The Three Elements of a Master’s Dissertation

The Three Elements of a Master’s Dissertation. This blog backs up the recent blog on the Quality Assurance Agency QAA requirements for Master’s level study. However, this time I’m approaching the topic from a research project supervisors point of view. I will look at the three essential elements of a dissertation. This is what supervisors should be looking for when marking your thesis!

Here is a short video clip on the subject.

The Three Elements of a Master’s Dissertation

So here are the three elements:

  • Demonstration of Knowledge (as required by the QAA)
  • Evidence of Application of that Knowledge
  • Demonstration of Critical Evaluation (as required by the QAA)

Together, these three will ‘tell a story’ through the dissertation showing a logical progression. “I know this, I’ve seen it used, and I can critically evaluate it”. Such an approach will show a Master’s Level of academic study.

Demonstrating Knowledge in a Master’s Dissertation

Knowledge will be demonstrated in the Literature Review chapter. I have a separate blog on writing the literature review. Remember that at Master’s level you are demonstrating a Mastery of your subject area. The literature review is a critical review of the literature, rather than just a statement of what different people say. You will need to look at what several authors say about a topic. Look to see if the definitions of common terms are the same, similar, or different. State, and comment on these differences in the literature review. However, you may want to save full discussion for the critical evaluation chapter. It is a good idea to make a note in the relevant chapter at this point so that this issue can be discussed further.

As well as looking at definitions, look at several key theories and search out the similarities and differences between them. Having looked at several authors views (cited) you will be able to state your own definitions or opinions based on the literature.

Demonstrating Application of Knowledge in a Master’s Dissertation

This could be achieved in a variety of ways, depending on your research methodology approach. Many of the students that I supervise use secondary data from case studies. Some manage to collect primary data via interviews.

  • Examination of Case Studies would demonstrate that you have seen the theory in practise
  • Interviews from people who have applied the theories would also be acceptable.
  • Questionnaires collected from people who are first hand applicators of the theory is also acceptable. (Note: Questionnaires are difficult to write correctly, and rely on being answered by people who have personal experiences).

Other research methods may allow a more first-hand demonstration of application of theory. These might include:

  • Observations
  • Ethnography
  • Experimental Design
  • Immersion

It should be apparent that you cannot successfully talk about the application of knowledge until it has been successfully demonstrated as understood in the literature review chapter. If your research is uncovering topics not researched in the literature review chapter, then you should go back and demonstrate knowledge of these topics by adding to the chapter.

In the reporting of results, you will be looking for similarities and differences between the answers/interviews or case studies. Again, it may be better to separate a ‘statement of the results’ from any detailed ‘evaluation and discussion’. Leaving the discussion for the critical evaluation chapter.

Critical Evaluation and Discussion in the Master’s Dissertation

Now is your opportunity to discuss your findings. Findings from the literature review, and findings from the data collection.

  • Comment on the differences discovered in the literature review chapter. Between authors, definitions, and/or theories. Why are they different?
  • Discuss the differences between the case studies or the collected data. Examine why differences exist.
  • Comment on how the theories studied in the literature review were applied (or not) in the case studies or supported (or not) in the data collected.

The discussion chapter, by definition, is an interconnection and debate between the various sections in the dissertation. It should include your thoughts and recommendations, and be backed up by a limited number of citations. The discussion chapter may operate in parallel to the literature review chapter, following the same order of topics. It will also point out the limitations, exceptions, and exclusions from the research.

Balance between the Literature Review and Research Methodology and the Critical Evaluation Chapters



It is time to consider what part of the dissertation is really your own work. The literature review is taken from the subject experts. Although you have collected and ordered the work with correct citations, it is not really your own creative work.

Any case studies, interview, or questionnaire results are again not your own work. Although you created the questionnaires of held the interviews, it is again the opinion of others.

Therefore, the critical evaluation chapter is essential. This really is your own work. It therefore deserves to be equal in weight to the other 2 sections. This is why I have suggested ‘holding information back’ from the other sections into this section.

I recommend aiming for 33% for each section. Now this is not a rigid allocation, but rather an ideal. It is easy for a supervisor to see how many pages are allocated to each of these sections. Therefore they need an equal weighting. Less than 20% or more than 40% in any section may indicate a problem.

Refer back to the blog on setting research objectives, which suggested having 2 or 3 objectives for each of these sections.

Understanding what the Project Supervisor is looking for when marking a dissertation is very helpful during the writing process. Ensure that your dissertation has a balance of Knowledge, Application, and Critical Evaluation.


Posted On: 30th September 2017

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