Two initial questions are paramount:
- What is going to be the central focus of the study?
- What is the best method for gathering the information needed?
It is normal for researchers to start out with just a hazy idea about their ‘research question’, or for the idea to evolve as you conduct your research. It is important, however, that at the start of the process you have a clear and defined topic; too vast and the results will be vague and generalised; too narrow and you will find it difficult to find sources to evidence your research. Keep asking: what do you really want to find out?
Similarly, what is the best way of approaching the project? How will you get all the information you need to do the job properly? Do you have easy access to the sources or participants you will need to work with? Are there ethical concerns that might prevent you from working as you would like?
You may have to submit an initial research proposal before you start the research project. This is important because:
- Your supervisor has responsibility for checking that your proposal meets the module and/or course requirements, and it is better to find this out at the start rather than the end of the dissertation process
- Your supervisor will want to know that the project is ‘do-able’ – that is, that you can achieve what you say you want to achieve in the time and with the resources available
- The Research Proposal is part of the process of refining your ideas; it helps to press home the question: what do you really want to find out?
Departmental procedures for Research Proposals
vary. ALWAYS check the module/course handbook for precise information about the
forms to be filled in and where/when a proposal has to be submitted. If in
doubt, ask your supervisor.
Dissertations typically take longer than you think. Good planning and effective time management are thus essential. Start well ahead of the deadline and begin by drawing up a schedule of the different tasks you will need to complete, and when they should be completed by.
A significant amount of time will be required for the literature search and review, particularly if you are a slow reader. If your project involves empirical (raw) data you will need to allocate sufficient time to collect this. Similarly, allow plenty of time for analysis as, even with the help of computer programmes, the collation and analysis of empirical data is a long process and has to be done carefully. Build in ‘thinking time’ to gather your own thoughts on the data, and remember to allow enough time for drafting and editing the dissertation.
As you work back from the final deadline don’t forget to include ‘emergency time’. Be prepared for illness, computer problems, family or work crises and so on. Valuable marks are often lost because students try to look for short cuts. Instead, take these eventualities into account as you draw up a schedule of your personal targets and goals.
It may look something like this:
|I will finish the...||by...|
|Research proposal||Given deadline|
|Research ethics submission||Given deadline|
|Literature search and reading||So many weeks (set realistic deadline)|
|Empirical data gathering||So many weeks (set realistic deadline)|
|Data analysis||Set own deadline|
|Processing the ideas and evidence||Set own deadline|
|Drafting the initial report||Set own deadline|
|Edit and revise initial report||Set own deadline|
|Submit finished product||Given deadline|
Reading the literature
Remember the tricks of the trade: be ruthlessly targeted - what do you really need to read? Do you really need to read every word of every book, or do you only need part of a section or chapter? Look for the clues to narrow down the focus – the index or chapter introductions, for example. Use a similar approach with journal articles: use the abstract to check out whether the article will help with your specific project.
Keep clear notes of all your reading - summarising key ideas, terms, theories or arguments as you go. It is crucially important that you keep a record of all the bibliographic information and page numbers you will need for your references.
When you have collected as much background material as you can, make a list of the key points. What is directly relevant to your work, and what is merely secondary? Consider: does this support your argument or is it merely interesting? Keep the focus.
The purpose of all this reading is to show that:
- You know your subject – you understand what is already known
- You can apply this existing knowledge to your specific research project
The aim is to set up a kind of dialogue between the theories and ideas you have read and the results of your own thinking: does your data confirm or challenge the ideas put forward in the literature? What are your own ideas? Where is the evidence to support your point of view? It may help you to look at our reading strategy guide.
Writing up the dissertation
Prepare a dissertation plan, setting out the data in the required format for your project (ALWAYS go back and re-read the instructions given at the start of the project. ALWAYS do as it says). A typical dissertation might follow a pattern something like this:
Set the scene for the research project, show why it is important and/or interesting and indicate any problems or gaps in the current knowledge.
Set out a summary of your chosen method – and give a rationale
Why did you choose this method, and can you justify its use in this particular project? What alternative methods might have been used, and why were they not chosen?
A brief summary of the key points made in the books and journals consulted, and a critique of this material – what is missing, do these ideas or theories work, and why/why not? What kind of overall picture starts to emerge from this literature, and what is missing? See guides on conducting a literature review.
Presentation of any empirical data
This will vary a little, depending on the quantitative or qualitative method used.
Analysis of the data
Identifying the key themes, trends or patterns.
Presentation of your findings
What do you make of this material and (if appropriate) what evidence can you produce from the empirical data to justify your point of view?
How what you’ve found out relates to the literature.
And check: have you actually done what you said you would do in the introduction?
Make sure your assignment is clearly structured, with good summaries at key points. There should be clear links between the sections, with everything set out in a logical order. Make sure your argument is coherent and well evidenced by your research. The higher marks are awarded to dissertations that provide an insightful or new approach to the field and that are persuasive and well presented.
Using your supervisor
University education is about developing the skills required for independent learning. This means that students are expected to take a high degree of responsibility for their own work. The role of the supervisor, therefore, is not to direct your research or help you conduct it. They are there to guide you and check that your work is on target. Your supervisor is essentially a mentor – a senior colleague who is able to offer helpful advice from their own experience and give some immediate feedback. They will advise, challenge, discuss and – if necessary – warn. But they will not do the work for you.
Normally, supervisors want to establish a kind of ‘contract’, which spells out mutual expectations as fully as possible: how often you will meet, what work the supervisor expects to be completed in advance of each session, how feedback will be arranged, and so on. Supervisors expect you to be self-disciplined and motivated enough to complete work by agreed deadlines. You should, therefore, contact them well in advance if you run into problems that will make it difficult to meet these deadlines. Supervisors expect – and have the right to expect – a fully professional approach from students. This means that you (and they) will:
- Keep appointments unless genuinely and unavoidably delayed.
- Keep in regular contact to check out how things are progressing.
- Complete agreed tasks on time.
- Check things out if you are uncertain about the correct process.
- Prepare a clear agenda for each meeting, outlining what you need to get from the session.
- Fix dates for your next supervision each time you meet.
Supervisors are extremely busy people, often engaged in demanding research of their own. So, if they sometimes appear elusive or difficult to contact please be patient and persevere; email is often a better way of raising initial queries or questions, and they can then arrange an additional meeting if necessary.
Don’t forget: the Student Learning Advisory Service provides 1:1 tutorials, workshops and study guides on various elements of academic research – including effective reading, writing skills and working with stats and data.