligations exist if one wishes to interview ordinary people and even more so vulnerable groups. (Probably not relevant if you are doing a law dissertation but most institutions will have very elaborate requirements for any work involving human tissue or experimentation.)
Check your institution’s ethics policy.