Planning and conducting a dissertation research

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a particular kind of academic task. You will usually be asked to generate a topic for yourself; to plan and execute a project investigating that topic; and to write-up what you did and what your findings were. Important stages in the dissertation process include:

  • choosing a topic;
  • developing a research question;
  • effective planning of the research;
  • being organised and methodical while conducting your research; and
  • reporting the research.

Choosing a topic

While some students come to their research project with a clear research question to address, many others arrive at this point with several ideas, but with no specific research question. In view of the pressure to get started fairly quickly, this can cause anxiety and even panic. It is, however, a common situation to be in. There are several ways forward:

  • Talk to others: what topics are other students considering? Does this spark an interest? Don’t wait until you have a fully formed research question before discussing your ideas with others, as their comments and questions may help you to refine your focus.
  • Look at other writing: set aside some time to spend in the library, skimming through the titles of research papers in your field over the past five years, and reading the abstracts of those you find most interesting.
  • Look through the dissertations of previous students in your department: the topics may give you inspiration, and they may have useful suggestions for further research.
  • Think about your own interests: which topic have you found most interesting, and is there an element that could be developed into a research project?
  • Is there a related topic of interest to you that has not been covered in the syllabus, but would fit with the theory or methodology you have been working with?
  • Be extra critical: is there something in your course so far that you have been sceptical about, or which you think needs further study?
  • Read about an interesting topic and keep asking the question ‘Why?’ :this may identify a research question you could address.

Remember that a research study can:

  • replicate an existing study in a different setting;
  • explore an under-researched area;
  • extend a previous study;
  • review the knowledge thus far in a specific field;
  • develop or test out a methodology or method;
  • address a research question in isolation, or within a wider programme of work; or
  • apply a theoretical idea to a real world problem.

This list is not exhaustive, and you need to check whether your department has a preference for particular kinds of research study.

Discuss your proposed topic with a member of academic staff who you think might be appropriate to supervise the project. Provided they feel that they know enough about the subject to supervise it, and provided that it can be interpreted as falling within the broad fields of your degree subject, academic staff are generally open to suggestions.

You should think realistically about the practical implications of your choice, in terms of:

  • the time requirement;
  • necessary travelling;
  • access to equipment or room space;
  • access to the population of interest; and
  • possible costs.

For example, a project on coal mining in the North East of England may require you to visit Newcastle’s Record Office, or to interview coal miners from the region. Is this something that you are prepared and able to do? If the practical considerations associated with your research ideas are unrealistic, you need to consider whether you are willing to modify or reconsider your project.

Developing a research question

Once your topic has been accepted by your department, you need to begin the process of refining the topic and turning it into something that is focused enough to guide your project. Try describing it as a research problem that sets out:

  • the issue that you are going to be investigating;
  • your argument or thesis (what you want to prove, disprove, or explore); and
  • the limits of your research (i.e. what you are not going to be investigating).

It is important that you establish a research problem at, or close to the start of, your project. It is one of the key tools you have, to ensure that your project keeps going in the right direction. Every task you undertake should begin with you checking your research problem and asking “will this help me address this problem?”.

You should be willing to revise your research problem as you find out more about your topic. You may, for example, discover that the data you were hoping to analyse is not available, or you may encounter a new piece of information or a new concept while undertaking a literature search, that makes you rethink the basis of your research problem. You should always talk to your supervisor before you make any substantial revision to your plans, and explain why you think you need to make the change.

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