Stuck on Your History Dissertation? Help is at Hand!

Don’t know where to start with your undergraduate History dissertation?

This blog post series by Dr Caroline Nielsen will go through commonly asked questions and recurring issues faced by students researching and writing their final year History dissertation.


“Help, I don’t know what to do for my dissertation. I’m interested in loads of areas of History. How do I choose a topic? How do I write a History dissertation?””

If you can relate to these sentiments, don’t worry – you’re not alone! History supervisors and tutors help students facing this situation regularly.

Let’s start with the most basic question.

What Exactly is a History Dissertation?

A dissertation is an extended research assignment, usually undertaken in the final year of undergraduate study or on a taught postgraduate History programme.

In the UK where I’m writing, ‘thesis’ tends to refer more to research postgraduate projects, such as the assessment for an MPhil or PhD. In these cases, the thesis is often the only thing being assessed for the degree. That is rarely the case for an undergraduate History course in the UK.

Check! Don’t Assume!

Note that I haven’t said ‘essay’ or ‘report’ above. Or given even a rough word count yet.

This is because what can constitute a ‘dissertation project’ varies in different universities and in different subjects.

Some undergraduate students may do a combined piece such as a film or performance along with an extended piece of writing on the process, combining the technical skills of the degree programme with historical scholarly research and creativity. They may be researching in a venue or organization whilst working there as part of an internship or placement.

This variation and adaptability means that it can be difficult to be very prescriptive. For example, I can’t say that all dissertations should have certain set headings such as ‘introduction, ‘methodology’, ‘report findings’. It simply doesn’t work like that. That format might work on some types of Public History or Public Archaeology projects but they might be not suitable for a dissertation on a political, economic, or cultural history topic.

Neither can I give a set word count which would apply across all institutions. 10,000 words for an undergraduate BA History dissertation is a fairly standard word length in the UK: that’s the total for the BA History Single Honours degree course at Northampton.

But it might not be in other places. It might be 8,000 or 12,000 words. This is similar to the word limits for articles in different academic scholarly journals.

This variability makes it absolutely vital that students check with the dissertation supervisors and course tutors at their own institution, to ensure that their proposed project fulfills the expectations and requirements of their course.

On the BA History course at Northampton, we have a dedicated Dissertation module leader, who runs a module focused on dissertation design and formatting as well as tutors who acts as supervisors for each project. (more on dissertation supervision in a later post…).

In short, be a bit wary of one-size fits all ‘dissertation templates that have not come from your institution or from your course. One-size rarely fits all types of History research or university study!

A Unifying Feature…

Whatever History dissertation topic you are studying, there is one thing that nearly all good History dissertations do have in common. That is….

Full source referencing and acknowledgement of other sources at all times.

History dissertations tend to have a lot of referencing and extensive bibliographies of both primary (original) sources and secondary academic literature that run over several pages.

This is because it takes a long time to compile the level of research and engagement with sources and scholarship needed to write a good History dissertation. Lots of different sources of evidence and scholarship will need to be consulted.

Not fully acknowledging your sources and others’ research puts you at risk of accidental plagiarism. It also makes it more difficult for markers to gauge how far you have engaged with relevant materials.

This can have very serious consequences, ranging from lower grades to university disciplinary action. As the dissertation or final project is usually more heavily weighed (i.e. worth more) than other university modules on a course, a lower grade on a dissertation can be major implications for a student’s final degree outcome.

So, make sure you are clear about the guidelines on this in your institution and ask for help if you are unsure how to reference something.

The Next Step: Finding Your Topic

Once you know the standard format expectations of a dissertation expected by your course, you can begin to you narrow down on suitable topics.

Topic selection is the subject of the next post in this series!

Please do join us again to learn more….

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