In addition to your Major and Minor Subjects, you must write a dissertation. The purpose of the dissertation is to give you an opportunity to produce a substantial piece of original work. It should be an extended account of a topic or question that lies broadly within the field of either your Major or Minor subject. In producing your dissertation, you will be expected to show skills in researching primary literature, critically evaluating published information, and marshalling arguments to produce a structured critical assessment of a defined topic.
Examples of dissertations topics offered in the past are available here.
You can expect to receive a maximum of four supervisions with your dissertation supervisor. You are expected to meet with your supervisor at least twice during the preparation of your dissertation. Supervisors are only permitted to view a single draft of your dissertation prior to submission.
Course Organisers will tell you when and how dissertation titles will be released; and you will be required to have your title approved by Division of Michaelmas term.
Your dissertation should be prepared in accordance with the dissertation guidelines shown below, which have been issued by the Faculty Board. Please consult these guidelines at an early stage and pay particular attention to the appropriate closing dates.
Current year deadlines
Wednesday 9 November, 4pm - Title/proposal approved
Friday 17 March - Last day to change title of dissertation
Friday 28 April, 12:30pm - All copies of dissertation must be submitted
Guidelines for the dissertation
Proposing a dissertation
Your dissertation must be on a topic associated with either your Major or Minor subject. You must, by notifying the Course Organiser for that course, obtain approval of the proposed title and subject of your dissertation. (The form for this is available by clicking here). You should also notify him/her of the name of your supervisor as soon as you have one. This must be done not later than Division of Michaelmas term, that is 4.00 pm on Wednesday, 9 November, 2016.
You must notify the Course Organiser and the Faculty Office of any subsequent changes to either the title or the subject of your dissertation. In order to change your title, please obtain the permission of your Supervisor and Course Organiser, and ask them to inform the Faculty Office of the changes so an update can be made with Student Registry. The latest date by which you can change the title of your dissertation is the last day of Lent Term, that is Friday, 17 March 2017.
Please note that you are free to do a dissertation in your minor subject, but you should inform your major subject Course Organiser if you take this option.
Preparing to submit
Two copies of your dissertation, in its complete form, must be submitted in accordance with the guidance provided by the department you have written your dissertation in, by the deadline of 12.30 pm on Friday 28 April 2017.
In addition to the two typewritten or word-processed hard copies, the dissertation must be submitted in electronic form, via Moodle, no later than 12.30 pm on Friday 28 April 2017. Please click here for instructions on how to do this.
The marking scheme for dissertations can be found here.
Examiners have power to examine you viva voce on the subject of your dissertation. The viva voce, where given, will be held in the department you submitted your dissertation, held on the same date as the single subject viva voce examinations.
The electronic version of your dissertation may be run through a plagiarism-detection software program. For information, please see the Faculty Board's statement on plagiarism.
Your dissertation must not exceed 6,000 words, excluding the cover sheet, title page, summary, appendices, contents page, tables (and table legends), figures (and figure legends), footnotes and bibliography. References and citations within the text count towards the word total. Students can submit the electronic version of their dissertation in either PDF or Word format. Please contact the Faculty Office if submitting in the above formats is undesirable.
Your dissertation must be typewritten or word-processed, double spaced, on one side of A4 paper with 2.5 cm margins, a font size for main body text no larger than 12pt and no smaller than 10pt. Dissertations should be permanently soft-bound (hard back copies are not necessary) using comb-binding or wire binding. There are many binding services on offer in Cambridge, the University Information Service is one such provider.
Please remember it is your responsibility to write and submit your dissertation on time. (Please allow time to have your work permanently bound. This is a busy time of year and you may encounter queues.)
What to include
Hardcopies of your dissertation must be accompanied by a A4 cover page (a sample form is available by clicking here, which should be loosely bound to your dissertation (just before the title page), and must include:
- the full title (as approved)
- your full name
- your supervisor's name
- your college
- your examination candidate number
- word count
- a signed declaration that it is your own original work, and that it does not contain material that has already been used to any substantial extent for a comparable purpose
- a statement that this is a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the Regulations for NST Part II Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
- the date
Electronic copies do not need to be accompanied by a cover page.
Immediately after the covers page you should include a title page, which should include the title of your dissertation, the name of your supervisor and your examination candidate number – please do not include your name on the title page, or any page other than the cover sheet referred to above. If you have not yet received your examination candidate number, please contact the teaching administrator of your major subject Department.
The dissertation must include a summary of not more than 300 words. The summary must be bound to the dissertation immediately after the title page.
Due to copyright/intellectual property issues, please do not include the University logo anywhere on your dissertation.
Extensions to dissertation deadlines
Please note that Senior Examiners and Course Organisers do not have the authority to grant extensions to the deadline for handing in your dissertation. If you think you will be unable to meet the deadline and have good reasons (i.e. illness or other extenuating circumstances) you will need to see your Tutor, who will make a case to the Applications Committee. They will then make a decision as to whether you may have an extension to the deadline. Further information can be found on these sites:
You are advised to contact your Tutor as soon as you are aware that you may miss the deadline. Please note that if you miss the deadline you will be considered to have scored zero for your dissertation until we have received approval from the Applications Committee for an extension.
The Faculty Board has issued a statement on plagiarism, and you should read this carefully before preparing your dissertation. For information on plagiarism issued by the Board of Examinations, please click here. In addition, soon after choosing your dissertation you will be required to sign a form consenting to the use of Turnitin plagiarism software.
Advice on preparing your dissertation
The purpose of the dissertation is to give you an opportunity to produce a substantial piece of original work, which will form part of the assessment on which your class in the Tripos will be based. The advice that follows relates particularly to dissertations on scientific subjects; if you are doing a dissertation in a discipline which is not, in the narrow sense, scientific, you should listen particularly carefully to the advice of your supervisor and model your work on well-written reviews in the field in which you are working. Nevertheless, much of the advice that follows is applicable to all writing - scientific or otherwise.
- Define your topic: The dissertation must not exceed 6000 words. It is an extended account of a topic or question that lies broadly within the field of one of the courses you are taking. Before you begin, you should spend time defining your topic, discussing this with your supervisor, other members of staff and your colleagues. If you can define your objectives clearly, you will find that the rest of the process is much easier.Focus on the essential question: Beware of trying to do too much. You will find that you will need to refine your initial topic to make your dissertation manageable. Remember that, if you try to cover too wide a canvas you will not be able to do your topic justice in the space you are allowed. For example, "The role of genes in cancer" would be too wide but, "Is the xxx gene implicated in cancer of the lung?", would be manageable. Focusing on the essential question is a critical first step; be prepared to spend time on this and interact with your supervisor during this process.
- Writing Style: The dissertation is a scholarly piece of work. That means that you should write it in the style of a scientific document. The exact form depends on what you do, but your dissertation should be divided into sections, reflecting the nature of the evidence that you are reviewing and the arguments should be backed by references, where appropriate. The overall objective is a critical assessment of a restricted topic. This means that part of your dissertation will be devoted to presenting the evidence or data which forms the topic (hence the need for references), and part will be your own assessment of what you have read or otherwise found out. You should make sure that a reader can distinguish which is which.
Sources: The sources of your material can be various. Reading the relevant literature is essential and, at the end of your text, you must provide a list of the references you have quoted. If you quote a reference, it will be assumed you have read it. If you have not, you should refer to the source in which it was cited. Your supervisor will help you with the literature and also point you in the direction of other people who have knowledge in the area you have chosen. The task of locating the relevant literature is made much easier these days by the use of computerised literature searches; if there is a particular key paper in your field of interest, a computer (using Web of Science, for example) can tell you all the more recent scientific papers that have cited it - a particularly useful method for tracking the development of a subject following a key contribution. Resist the temptation to include every paper you have seen or can think of. Most dissertations contain about 20 to 40 references. Do not exceed the latter figure without very careful thought and consultation with your supervisor.
- Hint toward future research: It will often be a good idea to include a separate section setting out promising lines of future research. This could, in some cases, represent a substantial part of your dissertation, and you might approach the writing of this section as if you were preparing a research proposal for a grant-giving body. It is an opportunity for you to display real originality and creativity. You may even lay the foundations for your future research career!
- Proofread multiple times: Short sentences are better than long sentences! Try to be entertaining without being either facetious or colloquial. Remember that a good critic justifies his/her criticism by careful argument. A good critical assessment is a creative process. Do not be afraid of uncertainty. Prune the first version of your dissertation mercilessly.
- Final product: The final product should look like an extended, balanced, informative critique. You should have assessed the various categories of evidence and weighed them. You should point to gaps in the knowledge (see paragraph 7), or to flaws in the evidence. You should say why your topic is important. Beware of starting the work for your dissertation with your mind already made up.
Supplementary information to assist in the preparation of dissertations
Latin, generic and vernacular names
Latin names of the genera and species in the text etc should be underlined or written in italics. Where a generic name is the same as the last mentioned it may be abbreviated as the initial letter with full stop, eg Agrostis canina and A. tenuis. If in doubt, use the full generic name throughout. Vernacular names of organisms can be used without capital letters unless a proper name is involved eg 'bottle-nosed dolphins', but 'Mediterranean seals'. The Latin name should accompany the first mention of the vernacular name and subsequently either may be used. Anglicised names of higher taxa should not have initial capital letters eg 'carabids'; but not 'Carabidae'.
Figures and tables
Figures and tables can be used to illustrate the essay, compiled or copied complete from original papers or books. Each should be numbered, eg Figure 1, and provided with a caption. They must be referred to in the text, eg 'Table 2 shows ...'.
References should be given in the text by using the author's name with year of publication in brackets - Smith (1992). No comma is required between name and date when the whole reference is in brackets (Smith 1992), but use (Smith 1992; White 1971), (Black, 1972, 1975). If the reference has three or more authors use (Smith et al 1992) or (Smith et al 1992). Place the list of references at the end, in alphabetical order by first author and then date order, with the journal name preferably in full, eg Smith, A., Black, B. & White, E.J. (1967). The ecology of natural communities. Journal of Ecology, 42, 460-53. Or if a book: Smith, A. (1976) Mountains and Moorlands. Collins, London . (Italics for journal and book titles and bold for volume number may be excused for essay purposes). All the references should be accurate and cited by author and date in the text as above - be consistent in using (ed), pp, etc. Please also consult your home Department's guidelines for citation of references.
Notes on literature retrieval:
Literature retrieval is more of an art than a science and there are many ways of achieving your goal of finding all/most of the relevant literature on your chosen subject. Experts working in the same field often provide a helpful start, especially if approached in person!
are usually out of date when published, but may provide a useful starting point (eg The Handbook of British Mammals). Look for authors or titles in Books in Print.
'Trends in';, 'Advances in', 'Progress in', 'Annual Review of',
etc, as well as symposium articles and recent reviews of your subject are also useful, but beware of imitation! The review journals mentioned above are useful as well as the review articles in many ecological journals such as Oikos and Ecology.
Computerised or printed indexing or abstracting services
(including the Internet) may provide lists of references/abstracts from recent journals and earlier literature may be found from Zoological Record (ceased 198?) (Balfour), Biological Abstracts (1926-, SPL), Science Citation Index (1964-, SPL - including papers referring to a particular author), Excerpta Medica (1947 - Medical Library), and bibliographies in papers, etc.
in Cambridge are available via ISI Web of Science or ATHENS National authentication system, which provide access to MIMAS, EDINA and NISS.
Specialist abstracting services
are also available in print such as Key-word Index of Wildlife Research (Swiss Information Service) and Wildlife Review (North American literature), but these are difficult to find outside personal subscriptions (ask your Supervisor).
such as Current Contents (SPL and available on the Internet) and even the index to New Scientist (SPL) may help in bringing the review right up to date.
gives summaries of research in progress and details of research workers' interests as well as much, much more.