Department of Mechanical, Materials & Manufacturing Engineering

Guidelines on Stage 3/4 Projects

The Dissertation


Content and Length

Marks are gained by quality and not quantity. Dissertations of first class standard make their points concisely and effectively. Excessive length, especially "padding" with irrelevant, repetitive or elementary materials, will be penalised. A typical dissertation will consist of 20-40 pages in total. In certain cases a Supervisor may request that, for example, raw data, an operation manual, complete drawings, computer programs, basic theory, etc., be included to help future students. This will usually go in an appendix or supplementary volume, and should be provided only in an agreed form after consultation. A first rate dissertation is expected to exhibit the following features of good technical report writing practice.


References are used primarily to save writing. If you did not give references you would have to describe fully all the work on which you have built your own work. The use of references allows the reader (if he is sufficiently interested) to read it from the source in the same way that you did. The way to use a reference is to make some point, possibly with a summary or criticism of the source, followed by the reference in square brackets. For example:

It is obvious therefore that all the references must be referred to in the text, yet it is a common failing of student project dissertations that they are not. If a book or other source is considered worthwhile bringing to the attention of the reader despite not being referenced, it may be included in a separete bibliography.

Presentation I - appearance

This is the least important aspect of the presentation of your dissertation, but students commonly put far too much emphasis on it.

The quality of presentation is only weakly related to superficial appearance obtained by using word processing or computer graphics software. While the dissertation should be neat and clearly legible with typed/printed text, it is permissible to insert symbols, equations or even calculations and large tables neatly by hand in ink. Hand-drawn figures are frequently superior in quality to computer graphics. The choice of computer generated or hand written/drawn equations, graphics, etc, should be made on the basis of the time required. The minor improvement in appearance obtained by the use of the computer should be set against the extra time required, which you could otherwise use for coursework, revision, etc. Always ask yourself the question: "Am I using my time effectively?".

Untidy and careless work leading to a lack of clarity in figures, tables or text will be penalised. On the other hand, even excellent visual impression on its own will not automatically indicate a high level of performance unless qualified by other factors.

Further tips on writing a thesis are contained in the linked note.

Presentation II - format and style

The dissertation must be printed (or typed) on one side of A4 paper with single spaced text. The pages should be numbered sequentially in the bottom margin, starting from the introduction.

The Dissertation should contain the following sections:

A typical dissertation might be made up as follows (with the number of pages for each chapter in {braces}):

Title Page {1}; Abstract{1}; Contents and Notation {1}; Introduction {1}; Literature Review {2}; Theory {2}; Equipment Development {3}; Experimental Methods {1}; Results {4}; Discussion {3}; Conclusions {1}; References {1}.
A total of twenty one (21) pages.

The Dissertation may also contain acknowledgements, lists of figures and tables, suggestions for further study and appendices, as appropriate. Bear in mind that excessive length should be avoided.

A Dissertation should observe the following features of good technical style, and shortcomings in these respects will be penalised.

  1. The text should be divided into chapters, sections, and subsections if necessary, with the Introduction and Conclusions clearly identified as separate chapters. To help the reader, sections or subsections should be kept fairly short. On the other hand excessive use of very short subsections should be avoided. As a rule of thumb, the division of the text into sections and subsections should be arranged such they are between a half and three pages in length.

  2. Figures must be numbered in the order in which they are referred to in the text. A single sequence of figure numbers is sufficient and different sequences of numbers for diagrams/graphs/plates etc. should not be used. It should be possible for the reader to understand the figures without reference to the text, so each figure should be accompanied by a caption that clearly and briefly explains its significance. Graphs should not depend on colour for differentiation of curves and should remain comprehensible when photocopied. Tables should be numbered in a separate sequence, but should have a title and caption like the figures. The figures and tables may be grouped together at the end of the dissertation, or may be embedded in the text. If you do embed the figures in the text, ensure that they are close to (preferably on the same page as) the text that refers to them.

  3. References should be listed in full, according to the conventions used in the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (Proc. IMechE), and referred to in the text using sequential numbers in square brackets. Two common failings in the use of references are failure to cite standard work or background information quoted and inclusion of references in the reference list that are not cited in the text. Both failings will be penalised.
    For references to technical papers in journals you must quote: title, author(s), journal name, volume, (issue number), page numbers, year of publication.
    For references to books you must quote: title, author(s), publisher, place of publication, year of publication.

  4. Tables and figures should be capable of being understood in isolation. Headings or graph axes should be described in full and not just by symbols (though symbols should also appear where relevant). Units must be specified in S.I. using the standard internationally agreed abbreviations. Each table and figure must have a title, and preferably a caption in which its significance is briefly explained.

  5. Symbols, abbreviations and acronyms should conform to usual practice in the appropriate discipline and should be defined both in the Notation section and in the text at their first appearance. It is important that they are used consistently and unambiguously.

  6. Numerical values should be rounded to an appropriate number of significant figures bearing in mind their source, tolerances, experimental uncertainty, etc.

  7. Equations must be incorporated into proper sentences but should appear on a separate line unless very short and simple (e.g. E=mc2).

  8. Attention must be paid to English grammar, spelling, punctuation and the correct use of sentences and paragraphs. The spelling checker included in most word processors can be helpful here, but beware that these will not pick up the wrong use of correctly spelled English words (e.g. "Their are many rite ways two right good English" would be accepted). All the text must be written in proper sentences and not in "note" form. It is the responsibility of the students (especially non-native speakers of English) to ensure that they seek advice on this. If excessive help is provided by the Supervisor, then he will inform the Second Examiner.

Presentation III - structure and content

Structure and content should be regarded as more important than appearance, format and style. Technical content will be judged on the criteria set out in the Assessment page. Other indicators of First Class potential include:

Failure to include appropriate discussion of the work suggests Third Class performance or worse. Work carried out conscientiously and competently but without much evidence of the other factors above would probably be of Lower Second Class standard.

Students should avoid the temptation to copy sections of textbooks or papers into the dissertation. If this is done without acknowledgement of the source it constitutes plagiarism, and will be heavily penalised. Even when the source is acknowledged, the practice is to be discouraged. Non-native English speakers are under the greatest temptation here, but please note that examiners will be much more sympathetic to students with clumsy English than to students who copy sections from other authors. Always write in your own words.

The dissertation should present explicit and specific objectives in line with its title, and its contents and organisation should relate clearly to them so that the scope of the project is clear to any reader with a reasonable technical background. Correspondingly, concise conclusions should be presented to summarise the outcome of the work. These should relate to the objectives and summarise clearly for the reader precisely what has been achieved and what remains to be done.

Presentation - design work

The comments elsewhere in this page apply equally to design as to other kinds of projects. However where design work is the principal (or a major) component of the project (rather than just part of some aspect of it, e.g. design of apparatus for a mainly experimental project), the dissertation should include the following.

Where design work is only a subsidiary part of the Project, then the portion of the dissertation devoted to it should reflect this. It will usually be sufficient to summarise the specification and design calculations. Schematic diagrams may be presented in place of full assembly drawings. BAR Contents | Introduction | Timetable | Project Plan | What is Expected of You | The Project Diary | The Dissertation | Marking Scheme | Notes on Writing a Dissertation BAR

This page is maintained by Dr J M Hale
Last updated March 2000