MSc in IT / MSc in MIT Dissertation Handbook [version 8.3]

Summer, 2008.



All MSc students are required to successfully complete a research or development project as a part of their course, and write this up as a dissertation.  This is a major component of your degree, being worth 60 credits.  The dissertation is a Semester 2 module (G64PIT for MSc in IT, and G64PMI for MSc in MIT), and some components do need to be carried out within Semester 2.  However, the majority of the work should be conducted in the summer period - finishing in September.

N.B. The dissertations for the M.Sc. in Interactive Systems Design, Computational Finance and Computer Science and Entrepreneurship are administered separately and information in this document does not necessarily apply to those courses.

This Handbook describes these projects in some detail. However, if after having read these notes you still have problems then please e-mail Tim Brailsford for further guidance.

Module Components

  1. Staff Presentations
    There is a timetable slot for the module on MONDAYS at 10am in C33.  There will be talks relevant to dissertations given then - the itinery is provided below.
  2. Selecting a Topic
    You should choose a topic for your research, find a supervisor and have an initial supervision meeting shortly after the Easter vacation, at the latest.  Advice on choosing a topic and finding a supervisor is provided below.  A prospective supervisor might require that you write a formal proposal before they agree to supervise any particular project.
  3. Interim Report
    An Interim Report is to be submitted in mid July.  This is likely to consist of a draft of early chapters, but its exact nature should be determined by discussion with the supervisor.  This will be marked, and feedback will be provided to identify any problems that have come to light (eg with writing style and/or English).
  4. Supervision Meetings
    You should have very roughly fortnightly meetings with your supervisor during the summer period.  Attendance at these meetings is mandatory, and non-attendance is liable to be penalized.
  5. Presentations
    You will give a formal presentations about your work at the end of the summer period, after the submission of your dissertation.  More information about presentations is provided below.
  6. Dissertation
    You should produce a dissertation of not more than 20,000 words in length, that comprises the major assessed component of this module.  More information about the dissertation is provided below.
  7. Electronic Submissions
    You are required to submit an electronic version of both your interim report and dissertation (as well as the hard copies), on the appropriate submission deadline.  These should  be in PDF format, and submitted using the School's online submission system.

Deliverables & Dates

Deliverables should be submitted to the School office at the latest by 5pm on the date shown below, unless noted otherwise.  
You must have chosen your dissertation and found a supervisor by this date at the latest.  You should have had an initial supervision meeting, and the dissertation proposal form must be submitted.  NB this form must be signed by your supervisor - unsigned forms will not be accepted!  Where appropriate, these forms should be accompanied by a formal project proposal.

Staff Presentations

18th February Tim Brailsford Admin / Q&A
25th March
Tim Brailsford
What constitutes a dissertation project?
3rd March
Tim Brailsford Literature & Citation
Understanding References
How to Cite References
10th March Tim Brailsford Scientific Methodology
17th March Gary Burnett Technical Writing
25th March Peter Blanchfield Collaboration


Dissertation Requirements

One of the most commonly asked questions is what type of dissertation is acceptable?  The answer to this depends upon your degree stream. In all cases the dissertation must focus around IT issues and problems, but the specifics of this vary greatly. 

It is important not to loose sight of the fact that their degree is a science degree, and therefore all dissertations must be subject to scientific rigour.  The writing must be objective, and any claims that you make must be backed up by hard evidence (i.e. it must not be subjective "opinions").  It is a requirement of the dissertation that it is relevant to your degree.  Thus students on the M.Sc. in IT must undertake a dissertation that demonstrates their competence in IT. Such dissertations usually have an element (often a substantial element) of software engineering - such as a large scale programming project.

For students doing the M.Sc. in MIT the dissertation choice is very much more  flexible.   If you wish you can undertake a dissertation that, although it must focus upon IT issues, might also contain substantial elements of non-technical disciplines (eg sociology, psychology, management, economics etc).  Alternatively, it is quite acceptable for an M.Sc. in MIT dissertation to be highly technical, and include a substantial programming component. 

Choosing a Topic For Your Dissertation

The choice of your dissertation project is your responsibility. This is a major element of your postgraduate study, and you must achieve a pass grade in order to be awarded a degree.  It is thus most important that you choose an area you are happy to work in, and in which you are confident of your abilities. However, there are no hard and fast criteria for choosing a project.

Ideally, we would like you to come up with the basic idea, though it is likely to be modified after discussion with a member of staff.  Once you have done so then you should approach a potential supervisor to discuss the details and ask them if they would be willing to supervise it.   Many students find it hard to identify suitable projects, but the following thoughts might help you.

You should consider all of the modules that you have taken so far, and identify the the modules and the specific parts of the modules that you found to be the most interesting.  This should give you some ideas about likely subject areas.  Look at the supervisors ideas pages that are maintained by members of staff, and see what areas look interesting.  Some staff post specific ideas for projects, others post more general areas that are fertile for research.  You might decide to undertake a project which mirrors your interests or hobbies. For example, a football enthusiast might wish to implement a football pools predictor, or a keen musician could implement software to generate sound effects on input guitar signals.  You might also want to consider whether a given topic will improve your IT skills and increase your job opportunities.  You might want to make use of past experience in choosing a subject area - some students undertake projects based on specialist knowledge that they acquired whilst studying for their first degree.

It is an extremely good idea to find a project that interests you, because you will be spending a lot of time on it, and ultimately this will be an important item on your CV!


The following supervisors will be supervising  M.Sc. dissertations.  To find out what their interests and areas of expertise are then you should look at their home pages.   Many of them will have ideas for specific topics - links to their Ideas pages will be posted here as they become available.

Natasha Alechina Ideas
Thorsten Altenkirch Ideas
Roland Backhouse Ideas
Bai Li Ideas
Steve Benford Ideas
Peter Blanchfield Ideas
Tim Brailsford Ideas
Andrew Crabtree Ideas
Jonathan Garibaldi Ideas
Neil Ghani Ideas
Chris Greenhalgh Ideas
Gail Hopkins Ideas
Dario Landa-Silva Ideas
Brian Logan Ideas
Henrik Nilsson Ideas
Tony P Pridmore Ideas
Rong Qu Ideas
Milena V Radenkovic Ideas
Holger Schn„delbach Ideas

Specific Projects

The Brain & Body Centre is offering to jointly supervise a number of projects, and a page of project ideas is available.  If you want to do any of these, then we would find a suitable supervisor in Computer Science, as well as your supervisor in the Brain & Body Centre.  If you want to discuss details about any of these project ideas, then you should contact Dr. Alain Pitiot.  For administration, or to discuss a Computer Science supervisor please contact Tim Brailsford.

Computer Science web projects.  The School of Computer Science is currently overhauling it's intranet/extranet/web presence.  This presents an opportunity to be involved with this work.  A number of project ideas are available, these would be supervised by various members of staff.  Contact Dr. Adam Moore if you want to discuss details about any of these.  For administration, or to discuss a Computer Science supervisor please contact Tim Brailsford

Finding a Supervisor

Most people are supervised by one of the lecturers listed in the supervisors section of this document.  However, you are not restricted to these people - if they are agreeable then in theory any member of academic staff in the University can supervise you.  In the past some students have other members of the SCSiT as their supervisors, and a few students have found supervisors in other departments.

If you approach a potential supervisor other than one on this list then please remember that they are under no obligation to agree to supervise you - so be polite, and accept a no gracefully!  All supervisors on this list have a quota of students - when any individual supervisor has agreed to that quota then you will have to go elsewhere.

It is best to find a supervisor whose own interests are similar to the work involved in your dissertation - that way they will be best placed to advise you based on past experience.  Of course this is not always possible, especially when a member of staff already has a full set of projects, but one of the other staff can supervise your project if necessary.  Before you approach any supervisor then make sure you are aware of their interests (check out their personal web site).

When you approach a potential supervisor you should either have a clear idea of what project that you want to do, or else you should be willing to take on a project in their research area that they suggest.   There is little point in going to someone with a vague idea like "I want to look at e-commerce", because if it is outside their personal area of expertise they probably won't have the in-depth knowledge of the subject area that is needed to refine your idea into a workable project.

The choice of a project is ultimately up to YOU!  If you really can't think of a solid project, then go and talk to a potential supervisor who is expert in an area that you are interested in and ask him or her if they have any specific ideas.

When you have found a supervisor you must fill out a dissertation form to "sign on".  These forms consist of two parts - one of which is kept by your supervisor, and the other of which is returned to the School office.  The form must be signed by both of you before it is returned, and a member of staff will not be your supervisor until this process has been completed.

Project Equipment

If you wish to use school equipment (hardware or software) then you must request the equipment that you will require in advance from TSG using the project equipment request form (which must be signed by yourself and your supervisor).  You can find more  information, together with lists of available hardware and software on the TSG support site.

If you wish to use your own equipment, then you can do so providing that you are independent of the School.  School staff cannot support your own personal equipment, and hardware or software purchased for a project can not usually be used outside of the school (there are both good pragmatic and legal reasons for this).  If you use your own equipment for development work then you must make arrangements to demonstrate it to your supervisor (eg either on a laptop, or by installing it on a School machine).

Dissertation Overview

This section formally describes the dissertation. 
  1. A dissertation must be completed by all students following the MSc degree courses, although there is no dissertation requirement for the diploma course.
  2. Dissertation projects will be performed individually (with one student and generally one supervisor, although joint supervision might be allowed under certain circumstances).
  3. The dissertation will run for the latter half of Semester 2 and the summer period (ie from late February  to early September 2008.
    There are three major components of assessment - with marks allocated as follows:
    1. Presentation (20%)
    2. Interim Report (20%)
    3. Dissertation (60%)
  4. The deadline for handing in a dissertation is 5th September, 2008.

    Production of the Dissertation

    Students are required, by University regulations to submit TWO copies of their dissertation hard-bound by a professional book binder.  The School requires that you submit ONE soft bound copy.   The hard and soft bound copies must be identical in every way except for the binding.  The soft bound copy must be handed in on the 5th September, and the hard bound copies on the 19th September.  You may, if you wish, submit the hard bound copies on the 5th September, in which case you do not need to submit a soft bound copy - that is purely for the convenience of the school to start the marking process on that date. 

    The hard bound dissertations should be bound in black and your name and the the full title of the dissertation should be clearly printed on the front.  Your name, your degree title and the year should also be clearly printed on the spine.

    The title page of the dissertation must  have the following layout, and each copy should be signed and dated where indicated:

    [Dissertation Title]

     Submitted September 2008, in partial fulfilment of
    the conditions of the award of the degree [M.Sc. in IT or M.Sc in Management of IT]

     [Student Name]

    School of Computer Science 
    University of Nottingham

     I hereby declare that this dissertation is all my own work, except as indicated in the text:


     Signature ______________________

    Date _____/_____/_____

    This shall be followed by a one page Abstract which should pr‰cis the contents of the Dissertation. The next page should give a Table of Contents for the dissertation. Include page numbers throughout the dissertation.

    References shall be collected at the end of the Dissertation and shall be given in a standard journal format as described in the Information Services publication IS2010 - "How to Cite References".  Dissertations must be typeset and printed on a publication quality printer.

    The pages of soft bound dissertations should be firmly fixed together, using a spiral plastic or glue binding.  If two hard-bound copies are submitted on the day that the soft-bound copies are due, then the soft-bound copy is not required.  Unbound dissertations, or dissertations in loose-leaf folders will not be accepted. If disks or other supplementary material is included with the dissertation, then it should be firmly attached inside the back cover and also clearly labeled. Separate disks will not be accepted.

    There is a recommended dissertation structure in the Your Dissertation section below.

  5. The Interim Report shall in effect be a progress report. It should represent a statement of the problem being tackled, the approach that is being adopted detailing progress so far and proposed future work. It should also represent a preliminary design document for any software or hardware systems that are to be built as part of the work. The scope and content of the report should be determined in consultation with your supervisor, and generally should  comprise of a draft of early chapters, an outline of the final dissertation, and a plan of work for completion.  The deadline for handing in the interim report is Friday 18th July, 2008.
  6. The Presentations will be scheduled during September 2008, and  will consist of a ten minute talk (followed by an approximately five minute discussion) to which all members of the school (staff and students) are invited.  You are expected to not only give your own presentation, but to attend all of the project presentations in your own session (you may attend others if you wish).  Participation is compulsory, and attendance records will be kept. 
  7. Late submission of the dissertation, the interim report or failure to give a presentation shall be considered as non-submission. Non-submitted work will be awarded zero.
  8. Failure to attend your assigned presentation session shall be considered as non-submission. Non-submitted work will be awarded zero.
  9. The supervisor will arrange a demonstration of any software or hardware systems that have been developed as a part of the research.
  10. Examiners may if they wish require an internal viva voce examination.
  11. All marks shall be subject to the final moderation/approval of the Board of Examiners.

Assessment Criteria and Grades

In the following the term work refers to the total efforts of the students from the start of the proposed area of study to the final submission of the dissertation. The grading of the work is based upon the dissertation. It will not, however be acceptable for high grades to be awarded to good work which is not reflected in a good dissertation without such special circumstances. The term dissertation refers to the final written report of the student; this document will be the primary source of assessment.

The work is usually assessed using criteria such as: Amount of effort, diligence, initiative and enthusiasm shown; difficulties experienced and extent to which overcome; the extent of self-organization and ability demonstrated by the students; the effectiveness, quality, and quantity of work produced and the extent to which the objectives of the work were met. The organization and structure of the work; quality of referencing, appendices, figures, programs and any other supporting documentation where relevant Originality, novelty and innovation displayed in the work and reflected in the dissertation. The quality of the dissertation as a source of clear, concise and interesting information.


The following are general characteristics of grades awarded to dissertations by the University.  Due to the fact that your dissertations are 60 credits, and you are not allowed to compensate more than 40 credits - the minimum pass mark is 50%, anything less is a fail.

  1. Exceptional (90-100%) The work and dissertation should exhibit all the characteristics of an Excellent grade. Additionally the dissertation should be publishable without significant reworking or alteration. Any software and supporting documentation should be of the highest possible quality. The work should display complete and comprehensive originality. In short the work should be reflected in a dissertation of stunning and universally accepted quality!
  2. Outstanding (80-89%) The work and dissertation should exhibit all the characteristics of an Excellent grade. Additionally the results should be publishable in a suitably modified form. The work should exhibit a large degree of independent thought and originality. Technical assistance from the supervisor would have been minimal and the student would have exhibited high levels of self motivation. Any software and supporting documentation should be of the highest possible quality.
  3. Excellent (70-79%) The work should display a complete and thorough understanding of the conceptual and practical issues surrounding the chosen topic. There should be evidence of independent thought in the form of some degree of originality in the presentation and discussions of the material. The dissertation should be well structured with a clear line of argument and the quality of the analysis should be excellent. Any software should be completed in all respects and exhibit very high quality; there should be evidence of a high degree of testing. Supporting documentation should be complete and approaching the standard of high quality professional documentation.
  4. Good (60-69%) The work should show a good understanding of the conceptual and practical issues surrounding the chosen topic; the arguments should be clearly structured, but there is no specific requirement for any degree of original work. The quality of the analysis and the writing of the dissertation should be good. Software should be competently designed using a recognized design method; evidence of testing should be presented. The software should be a complete and usable package which not only illustrates the principles of the work but also exhibits good levels of quality. Supporting documentation should be excellent for all purposes; it should be complete, well written, well presented and generally exhibit high quality.
  5. Average (50-59%) The work would be expected to display an adequate understanding of the key conceptual and practical issues, although weakness may be present in some areas. There should be evidence of some attempt to construct an argument around the information available. The analytical content should be average. Software should be adequate to illustrate principles; it may display weakness in areas not central to the work and lack comprehensive testing. Supporting documentation would be well presented yet lack completeness; the quality of the documentation should be very good.
  6. Probable Fail (40-49%) The work would display an incomplete understanding of the central issues relating to the chosen topic. The dissertation would lack a clear structure and strong argument and the quality of analysis would be below average. The writing would be mediocre. Software would be poorly designed, incomplete, poorly commented and difficult to understand; it would exhibit poor levels of quality. Supporting documentation would be adequate.
  7. Definite Fail (below 40%) The work would display a very poor understanding of the chosen area; there would be no clear structure and the analysis may be weak or incomplete. The dissertation would be poorly written and presented. Software would be limited n capability, and difficult to use. Supporting documentation would be inadequate for most purposes.

Your Dissertation

Since all projects are different it is very difficult to make comparisons between the various dissertations. Thus to assess the projects, a set of a set of guidelines has been developed which should help to guide you in the production of your final dissertation.

Before writing your dissertation, be sure to read the section below on copying of other work.

Your dissertation is important!

Your dissertation is a key element of your degree - it is by far the most important deliverable by which you will be judged! You may include a copy of working software on a CD or floppy disk, but no matter how good that is, the dissertation is what will primarily be judged. Remember also that the external examiner may not have the time to look at you working software and they will only be able to judge your project from the dissertation.

It is important to realize that you cannot perform excellent practical work and then follow it up with  a poor write-up and expect to do well. You must remember that others will be involved in the assessment of the dissertation who you have not had weekly meetings with and who do not have access to knowledge not presented in the dissertation. Indeed, in the case of the External Examiner, they will not even know who you are! Thus all they have at their disposal to grade you is the written dissertation.

Given this crucial observation you should not leave the writing of your dissertation just to the last few weeks of your project timetable. Also bear in mind that many others will be rushing to produce documentation towards the end of the second semester and that the printing facilities will be at full stretch during the last two or three weeks. The failure of printers, computers and the absence of paper at weekends, overnight or indeed at any time during this period will not be a valid excuse for the late delivery of your dissertation. All these occurrences can be guaranteed to occur so you must plan accordingly.

Writing your dissertation

The best dissertations and reports, whether for a third year project, a PhD thesis or even in some commercial applications, usually all follow much the same structure, as described here.

The exact layout of dissertations tends to vary depending upon the nature of the material and the style of the author.  It is  recommend that you discuss this in detail with your supervisor.  However the following might be considered to be a typical layout: 

  1. Title page: with a signed declaration that the dissertation is your own work
  2. Abstract: giving a short (1 page) overview of the work in your project
  3. Acknowledgements: thanking anyone who has helped you in any way
  4. Table of contents: giving page numbers for all major section headings
  5. Introduction: set the scenes, explain why you are doing this work and what is the problem being solved.  Most importantly you should clearly explain what the aims and objectives of your work are.
  6. Related work: explain what is the current state of the art in your area.  What work have other people done (published or commercial) that is relevant to yours.
  7. Methodology:  explain what tools and technologies have you used.  If you have collected data then explain how it is collected and analysed.
  8. Description of the work: explain what exactly have you done.  If this is a software project, describe your software in detail.  If it is a data-based project, present and explain your data in detail.
  9. Discussion: explain what your work means.  In a software project you should evaluate the functionality of your software. In a research project you should interpret your experimental results.  In all cases you should evaluate what you have achieved against the aims and objectives you outlined in the introduction.  The discussion should always end with a Conclusions section - in which you should briefly explain what conclusions you have come to as a result of doing this work.
  10. References: provide a list of papers, books and other publications that are explicitly referred to in the text.  These should be  in a standard journal format as described in the Information Services publication IS2010 - "How to Cite References". 
  11. Appendices: Supplementary material should be included in appendices - these are optional, but they might contain:

Where the appendices are long (e.g. code listings) do not print them out, rather provide them on a CD.

Dissertation size

The only requirement is that the dissertation should not exceed about 20,000 words. The reason for this is to stop the presentation of unstructured and verbose dissertations which are generally repetitive. If you can present all your work clearly in 5,000 words or less then that is fine. However, think carefully about the examiners who have never met you and might not know the application area you are describing. You may know your work backwards, and perhaps your supervisor might have a good idea about what the project involved, but what about some other casual IT literate reader? It is all too easy to assume that everyone else knows what you did whereas in fact they have no idea at all! Poor dissertations are generally notable for what is omitted rather than what has been included.

One final question concerns the inclusion of Appendices. Appendices are excluded from the total word count. It is unlikely that an Appendix will be read in detail by an examiner. The aim of an Appendix is to act as a supporting reference to the main body of the dissertation. Thus you might state in the main dissertation that "A complete and detailed User Manual was produced (see Appendix E)". Appendix E would contain the User Manual. This allows any casual reader to access the User Manual easily to verify the truth of the statement.

Copying - quoting or plagiarism?

One thing that is absolutely not allowable is copying of text or code from any source at all and passing it off as your own work. This is called plagiarism and will at the minimum result in you being awarded zero marks for that component of the work, and may result in expulsion from the University without a degree being awarded.

If you want to include a very small amount of text in your dissertation by quoting someone who has written or said something relevant to your work, then you are permitted to include this small amount of text, but you must indicate very clearly which past of the text is copied, the name of the author(s) and where it comes from, and you must italicize the quoted text and delimit it with quotation marks.  Under no circumstances should quotations comprise more than a very small fraction of the submitted work.

You should also be aware of copyright law - it is illegal to duplicate substantial amounts of text (with or without indication) unless you have the explicit permission of the copyright owner.

Exactly the same goes for copying code or images - you can easily breach both copyright law and University regulations on plagiarism.

Staff can easily detect copied work because usually there are changes in the quality of the work, the written expression, syntax and so on all make it obvious that some parts of the work are not by the claimed student author.

In summary - do not copy text, code or anything else and attempt to pass it off as your own work. For example, never succumb to the temptation to cut & paste text or images from the web into your dissertation.  This is plagiarism, it is ILLEGAL as it preaches copyright, and it is CHEATING as it breaches University regulations.  It is regarded as a very serious offence and is punishable when caught, and an especially dim view of plagiarism is taken when it occurs in dissertations.

The Presentation

As an integral part of your project you will be required to give a presentation. This will take place in a seminar room or lecture theatre, and you will have access to a data projector and a PC with MS Office installed.  You are strongly advised to use MS PowerPoint for your presentations, although an overhead projector, whiteboard and VCR will also be available should you want to make use of them.  You may use your own self-powered laptops, providing that it has a VGA output to connect to the VGA input of the data project and provided that you know how to force the laptop to send a signal to this output!  This is usually a proprietary keystroke, and you cannot expect School staff to spend time working out what this is!  

It will also be necessary for you to attend and grade the presentations of students in the same session as yours. You will be asked to give grades for the presentations of other students. These grades will be taken into consideration when making up the final mark for the project. Your attendance at these other presentations to grade other students will also be taken into consideration when making up the final grade for your project.

Plan to speak for ten minutes and allow five minutes for questions. The chair of the session will impose strict timekeeping. Do not go over the ten minute time limit.

Some helpful notes on giving presentations are given in CSiT Presentation Guide for third year individual projects - this is also highly relevant to M.Sc. students.

Last update February, 2008.   Tim Brailsford.