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Planning Your Dissertation

Jonathan Taee - Mongar Dzong Tshechu Dancers, Bhutan


Your dissertation may be a vehicle for working out plans for future research or a free-standing project. The primary aim of the dissertation should be the theoretical analysis of ethnographic material; it may also be a new synthesis of data, and/ or new interpretation of existing material. You will be expected to demonstrate that you can produce a coherent anthropological argument based upon a secure knowledge of a set of substantive materials, and will be expected to place your research findings within the existing literature on the subject. Training will be directed to the research procedures necessary to produce an analytical work to professional standard.

The dissertation needs careful planning with your supervisor. As a rough guide, we suggest the following timetable:

  • After the first four weeks of the Michaelmas term, you should begin to choose a subject area and topic in consultation with your supervisor.
  • during the Christmas vacation, you should try to do the bulk of the necessary reading, and begin a rough outline of the questions you hope to address and how.
  • You should discuss the subject and title of your dissertation with your supervisor at the beginning of the Lent term. You must submit the title of your dissertation to the Graduate Admissions Administrator by the third week of the Lent term for approval by the Degree Committee. At the same time, you must formally register for the two written examination papers you intend to sit. The title of your dissertation will be passed to the Degree Committee for approval.
  • The Division offers all MPhil students a week-long course on fieldwork methods during Michaelmas Term. 

The Haddon Library holds copies of theses produced by past graduate students and also has an online list of these dissertations.


On this page:

Research Ethics Approval

Dissertation Deadlines

Oral Examination


Research Ethics and Integrity Approval

The MPhil Committee deals with ethical issues that arise for MPhil students. With the Divisional Committee, it has final responsibility for ethics clearance at the division level.

The University of Cambridge Research Integrity website provides extensive ethics and integrity guidelines to support staff and students. The Association of Social Anthropologists also provides extensive ASA ethics guidelines. Please consult these carefully while planning your research and discussing it with your supervisor. Also see ESRC framework for research ethics and AAA ethical guidelines.  

As the statement from the ASA chair usefully points out, the guidelines are not intended to provide ready-made answers or to absolve researchers from ethical responsibilities, but should be a starting point for a concrete reflection on the specific ethical issues which may have to be borne in mind in the case of your specific research:  

“Codes of practice and guidelines are of necessity succinct documents, couched in abstract and general terms. They serve as a baseline for starting to think about ethical issues, but cannot of their nature encompass the complexities of concrete situations and the dilemmas of choice and positioning that anthropologists routinely face as they navigate through a variety of intersecting fields of power and responsibility and start to consider how their own work both reflects and affects power relations. If ethics is seen simply as a question of avoiding a lawsuit and our codes are simply a list of restrictions on conduct designed to protect us from interference, our ethical purpose will simply be a matter of self-serving professional interest.” (Statement from the Chair, ASA) 

Researchers should also be aware of data protection issues that arise as a result of conducting research. In particular, you should keep in mind that when using cloud-based storage, or programmes such as Evernote, data will be crossing international borders even if your research does not. This means you should be aware of any issues raised concerning not only the security of your own research data, but also the legal issues surrounding data protection of all personal data. Further information on data protection can be found at the following places:
The University of Cambridge Staff and Student Information
Research data Q&A from Jisc Legal
SOAS information on personal data in research which covers some issues of particular interest to anthropologists in more depth

If, having read these guidelines, you have any questions or would like any advice relating to research ethics, please consult the division’s research ethics officer, , .


Dissertation deadlines

There are two dates when MPhil dissertation may be submitted: the Division of Easter Term and the last Friday in August. Several considerations concerning dissertation deadlines may affect how and when you plan to write and submit your dissertation.

Lectures and seminars end at the division of the Easter term, leaving about two weeks for revision before the examinations, which begin around the end of May. If you submit your dissertation by the division of the Easter term, it can be read and marked at the same time as your exams. In that case, you will know your result soon after the middle of June. You may need to know your results early in the summer because you are applying for grants or for further courses which have early deadlines and which require a firm MPhil result before the application can be judged. If this is likely to be the case, you should plan to complete your dissertation by the early date.

Even if you choose to submit your dissertation at the later date, you will still need to plan it well in advance during the Lent and Easter terms while your supervisor is still around. To ensure that the content and approach of your dissertation will be acceptable, you must also submit a (one page) précis of your intended dissertation, which summarises its theme, argument and structure, to the Administration Office by the division of the Easter term. The Division cannot guarantee any supervision after the end of the Easter term.

Dissertations that are submitted after the first deadline will not normally be examined until just before the beginning of the following Michaelmas term, in late September, which means that you will not know your results until early October.

When submitting you must take the two copies of your dissertation to the Administration Office as well as submit an electronic version. Full details are given on the Dissertation Submission page of the website.


Oral Examination

An oral examination or viva on your dissertation and any other aspect of assessment will not be held automatically, but the Division reserves the right to call you for one. This might be because there are particular questions that we wish to follow up, because there is a danger of your failing, or because we wish to decide about a borderline between a pass and a high pass mark.

The aim of the oral examination is to allow you to expand on, defend or explain some aspect of your assessed work. However, this raises a possible problem of timing. Those who submit a dissertation before the division of the Easter term would, if necessary, be called for an oral during the period of written examinations.

Dissertations submitted after the division of the Easter term will not be examined until the following September. If a candidate were asked to come to an oral at that point, it would be held as early as feasible in middle to late September or early in the new Michaelmas term. Some candidates may find it difficult to remain in or return to Cambridge for this purpose; you should therefore think very carefully before deciding to opt for the later submission date.