National Motorsport Academy

Testing Times: The Dreaded Dissertation

What makes a good final dissertation? A good start!

Recently I was at an Oulton Park test day, minding my own business watching a friend with his new race toy. I got there as he was setting up and watched the meticulous way that he set up his pit garage – tools, jacks, axle stands, tyres – everything in fact, before he got the car out. Once everything was checked for tightness, pressure and that it was working he set off. Quite handy he was as well; a nicely set up car, steady reduction in lap times, change a setting and go again – you know the score.

NMA Student Engineers

Following a set procedure, without trying to be a hero, and getting all the useful data, ready for a return on this investment at the race weekend.

For some strange (and mildly worrying) reason, this “following a process to get a result”, flicked me back to a recent question from a very able final year student who was, seemingly, completely lost. “On what?” I hear you ask.

The Big One, the Thing you have been driving towards….the final modules in your degree….The dreaded dissertation!

Don't Get in a Tizzy...

For some reason, many students get themselves tied up with this double module, the final assessment. They work themselves up into a right tizzy and what, until then, has been a solid academic performance, turns into a meltdown of epic proportions.

So, I am going to try and use the analogy of the test day procedure to shine a light on how to deliver a stress free dissertation (This should have some entertainment value! Ed.)

Before you go racing and before you go dissertating (Surely that is not a word? Ed. Look it up.. RG) the first thing you would do is read the rules.

Read the Rules

In our case the rules are the Assignment Brief. If you were racing you would decide whether you or the race car you had, could comply with the set parameters. If the answer is YES, then it is time to start thinking what needs doing.

Just like the test day, you need to be ready before you race off and write stuff – you need to set out your stall, you must prepare. You must set out your pit garage and check for tightness (Ooh err, Mrs, Ed.)

What are you going to dissertate on? Before you get going, you have to have a long, cold, hard, look at the subject matter. Your supervisor will be helpful here as they will have the experience to guide you. So, when you put the subject as “The Next Moon Landing” in front of them, they may well say “Do you think you have the time, knowledge and skill to deliver this?” Or, of course, the reply may be something slightly less eloquent but more direct.

In other words, your subject must be big enough to deliver a full project, of a strong enough quality to get you over the line, but not so big that you need to change tack half way through just to deliver on time.

This is probably the biggest unseen, unexpected problem I encounter as a dissertation supervisor; the subject is too big and too wide ranging


Closely followed by…………………

The Title

Now, I need to explain that my editor has gone off on one at this point, chuntering on about “how could a slightly incorrect title make a difference?” If you will let me just put her back in her box, I will explain.

If we put this into a racing context. My subject is, say, Setup Optimisation. I have not passed this across my supervisor, so they have not asked the eloquent question I referred to earlier.

This might make my title “Suspension optimisation for an F1 car”. Not a bad title; it says what it means so that will do.

No, it will not do – To the layperson the suspension might just be the gubbins that holds the chassis off the ground but to us it is an immensely complicated set of systems to allow the race car to perform at its best on the track.

With a title like that you have set yourself up to deliver detail about THE WHOLE suspension, front and rear and ALL the ways of optimising those parts; a huge undertaking and impossible for a dissertation and probably even a book! You will have bitten off more than you can possibly chew. This is a recipe for an absolute disaster.

Since the marking scheme will certainly include an examiners requirement to check whether the title and the content match up and are aligned, then you cannot leave any area undiscussed or you just have not delivered on your project and swathes of marks will be lost.

Read that last paragraph again – you can stuff your whole dissertation with your title, before you have even started.

I would say that I ask my students to revise their titles an average of three times after the initial on the phone discussion. As well as getting the title right, this also means that the student has had at least a couple of reviews of what they are taking on, before they actually settle down – I have had more than 1 student that has binned their first idea because they underestimated the task they had put in front of themselves.

Coming back to the analogy – would you go to a test day and then the race without all the knowledge and the kit….and expect to do well or perhaps even finish? No, of course you wouldn’t, so do not so that with your dissertation.

Next month we can look at the Literature Review; it is not what you might expect.

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