Writing a Dissertation at LLM level
For many students the completion of their Masters dissertation may well be the first occasion that they have been faced with writing such a lengthy, independently researched piece. It can be a daunting prospect but with careful planning and consideration students should be able to focus and adapt their ideas and arguments in order to obtain a high standard of work.
What is a Dissertation?
For the majority of LLM courses a dissertation, sometimes known as a thesis or final assignment, will be a document of 10,000 words or above which presents the findings of research into a specific area of the law studied during the course. Given that many LLM courses or programs are in themselves highly specialised the subject matter of the dissertation will be of a very specific nature indeed and the student will be required to demonstrate a highly in depth knowledge of this area of law, together with displaying an understanding of how the area covered relates to other areas of the law and practice.
It may appear obvious to state, but the student will know that they must complete the dissertation in order to complete the LLM when their course begins. It may not however be a consideration at the beginning of what may be a lengthy process, that there is value in considering what the subject matter might be early on in the course. It would be inadvisable to reach a final decision at this stage but this degree of preparation will give the student the opportunity to formulate and refine their arguments over time. It will also give them the chance to consider a number of possible areas of research and to hopefully choose exactly the right one for them. Once a decision has been made in relation to the subject matter of the LLM dissertation, it will be very difficult and time consuming for the student to change their mind. It is important that the correct decision is made in the first place.
Once the student has a clear idea of their intended subject matter they should discuss this with their tutor who will offer advice on whether the subject matter is appropriate for the academic requirements of the course. In reality it is likely that the student's choice will have been made in consultation with their tutor over a period of time and this should result in the final decision being a relatively easy one to reach. Some LLM courses require a written outline to be presented prior to acceptance of a dissertation topic.
Again, another obvious statement, but the student must plan a realistic timeframe for completing their work. There will be a significant level of preparation work and research required before pen can be put to paper and this must start early enough to give time for the writing phase to be completed with comfort.
The research carried out should be clearly structured and documented. The student will have an idea of any conclusions they believe they will reach and it is sensible to categorise research into areas that support this conclusion and those which contradict it. It is also important that the student remains open minded at this point – their original belief might have been wrong and the conclusion might not be the one they expected. The level of detail and depth of knowledge required for an LLM dissertation is high. The student should ensure that they have a complete and accurate knowledge of the area of law covered and an understanding of how this may affect other areas of the law, even those outside the remit of their course. Any research however, carried out in relation to the effects on other areas of the dissertation must be considered within the context of the dissertation title.
Once all of the preliminary research is completed the student can begin to write. Before doing this however it is advisable, if the students has not already done so, to read dissertations completed by previous students. This will give an idea of the structure and presentation of the work and will enable the student to draw conclusions as to what is good and bad about these works.
Beginning to Write
By this stage the student will have a strong idea of the overall structure of their dissertation, but if they have not already done so, a plan must be made at this point. The student should decide on headings and sub-headings, the overall shape of the work and how they intend to present their arguments before they begin. None of this is set in stone but an understanding of the structure of the dissertation will make the writing process that much easier.
It is important to realise that it is unlikely that the writing process will be completely linear. It may be necessary to jump around a little whilst writing and it is advisable for the student to concentrate on the areas they feel most confident about first. This will enable the student to write more fluently and may help to clarify the areas where the student is less confident about their approach. Of course once the writing process has begun new areas of research may be brought to light and the student should remain flexible, within the context of their title, and be able to include new points of view should any become apparent.
It is highly unlikely that any student's dissertation will be completed in the first draft and there should be time to consider the work before it is submitted. At this stage this should simply involve refinement of ideas or language. If the planning and writing stages have been carried out comprehensively there should be no need for a re-write of large sections of the work.
Each university will have a different set of rules relating to citation and referencing. Providing all research has been carefully documented this final stage of completing the dissertation will not be as onerous as it might appear. Most universities require footnotes and appendices to be included in the word count with bibliographies being excluded.