Of the universities in Ireland, Trinity is unique in offering a dissertation to final-year students at undergraduate level. For certain courses, such as French, it is a mandatory component of the degree, whereas for English and European studies, students can choose to do a dissertation or take an extra taught module. Though I would recommend doing it, students who have that choice should consider what they will have to put into a dissertation and what they can expect to gain from it. It may seem like a lot of work, and it is. However, there are also many benefits.
Taken in final year, the dissertation allows you to specialise in an area that you have previously covered in class, providing the opportunity to delve deeper into an area that interests you. The freedom to fully tailor your dissertation and direct your own research distinguishes the dissertation from taught modules. You determine the content, rather than the lecturer. Despite that, you do need to pick an academic supervisor who will guide your work. And so it is important to choose someone whom you get on with and who will be able to make time for you during the year.
Although a lecturer will supervise the dissertation, the student becomes an active researcher, which is valuable experience in the practice of academic inquiry. This very freedom is exciting to some and daunting to others, but taking it in final year ensures that students are already at a high standard. Nonetheless, it typically requires more work than would be needed for taught modules. This is in spite of the varying European Credit Transfers (ECTs) that it counts for, which varies between departments. My own dissertation counts for 10 ECTs, while it counts for 20 in the School of English. Regardless, the workload demands significantly more time than an equivalent module. This is through having to read extensive background material in order to complete the literature review, in some cases apply for research ethics and conduct research, as well as writing 9,000 to 12,000 words.
The freedom to fully tailor your dissertation and direct your own research distinguishes the dissertation from taught modules
Given that the dissertation takes up more work and more time than equally weighted modules, you might ask: why bother? Indeed, the time factor should be considered, but the workload is manageable if you spread it throughout the year. Despite the extra workload, crucially the dissertation ensures you have a piece of work that you can stand over after you graduate. For arts students, the project provides an example of practical application of your knowledge. Added to that, the dissertation shows that you can work independently, manage your time efficiently and communicate effectively. All skills that come in handy once you graduate and employers ask you to prove your competency. If graduate programmes aren’t your thing and you wish to pursue further study, the practice of compiling, condensing and analysing data will help you at master’s degree level.
While taught modules involve similar skills, the extent of reading, writing and self-direction is a different level of academic rigour. With this in mind, it will involve many moments of caffeinated stress and last-minute tweaks before the due date in early March. By that time I expect to feel a mixture of pride to have it done and relief to have it over. But as an exercise, it distinguishes a Trinity degree from other qualifications, since even some master’s degrees do not include a dissertation. In view of that, who could begrudge Trinity graduates their honorary “MA”?