Top tips on writing your undergraduate dissertation at Essex (Economics)

-David Reinstein, Sept. 2010

Note: many of these tips apply to MSc  students, and to UG term papers as well.

For term papers, see also


Some other references:

Very helpful: Dudenhofer  “Guide to writing Economics Papers”

Targeted at PhD’s but still useful to others: <>

Student examples at The EESJ – student journal


Your dissertation

One-quarter of the final year: 30 credits.

The dissertation allows you to explore your aptitude for, and interest in doing economic research.  You will be able to choose a topic (from the list, or propose one that is approved) and use your intellect, skills, creativity, and your economics training.  This is a great opportunity to develop a good “writing sample” to show prospective employers, academic programs, and academic referees.  It is also a good chance to interact directly with your supervisor, to learn from him or her, and to make an impression that will inspire your supervisor to write you a strong letter of reference.

Make the best use of available resources:

Attend the EC831 lectures.

Attend the Stata support labs (details to appear later in the term).

Read the Undergraduate Economics Handbook; sections 17-18 for dissertations, 19 for term papers.

Your supervisor will welcome your initiative, try to make the best use of his or her time and effort (and your own).

Emphasize economics — you will be assessed on economic ideas

Choosing a topic and getting started

What is your topic question? Stay focused on it.

Set realistic goals.


For empirical papers: Where will you get your data? How will it help answer your question?

What statistical techniques will you be able to use? Will you be able to identify causation or only correlation?

Theory papers typically are not just informal discussions.  They tend to involve more maths than empirical ones, not less.

If you’re having trouble understanding a topic, a good place to start is to look in several relevant textbooks to see how they treat it.

Focus, style, format, attribution, logic

Read other papers to get an idea about format, structure, and style (including the format of summary statistics and regression tables and references.   The EESJ – student journal is ideal for this.  These are dissertations we really liked.   Also consider papers/articles assigned in your modules.

Write an outline, organise your paper into sections.

Use clear English.  Don’t make your supervisor guess what you are trying to say.   Focus on your writing and proofread it. use spelling and grammar check tools, and show it to friends to see if it is understandable before you ask an advisor to read it. Make your writing logical, organised, and connected. Every paragraph must have a purpose.  Try not to repeat yourself.

Focus on answering the dissertation question, don’t just say everything you know or have read.

Don’tjust cut and paste from other sources.  And make sure to attribute every source and every quote.  Be clear: which part of your paper is your own work and what is cited from others? The penalties for plagiarism can be severe!

Be clear about your logic and make sure your argument is well-structured.   Don’t claim to have shown more than you have. When you make a claim, be sure you are giving evidence to back it up. Justify your analysis and the techniques you use. Show you understand things without stating the obvious.

Literature review, finding references

Your literature survey will be *incorporated* into your dissertation, not left separate.  Focus on literature that is relevant to your topic only.

When looking for references, try to find ones published in respected refereed economics journals. You may want to go back to earlier, more fundamental references, by looking at the articles that this paper cited. For the latest research, you can check which papers cited this paper –– all of this is accessible on Google scholar. Give you cannot access a paper, see a reference librarian. As a last resort, you can e-mail the author and ask him or her to send you his or her paper.

Data, Econometrics

In searching for data, note that the American Economics Association has a very comprehensive list of links:
for the UK in specific, see

Also note that data from published papers is meant to be publically accesible (for replication and checking purposes). If you cannot find it on the journal or the author’s website, you can email the corresponding author to ask for it

Don’t wait too long to begin collecting your data and producing simple graphs and summary statistics, to get a sense of your data. Empirical work is difficult and you may not be able to use the “ideal” technique, but be aware (and able to explain) the strengths and weaknesses of your econometric approach.

For online tutorials on Stata, see especially .

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