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The MSc research dissertation
A supplement to the School of the Built Environment (SBE) Dissertation Guide
This guidance is for students undertaking a research dissertation as part of their
postgraduate MSc programme It supplements, and should be read in conjunction with, the School Dissertation Guide which is also available on VISION. These documents contain important information to explain the dissertation process and guidance for getting started on the dissertation. Please note that although these documents refer to the School’s previous name (School of the Built Environment) they relate to the school’s current name (School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society)
1. Introduction
As part of all postgraduate MSc programmes delivered by the School of the Built Environment students are required to undertake some research and to prepare and submit an MSc dissertation. The dissertation gives the opportunity to investigate a topic of interest in depth leading to real understanding and insight in a contemporary setting. It represents the student’s own work and involves considerable effort in its preparation. Although all dissertations’ are different and vary according to the topic being studied there are many features such as style and layout that are common. This guidance note (together with the School guide) introduces some of the features and conventions to be found in good dissertations and provides a starting point for further reading in research dissertation preparation.
The MSc dissertation is equivalent to 4 taught courses (60 credits) and is the most substantial piece of individual work submitted during the programme. As an indication it is normally around 15,000 words (excluding appendices) in length. This should demonstrate that the student has the ability to conduct a piece of rigorous research in his or her chosen field, and involves critical thinking and reasoning. It is not sufficient for a dissertation to be about description, summarising and measuring. These activities simply provide a framework for the thinking and reasoning.
The research dissertation is undertaken on successful completion of the eight taught courses and formally starts when the ‘proceed to dissertation stage’ decision is made by the exam board which considers performance in the eight taught courses. At this point a dissertation supervisor from the academic staff will be allocated to guide its development. Some preliminary work is required prior to this though in developing an outline research proposal for discussion with the supervisor in the first meeting (see section 2).
2. Dissertation timescale and supervisor allocation
All students, regardless of mode of study, formally start the dissertation when they have successfully completed the taught courses in their programme at MSc level. In such cases a ‘proceed to dissertation stage’ notification is given following the exam board which considers performance in the taught courses. This will either be in the June or August exam board, depending on when the student successfully completes all required taught courses.. For most FT campus based students this will be in June when the semester 1 and 2 courses have been passed with no resits required. The dissertation is then prepared over summer and submitted in August. Students with resits from semester 1 or semester 2 must first pass these before proceeding to the dissertation stage, and will submit and graduate at a later date. Work on the dissertation starts, however, prior to the allocation of a supervisor with the preparation of the outline research proposal as explained below
· Full-time students
For full-time students the programme starts in September and exams are taken in December and April i.e. at the end of the semester in which the course is taken. There are 8 taught courses each of which is expected to take 150 hours of student effort. FT students attend classes 2 days per week, Monday and Friday, throughout semester 1 and 2. Although the majority of the research work will be undertaken when students are given the ‘proceed to dissertation stage’ notification, all students are expected to
begin preliminary work on the research proposal immediately following the S2 exams. At this point there will be an induction session to guide students on how to prepare the proposal.
· Part-time and Distance Learning students
PT students normally take the programme over a 2 year period. From September to April of each year students take 4 taught courses, each of which is expected to take 150 student effort hours. PT students will be allocated a supervisor following successful completion in the taught courses in year 2, but are encouraged to prepare their research proposal in year 1 of their studies to help ensure good and early progress in thinking about the dissertation.
Distance learning students may commence the programme in September, January and May of each year and typically follow a more flexible route through their programme depending on their circumstances. DL students are also allocated a supervisor on successful completion of the taught courses.
Part Time and DL students will often suggest topics that arise from problems or circumstances at their place of work. This can help students who may have some prior knowledge of the subject and the student (and his or her employer) can be assured of its relevance. It also provides ready access to fieldwork data e.g. case studies, interviewees, questionnaire respondents.
3. Getting the research proposal underway
The dissertation starts with the preparation of an outline research proposal, based on the student’s initial ideas for an investigation, using the guidance in this document. Once the supervisor is allocated, the student’s outline research proposal is then discussed with the supervisor for feedback and guidance on its development. The steps for preparing the outline research proposal are as follows.
1. Consider a topic area, most likely arising from an aspect of your programme that you have found of particular interest or relevance to you, which you would like to research in-depth for your dissertation. There are no restrictions on the topic area as long as it is connected in some way to the built environment. However it is important that the idea for the investigation is initiated by the student. Some initial reading and review of the literature will help to reveal contemporary issues which the construction industry and other researchers are facing which should help structure your initial ideas.
2. Prepare a 500-800 word (approx) outline research proposal which develops your initial ideas into a draft research plan. Use the research proposal drafting guidance contained in Appendix 1 of this document.
3. Once a supervisor is allocated forward him or her a copy of your research proposal and be prepared to discuss it in your first meeting with them. Feedback will help to modify, refine and develop the initial research proposal into a workable framework and plan for preparing the dissertation.
4. Maintaining progress on the dissertation
Following the research proposal phase it is most important to maintain progress on the research work over the duration of its preparation, even in the face of competing demands for time from the project. A dissertation cannot be completed satisfactorily in an intensive campaign because the planning of interviews, fieldwork, procurement of materials and writing up of the work takes time. Therefore students should work back from the submission date allowing sufficient time for the various stages of the work in consultation with their supervisor and work steadily.
The final stage is pulling the whole dissertation together in a format suitable for final presentation that conforms to the School specifications (see the School dissertation guidance for details). This always takes much longer than expected particularly the final stages when all the basic text is completed.
Usually it is only when writing up when certain features of the results (fieldwork or literature) are noticed and often require further analysis or reading. It is not uncommon for a student to start writing with one opinion and completely change their mind half way through. Students should be prepared to revise the structure of the dissertation as different aspects of the work change in importance. The
introduction and final conclusions should not be written until the main text is finished since you will not know what you are introducing or summarising.
5. Research methods
Every MSc dissertation should give due consideration to research design and methods. Research design includes evaluating the type of data that has to be collected, evaluating methods of selection, and designing the sample and subsequent analysis of the data. There are numerous texts on research methodology and dissertation preparation that can be consulted. Two such texts which are particular to construction are ‘Dissertation Research and Writing for Construction Students’ by S.G Naoum (available as an EBook) and ‘Research Methods for Construction’ by R Fellows and A Liu- though there are many others in the university library which are also very relevant. The research strategy should be discussed thoroughly with your supervisor.
6. Presentation of the Completed Dissertation
Detailed specifications for presentation of the dissertation are contained in the accompanying School Dissertation Guide. It is extremely important that you conform to these specifications. Errors of non-standard presentation are easy to avoid, yet can cost significant marks. In particular, your attention is drawn to the form of referencing to be used. The Harvard system (as explained in the School Dissertation Guide) is to be used throughout. Dissertations that do not conform to the Harvard system of referencing may not be accepted for submission and assessment.
7. Dissertation Quality
To illustrate the possible range in quality that may be found in completed dissertations, the following examples show typical features that might be found in 3 dissertations of varying quality- poor, good and excellent. As your work progresses you should reflect on where you feel your dissertation might be placed and do all you can to ensure the best quality possible is achieved.
· An example Poor dissertation
The introduction is woolly and neither the general subject area nor the specific topic of investigation is properly introduced. The literature review is little more than a summary of documents with no attempt to be critical, no attempt to place the text in a logical sequence and no discussion on the implications. The logical development of the hypothesis will probably be unclear and there is probably little or nothing on research methods and data analysis. The attempt at data collection is poor, experimental work would be poorly described and badly executed e.g. no calibration, did not follow the ISO method, selective collection of published data, or poorly thought out questionnaires, incomplete case studies or haphazard use of archives or literature. The resulting analysis of the information is poor. There is little data to consider and this is described rather than rigorously analysed. Presentation of the results and other information is likely to be haphazard.
· An example Good Dissertation
There is a good overview of the subject and a reasonable description of the aims and objectives which are then appropriate for the rest of the dissertation. The literature review contains a summary of the key documents and has some discussion. Some documents are compared to others though some probably appear to be unconnected to the main aims and objectives. Data collection is well thought out and explained, leading to collecting of data in a systematic manner. The dissertation demonstrates that the student has a good grasp of the results and a relatively clear understanding of their
importance. The results will be well presented though it is likely that their full implication will not be appreciated. Inconsistencies in the data will probably be missed or ignored.
· An example Excellent Dissertation
There is an excellent overview of the subject and a clear description of the aims and objectives of the dissertation, which are then appropriate for the rest of the dissertation. There is an excellent literature review with documents being reviewed which are all up to date and relevant. There is appropriate cross-referencing and points of agreement and dispute are identified and discussed. The aims and objectives of the dissertation are seen to emerge naturally from the review. Areas where the literature is deficient are also correctly identified. Research methods are identified and appropriate methods selected. Data analysis methods are identified and discussed. The approach to data collection follows from the literature review but is modified to suit local experience and the topic. The student has collected data in a consistent and appropriate manner and has used a method specifically designed to answer the original aims and objectives. An excellent analysis of the data is carried out. In the case of non-numerical, or qualitative, data a thorough examination will lead to underlying themes and trends being revealed and presented in a highly structured way. Discussion of the themes is carried out with reference to the issues being investigated in the dissertation, leading to appropriate and concisely expressed conclusions being drawn. In the case of numerical results they would be clearly presented probably in graphical form and would establish clearly whether or not the original hypothesis (aims and objectives) had been met. Statistical analysis would probably have been carried out establishing beyond doubt whether or not the conclusions were justified. Inconsistencies in the data would be highlighted and explained.
8. Marking and assessment of the Dissertation
Each dissertation or diploma report will be independently read and assessed by two members of staff, including the supervisor, using the marking schedule reproduced in Appendix 2. An agreed mark is then reported to the postgraduate examination board. If necessary the assessors will interview the student to clarify any uncertainties and help inform their view of an appropriate mark. Every dissertation should address the following aspects. The emphasis placed on each of these should be discussed with your supervisor to ensure the most appropriate balance of effort.
· Introduction and general context
It is necessary to give context to your investigation within the first chapter to help ‘locate’ the work academically. This helps justify why your study is timely and relevant by making reference to other related published work in the field, and evaluating the contribution your dissertation will make to the field. This section will not normally exceed 3 pages. The preparation of this chapter necessarily requires a student to read widely about the subject even though not all material read will appear in the dissertation.
· Literature review
The object of the literature review is to review the scholarly literature on the subject and critically review it. This review will almost certainly include a comparison between references and therefore discrepancies and differences of opinion should be highlighted and discussed. The review must include a general review of the subject leading to a hypothesis, a review of research methods and a review of data analysis methods.
· Research methodology
The research methods should demonstrate that the student is able to undertake research appropriate to the subject in a systematic and meaningful manner. The method adopted would follow from the literature review and may include experimental work in the laboratory or in the field, interviews, questionnaires, surveys, case studies or the systematic collection of data and other information from the literature or archives. Note that collection of published data is not the same as a literature review and that a student should clearly distinguish between them. The collection of information for analysis
and discussion is central to a dissertation and the rigour that would be expected for laboratory experiments should be the same as for any other data source.
· Discussion, information analysis, interpretation and conclusions
The analysis of the information and the conclusions should demonstrate that the student understands the significance of the findings, present them in an appropriate manner and can draw sensible conclusions.
9. Submission Procedures
There are 2 forms of submission:
Two spiral-bound copies of the dissertation (campus based students only), conforming to the presentation specifications prescribed in the School Dissertation Guide should be submitted to the School office by the stipulated deadline. Exact dates and deadlines are posted on VISION. An Electronic copy of the dissertation is uploaded to ‘Turnitin’ through VISION. This should be a single MS Word file or pdf file matching exactly the hardcopy version. It is acknowledged that appendices to the main document may not always be available in Word format. DL students only need to submit an electronic copy through Turnitin.
Students must make their own arrangements for copying and binding of the dissertations. The university’s printing department can provide spiral binding. Students bear the cost of all binding. The copies of the dissertation should be submitted to Postgraduate School Office of the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society.
Delay caused by stationer’s printing/binding backlogs is not acceptable as a reason for late submission of a dissertation. You should therefore allow plenty of time for your dissertation to be printed and bear in mind that every other MSc student has also handed in their dissertation for printing at the same time.
Fieldwork material
Students should keep any supporting material generated from the fieldwork until after the exam board. This could include interview notes, minutes of meetings, questionnaire survey returns or log book showing experimental work as appropriate to the topic being studied.
The School and the University treat plagiarism extremely seriously. Suspected cases of plagiarism will result in disciplinary action being initiated against the student. Section 9 of the School Dissertation Guide explains the issue of plagiarism in greater detail. Please work with your supervisor to ensure that any published work used in the preparation of your dissertation is done so legitimately and referenced appropriately
Word Count
The word count of your dissertation (excluding references) should be no more than 15,000 words. Dissertations that exceed this limit will face a penalty in grading.
Appendix 2
Starting the Dissertation- the Outline Research Proposal
This guidance note should be used to help you in the preparation of the outline research proposal
The research proposal is the essential first step in laying the groundwork for the dissertation. It involves taking your initial idea and developing it into a more structured format which considers the elements outlined below. Preparing the proposal will obviously involve some initial investigation and library work to look at articles, books and perhaps other dissertations related to your topic of interest (It is not merely describing your idea!)
Don’t worry though, the effort involved is not wasted as the research proposal forms the first chapter of the dissertation itself. You will also find that a thorough approach to the proposal will help clarify your own ideas and direction for the project. In taking your initial topic idea forward, use the following headings to structure your thoughts and lend some focus to the purpose of your proposed investigation. This will form the basis of chapter 1 of your dissertation. Preparing an outline research proposal is a significant step forward in preparing to formally commence the dissertation.
The selection below is adapted from ‘Dissertation Research and Writing for Construction Students’ by S.G Naoum (available as an Ebook from university library), which is a good text to refer to for further guidance.
Rationale for the study
A discussion of approximately 500-800 words which sets out the problem and the reason for the proposed study, highlighting the issues to be investigated. This should explain to the reader why it is a timely and worthwhile investigation. The rationale should be supported by a few key references to related work in the area which you are proposing to build on (a precursor to the literature review). Key references should be drawn from related research in the proposed area of study. Journals, conference proceedings, reports etc. are a good source of up-to-date material.
A clear one or two sentence aim should be provided, highlighting your ultimate goal for the dissertation.
Usually between three and five, single-sentence, objectives should be developed. Objectives are the breakdown of the aim into those separate, but related, issues that when investigated will allow you to achieve the main aim. The aim can be considered to be strategic in nature while the objectives are operational.
Outline research methods.
This explains your approach to the study in terms of its ‘deskwork’ and ‘fieldwork’ aspects. The deskwork will be the literature review, and you should identify what the main themes of the literature review will be (what is it that you are looking for from the literature). Also what type of journals and other publications will you be investigating for the literature review. (you should try to identify a few named journals that you will use). The fieldwork relates to the actual data you will collect. In construction management research this is normally through case studies, questionnaires or interview of relevant personnel. What form of data do you envisage collecting and how will this be used to help achieve your objectives.
Sourcing information to develop the research proposal
For helping to develop both the rationale for the research proposal and the subsequent literature review there are a number of good construction management related journals available on-line through the university library web site. Try an online search of ‘Construction Management and Economics’ , ‘International Journal of Project Management’, ‘Journal of Construction Engineering and Management’, for example, for some of your themes. There are a number of other relevant resources
available on the university library web site as well. Google Scholar is also an excellent search engine which links directly to Heriot-Watt University library. The University library has an excellent guide called ‘How to find out in Built Environment’ which identifies and categorises useful sources of information for the dissertation. It also provides tips on carrying out a literature review. It can be found at
Reference to related research published in academic journals is essential to a good literature review (textbooks and policy documents are not enough). Thankfully, access to such material is easy. A list of electronic journals can be found on the library homepage at The journals are all keyword searchable online, and relevant articles of interest can be printed off. It’s possible therefore to make a good start on the literature review without leaving your desk.
Try a keyword search of these relevant journals…
· Construction Management and Economics
· International Journal of Project Management
· Building Research and Information
· Facilities
· Journal of Facilities Management
· Facilities Design and Management
· Journal of Construction Engineering and Management
· Journal of Management in Engineering
Another excellent resource is the Association of Researchers in Construction Management (ARCOM) website which has a searchable database of relevant papers at
Grading guidelines:
Grade Guidance Notes:
(Normally 80+%)
As previous category, but in addition, displaying a very high ability to comprehend the subject matter within the wider context and demonstrating considerable originality. The highest level of structure and presentation.
(Normally 70- 79%)
An extremely thorough, distinction level piece of research. Thorough understanding of the subject and issues. Demonstrates a high degree of critical appraisal analysis, clear ability to formulate/construct hypotheses and excellent understanding and application of research methods. Conclusions are well supported by the content. Very well structured and presented.
(Normally 60- 69%)
A good understanding of the subject and issues. Demonstrates a clear ability to ask the right questions and formulate/construct hypotheses to address the issues. Good understanding and application of research methods. Critical appraisal and analysis is demonstrated and conclusions and recommendations supported. Well structured and presented over and above the basic standard.
(Normally 50-59%)
A reasonable understanding of the subject and issues, which asks questions and addresses potential answers, supported by a reasonable degree of analysis and critique. Acceptable consideration of research methods. Conclusions are reasonably formed and recommendations are generally supported by the work undertaken. Reasonable structure and presentation.
(Normally 40-49%)
Diploma Pass
Does not meet MSc standard. A basic piece of work which demonstrates limited knowledge/effort and understanding, supported by only little analysis and minimal review. Poor or non-existent consideration of research methods. Identifies the basic issues only where conclusions are not supported. Meets the basic requirement for structure and presentation.
(Normally <40%) Does not meet Diploma standard. Poor piece of work which demonstrates very limited knowledge or understanding of the issues. Very poor or non-existent consideration of research methods. Inadequate discussion with very poorly or unsupported conclusions. Poorly structured and presented.


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