The dissertation offers students the opportunity to devise, conduct and write up their own research project of between 15,000 and 20,000 words (including footnotes but excluding bibliography). Many students find this element of the MPhil course the most rewarding, as they enjoy the chance to work independently on a topic of great interest to them, with the benefit of expert supervision. Work on the dissertation is sustained throughout the academic year, and it is submitted at the end of Easter term. It counts for 60% of the final MPhil mark.
The supervisor’s role is to help you clarify and develop your own ideas. They offer advice on refining your research topic, on appropriate academic literature to read, on research resources and techniques, and on writing-up the final dissertation. They should not impose their own interests upon you, nor should you expect to be ‘spoon-fed’. Graduate students in Cambridge are expected to be able to think for themselves and to have the capacity and enthusiasm for organising their own research, while working mostly on their own initiative. The frequency of meetings between you and your supervisor is a matter for mutual agreement and will vary according to the stage of the dissertation work and your particular needs, but a rough guideline is around 8-10 hours of one-to-one supervision over the year. As a minimum, you should meet and agree a realistic work schedule with your supervisor at the start of each academic term, and then meet again to review progress at the end of term. Generally, the expectation is that you should initiate supervisions by requesting appointments, rather than waiting for your supervisor to contact you.
You should begin your dissertation reading and research as early as possible in the academic year. On the first day of Lent term, you must submit an essay on a topic related to your dissertation research. Its precise form will be agreed with your supervisor, but you should aim to introduce some of the key ideas and debates that you will explore in your dissertation. For example, the essay could present a literature review or, alternatively, an annotated bibliography of relevant research sources. This essay is compulsory and a pass mark must be achieved, but the numerical result does not count in the final MPhil mark. You will be offered a supervision on your compulsory essay, enabling you to receive advice and constructive criticism on the academic content and writing style of your work, which will help you to improve the quality of material you submit for final assessment.
The practice essay also provides a useful body of work for preparing your dissertation proposal, which is submitted in week 3 of Lent term. The dissertation proposal is not formally assessed, but is considered for approval by the CAS Graduate Education Committee. It should be 3-4 pages long and must include a title, a short literature review, a set of research questions, and a statement on your research methodology. Once your dissertation title is approved, no change, however minimal, can be made without permission from the Academic Secretary and the CAS Graduate Education Committee. Substantive changes in your dissertation topic are not usually permitted after examiners are appointed, which also occurs at the Lent term meeting of the CAS Graduate Education Committee. It is important that dissertations correspond to their titles and that those titles are as informative as possible.
Work on the dissertation continues through Lent and Easter terms, and you remain in regular consultation with your supervisor. Early in the Easter term, a dissertation workshop is held, which gives all students on the course an opportunity to discuss the progress of their work with academic staff and other graduate students. Your submission of the dissertation at the end of Easter term marks the formal end of the MPhil course.