Should Dissertations be Compulsory?

It is widely accepted in UK University Geography that the pinnacle of a student’s undergraduate achievement will be the Dissertation, or Independent Research Project. In some UK Geography degrees the Dissertation can count for as much as a third of the final-year marks (Nicholson et al., 2010). The Quality Assurance Agency Subject Benchmark for Geography suggests that “within most honours degree programmes in geography, some form of independent research work will be a prerequisite, often in the form of a dissertation presented in the later stages of the programme” and goes on to imply that some of the most distinctive skills of Geography graduates are best demonstrated through their Dissertations. Even in my own institution, where we pride ourselves on offering students enormous choice and flexibility in the way they put together their degree programme, we still insist that every Geography student must do a Geography Dissertation. Are we right to do so?

In the Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Hill et al. (2011) argued that the traditional format of the Dissertation limits creativity and innovation, constraining students to a particular process and a particular product, and that greater diversity could benefit both students and their eventual employers. They concluded that the dissertation should retain its place in the curriculum but that different styles of capstone project might be appropriate for different students. Students aiming for an academic career might be best suited by the traditional format, but students aiming for other careers should be able to opt for projects that better prepare them for participation in business or commercial communities of practice. An anonymous reviewer from a University in the US, kindly offering advice on a my proposal for a 3rd edition of the book “How to do your Dissertation in Geography and Related Disciplines”, pointed out that the concept of a Dissertation as we envisaged it in our book was somewhat alien to a US audience. There are different ways of doing things.

In future posts I will look at some of the pros and cons of the traditional dissertation, and consider some examples of alternative forms of capstone project. For now, I’m just putting it out there as something to think about. Should Geography Dissertations be compulsory?

POST SCRIPT 21st June 2013

After initially posting this, I discovered this conference on “The Death of the Dissertation” at Middlesex University:



Nicholson, D. T., Harrison, M. E. & Whalley, W. B. (2010) ‘Assessment criteria and standards of the Geography Dissertation in the UK.’  Planet, 23, 18-24.

Hill, J., Kneale, P., Nicholson, D., Waddington, S. and Ray, W. (2011) ‘Re-framing the Geography Dissertation: A Consideration of Alternative, Innovative and Creative Approaches.’ Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35 (3), 331-349.

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