How Long is a Research Dissertation?

Last week we looked at how much you actually need to write for a PhD or Masters thesis. But what if you’re writing a research dissertation as part of a taught Honours or Masters programme? The requirements for these dissertations can seem hazy – while guidelines for a PhD or Masters thesis are clearly laid out in university policy, there are comparatively few guidelines for a dissertation.

That’s largely because dissertations can take so many different forms. In a BA(Hons), a dissertation would generally be worth 30 points; in a partially-taught Masters programme, the dissertation might be worth 45 or 60 points. The different points values are a clue that some dissertations need to be more comprehensive than others. So how long should they be? Well, I’m sorry to tell you that there are no clear rules on that, because different programmes and disciplines have different expectations.

However, let’s talk rough numbers. As a very approximate ‘rule of thumb,’ you should plan to write something in the region of 10,000 – 30,000 words in the main text of your dissertation (not counting your bibliography, any appendices, title pages, etc). You would probably aim for the low end of that range for an Honours dissertation; or the mid-to-high end of the range for a Masters dissertation. But even this very broad range is not set in stone; you should always ask your supervisor how much you are expected to write, and work to the standards set within your own discipline.

Once you know roughly how much to write, it’s time to put that number in perspective. By way of comparison, a first-year undergraduate essay is around 1,000 words. A full-length novel is around 100,000 words (more if it’s by Leo Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace).

So a dissertation is equivalent in length to approximately 10-30 short undergrad essays, or 10 – 30% of a novel. That’s a serious chunk of writing, and it will require some structuring. Many dissertation writers organise their material into several chapters, with a contents page for ease of reference. But then again, some don’t. Some include tables, figures, or images. Some incorporate a creative element. Some include personal narratives. There really is a lot of freedom to decide – in conjunction with your supervisor – the best way to write up your research.

If you want to see other dissertations in your field, you can browse the Tuwhera research repository. It contains full-text copies of hundreds of Masters dissertations by AUT students in a huge range of subjects. Honours dissertations usually aren’t published online, though your supervisor may have some exemplars available for you to browse.

Despite all this talk of dissertation length, remember that quality is more important than quantity. You don’t get any reward for hitting a certain word count. You do get rewarded for careful research design, thoroughness, and the articulate expression of well-reasoned thoughts – and that’s not easy to sum up in a number.

With that in mind, check back on Thesislink next week, when we’ll look at the marking criteria that examiners use to grade your work.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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