Tag Archives: writing

How to get a better grade for an undergraduate human geography dissertation

For the past decade and a bit, I’ve supervised and examined lots of  undergraduate and Honours dissertations in human geography. In order to get a good grade, you obviously need to do some original research of your own (usually collecting and analyzing some kind of data or material through fieldwork, interviews, focus groups, or media texts), show evidence of thoughtful engagement with one or more subdisciplines of human geography and related pertinent fields, and write a coherent, well-argued and well-structured piece of work. All of that comes from hard work, reading, thinking, and practising writing. But there are additional things that undoubtedly result in a lower grade and are things worth paying attention to. They are things that as an examiner I greet with dismay. So if you want to fill your examiner with joy rather than sadness, try and get the following things right. If any of the material below is  helpful or unhelpful for you, do let me know.

  • Methods and methodology are closely related and each informs the other but they are not the same thing. Take care not to conflate them and make sure you have covered your methodological orientation (i.e. the philosophical, epistemological and theoretical underpinnings of your research) and your methods (i.e the nuts and bolts of how you gathered your material – interviews, focus groups etc – and how you analysed it – discourse analysis, content analysis etc). I have seen many dissertations with the heading ‘methodology’ in which the student only talks about methods.
  • Make sure you understand your own methodology and what it does and doesn’t enable you to theorize. In other words, don’t present findings that are not supported by your methodological approach.
  • Get your referencing right. Make sure your references are (a) complete and (b) consistently presented, especially with respect to capitalization, italicization and punctuation. This section should be headed ‘References’ (not ‘Bibliography’) and should only include material cited in the dissertation. If you cite someone directly, include the page numbers. If you take material from a particular chapter in an anthology, cite the individual chapter, not the whole anthology. Only cite the whole volume if all of the chapters refer to the point you are making. Make sure that everything you cite is in the reference list. It is frustrating to check a reference to find it is missing. Getting the reference list right is more like mechanical/clerical work that you can do when you’re struggling with your writing or too tired to do any more reading.
  • Remember that all research is biased and all authors/researchers speak from a particular location. Bias cannot be erased or overcome; it can only be negotiated/engaged with. In contemporary human geography, it is not appropriate to state that objectivity is a desirable intellectual aspiration. So don’t tell us what you did to eliminate bias, tell us how your existing biases mattered in terms of the knowledge produced. You might find that your own positionality, autobiography and subjectivity are resources that you can draw upon or a challenge to access or understanding that you needed to work through.
  • It is really boring to give chapters titles such as ‘literature review’ and ‘methodology’. Try and find more interesting and creative titles. Also, the separation of results from discussion is more in keeping with the scientific model, and does not work for a dissertation in contemporary human geography. Create some nice titles and subheadings that enliven the dissertation.
  • Make sure that the literature review that you present in the first part of the dissertation does not disappear from your substantive chapters. Show how you have applied, extended, or called into question this body of literature. If you say your dissertation is informed by concept/approach/theoretical framework x, make sure you show how x has helped you to make sense of your empirical material.
  • Figure out where you stand in relation to your theoretical material – if you use scholars with quite different views of, say, neoliberalism/gender/affect, make sure you show us that you understand the difference between their approaches, and show us which approach has greater explanatory power for your dissertation.
  • Make the most of the reading you do. A dissertation here at the University of Edinburgh is the length of a longish journal article, so when you read journal articles, learn from them in terms of composition as well as content. Look at how the author has set up the article, how s/he has done a literature review, how theories are applied or extended, what theoretical frameworks are chosen and why.
  • Avoid sexist language – there are always alternatives – use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’ or alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’. Stay ‘staff the office’ rather than ‘man the office’, say ‘intermediary’ rather than ‘middleman’, say ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’, say ‘humanity/humankind’ rather than ‘mankind’.
  • Be humble. Finish on a high note and assert what this dissertation has contributed to knowledge. Show us your passion and enthusiasm for the work that you have done. Show us if possible how it has changed you as a person. But try not to make grand overarching claims. Most of us attempt to be part of ongoing dialogues to undermine and challenge sexism, racism, poverty, inequality, environmental destruction, marginalization etc. A single piece of work can be part of this broader struggle but probably won’t by itself change the world.
  • Don’t write about yourself in the third person. Do write about yourself in the first person. It is OK to say ‘I’ and kind of strange to say ‘the author’ when referring to yourself.
  • Data are plural!
  • Don’t say anonymous/anonymity when you mean confidential/confidentiality.
  • Think about presentation. Make sure your font and formatting are consistent.
  • Bullet points like the ones I’m using here are actually quite horrible things. Save them for really exceptional circumstances – and write in sentences and paragraphs instead.
  • Don’t have one sentence paragraphs.
  • Don’t have pages and pages of unnecessary appendices. Only have an appendix if it is required (to make sense of the argument or material presented or the reader might need to refer to a chronology or list of interviewees) and if it is referred to in the text.