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Great Auks in the mist by Errol Fuller

Planning your Dissertation


On this page:

About the Dissertation

Research Ethics Approval

Dissertation Deadlines

Oral Examination


About the Dissertation

The dissertation is an exercise in advanced independent study, complementary to the work students do in achieving in-depth knowledge of the distinctive methods and perspectives of social anthropology through seminars and supervision work. The dissertation is therefore intended to provide students with an experience of applying the methods and perspectives that are important in the work of anthropologists to an independently conceived study project. The dissertation may include a component of on-site participant-observation, so long as this is carefully planned so as to take into consideration all relevant issues of risk and ethical practice in our field, or it can be largely or wholly library-based. It may be a free-standing project, or it can be a vehicle for the working out of plans for a future research project such as a PhD.

The primary aim of a dissertation should be the theoretical analysis of ethnographic material. This might include an element of observations amassed by the student themself in a suitable context for such independent study, or it can be an attempt at a novel synthesis of ethnographic material, and/or an attempt to rethink or reinterpret existing material, such as the published ethnographic observations of anthropologists. Students will be expected to produce a coherent anthropological argument based on a secure knowledge of a set of substantive materials, and to place their project's findings and argument within the existing literature on the subject.

Students may expect to receive guidance from their supervisors on the planning and writing of their dissertations, and should discuss well in advance any possible plans to conduct on-site work as a basis for their project as an analytical exercise. The Department also provides skills teaching relevant to the planning and writing of the dissertation.

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, and start doing necessary reading for it.
  • In the later part of the Michaelmas term, you should start formulating your dissertation research plans and outlining your main research questions and approaches.
  • During the Christmas vacation, you should aim to complete one 5,000 word essay and, if possible, begin your dissertation research.
  • You should discuss the progress of your dissertation research/plans with your supervisor at the beginning of the Lent term. On the basis of this discussion, you must submit via Moodle Department Form MP14 - Dissertation Title in the middle of the Lent term (exact date is on your Course Diary) for approval by the Degree Committee. The title of your dissertation will be passed to the Degree Committee for approval.
  • During the Easter vacation, you should aim to complete any further dissertation research and start analysing your material and formulating a dissertation outline.
  • In the Easter term, you will concentrate on writing up your dissertation, with feedback from your supervisor.

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

MPhil students in the Department needing help with the costs associated with their dissertation, including fieldwork costs during vacations, should apply to the Dissertation Expenses Grant.



Research Ethics and Integrity Approval

The MPhil Committee deals with ethical issues that arise for MPhil students. With the Departmental Committee, it has final responsibility for ethics clearance at the Department level.  For MPhil in Social Anthropological Research matters please contact Dr Liana Chua (

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 Department’s research ethics officer.


Dissertation deadlines

The MPhil dissertation must be submitted by the deadline, which normally falls in mid-June (specific date is in your Course Diary). You will need to plan your dissertation research and writing well in advance to ensure that the content and approach of your dissertation will be acceptable. You must also submit a (one page) synopsis of your intended dissertation, which summarises its theme, argument and structure.  This should be uploaded to your Moodle Course by the deadline given in your online diary.

Further 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 Department 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. Some candidates may find it difficult to remain in or return to Cambridge for this purpose; an online interview may be arranged if necessary.