This guide addresses the task of planning and conducting a small research project, such as for an undergraduate or masters’ level dissertation. It aims to help you develop a clear sense of direction early on in the project, and to support you in organising, planning, and monitoring your project.
The companion guide Writing a dissertation focuses on the preparation of the written report or thesis.
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;
access to equipment or room space;
access to the population of interest; and
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.
|'Public transport in Scotland’||This sets out your research field but does not frame a research problem because it is too general. You do not have time to study everything about a topic, so you should focus on an aspect that you are interested in.|
|‘Examination of the influence of public transport links on new housing development in Western Scotland’||This is a much better research problem as it establishes an argument (existence of public transport may have some influence on new housing development). However, it is still quite general and could be improved by further focus.|
|‘Investigation of the relationship between public transport links and the development of new areas of housing in Western Scotland: a comparison of local plans and building development since 1990’||This is better still. It shows the limits of the project. You will be investigating a complex subject (public transport in Scotland), but will be focusing on only one aspect of it (possible influence on new housing development). You will make this large subject manageable by focusing on a limited period of time (1990 onwards), and limited sources.|
Effective planning of the research
Writing a research proposal
A research proposal is a more detailed description of the project you are going to undertake. Some departments require you to submit a research proposal as part of the assessment of your dissertation, but it is worth preparing one even if it is not a formal requirement of your course. It should build on the thinking that you have done in defining your research problem; on the discussions that you have had with your supervisor; and on early reading that you have done on the topic. A comprehensive research proposal will make you think through exactly what it is that you are going to do, and will help you when you start to write up the project.
You could try outlining your project under the following headings (Booth, Williams, & Colomb, 2003. The craft of research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.):
|Topic:||this project will study...|
|Question/problem:||to find out...|
|Significance:||so that more will be known about...|
|Primary resources:||the main data will be...|
|Secondary sources:||additional data comes from...|
|Methods:||the research will be conducted as follows...|
|Justification:||the method is most appropriate because...|
|Limitations:||there are some matters that this methodology may not help me to explain. These might include...|
You may find that some of these headings are difficult to fill in right at the start of your project. However, you can use the gaps to help identify where you need to begin work. If, for example, you are unsure about the limitations of your methodology you should talk to your supervisor and read a bit more about that methodology before you start.
Creating a research plan
A dissertation is an extended project that asks you to manage your time and undertake a variety of tasks. Some courses schedule the dissertation at the end, while others have it running along concurrently with other modules. Whichever way your course is organised, it is essential that you create a plan that helps you allocate enough time to each task you have to complete.
It is useful to work out how many weeks you have until you need to submit your completed dissertation, and draw a chart showing these weeks. Block out the weeks when you know you will be unable to work, and mark in other main commitments you have that will take time during this period. Then allocate research tasks to the remaining time.
|Christmas||Write research proposal||Literature review||Complete literature review and conduct pilot study||Main data collection|
|Complete data collection||Analyse data||Analyse data||Write dissertation plan, then begin first draft|
|Complete first draft||Discuss draft with supervisor||Second draft||Second draft||Proofing/checking|
It is very important to be realistic about how long each task is likely to take. Some focused thought at the beginning, then at the planning stage of each phase, could save hours later on. Write down the resources needed for each stage. It could be time in the library; the resource of your working hours; or the use of equipment or room space that needs to be booked in advance.
Some people find that they procrastinate more than they would like. This is a common problem, so it is probably best to be well-prepared to identify it and deal with it if it does start to happen. People procrastinate for various reasons for example:
- poor time management
- dauted by the scale of the task
- negative beliefs
- loss of motivation
- difficulty concentrating
- need to feel under pressure
- personal problems
Early identification of the signs of procrastination will give you the best chance of minimising any negative effects. Once you suspect that you are procrastinating, it can be helpful to review what you are expecting of yourself, and check that those expectations are realistic. This is where planning is vital.
To improve the prospect of completing on time, and avoiding procrastination, you need to:
be realistic about when you can/will start;
devote time to planning and revising your plan;
try to work out if any of your research will take a set amount of time to complete;
allocate appropriate time for any travelling you need to do for your research;
include other (non-dissertation related) things that you have to do between now and then;
have clear and achievable objectives for each week;
focus on one thing at a time;
leave time for editing and correcting;
reward yourself when you complete objectives that you have timetabled; and
if you fall behind make sure you spend time reworking your plan.
Your research plan should also include information about what equipment you will need to complete your project, and any travel costs or other expenses that you are likely to incur through the pursuit of your research. You should also think about whether you are dependent on any one else to complete your project, and think about what you are going to do if they are unable to help you.
Once you have created your plan it is a good idea to show it to someone else. Ideally you will be able to show it to a member of academic staff or bring it to the Learning Development, but talking it over with a friend may also help you to spot anything that you have forgotten or anywhere that you have been unrealistic in your planning.
Being organised and methodical while conducting your research
The role of the supervisor
Although a dissertation is an opportunity for you to work independently, you will usually be allocated a member of academic staff as a supervisor. Supervisors are there to help you shape your ideas and give you advice on how to conduct the research for your dissertation. They are not there to teach you the topic you have chosen to investigate: this is your project. They are, however, one of the resources that you can call on during your research.
Academics are busy people, so to get the most out of your supervisor you will need to be organised and to take responsibility for the relationship. It is not your supervisor’s job to chase you into completing your dissertation, or to tell you how to manage the different stages of the project. To ensure that you get the most out of your supervisor you need to:
agree a timetable of meetings at the start of your project and stick to it;
make sure that each meeting has a focus e.g. “setting a research problem”, “analysing the data”;
send something that can form the basis of a discussion about your progress to your supervisor before each meeting. This could include your research plan, early results of your data collection or draft chapters;
turn up on time to each meeting you have arranged. Do not assume that your supervisor is available at all times to see you;
at the end of each supervision agree some action points for you to focus on before the next time you meet; and
keep a record of what you decide in supervision sessions.
If you are not happy with the way you are being supervised, explain why to your supervisor or discuss the issue with your personal tutor.
Undertaking a literature survey
Regardless of whether you have been given a dissertation topic or you have developed your own ideas, you will need to be able to demonstrate the rationale for your research, and to describe how it fits within the wider research context in your area. To support you in doing this you will need to undertake a literature review, which is a review of material that has already been published, either in hard copy or electronically, that may be relevant for your research project. Key tools that are available to help you, include:
internet search engines, especially ones that offer advanced search features (see http://www.google.com/ and http://scholar.google.com/);
the University of Leicester Library Catalogue;
electronic journals available via the library; and
bibliographies in any key texts about your topic.
It is a good idea to make an appointment to see the librarian specialising in your subject. An information librarian should be able to give you advice on your literature search, and on how to manage the information that you generate.
You will probably generate more references than you can read. Use the titles and abstracts to decide whether the reference is worth reading in detail. Be selective by concentrating on references that:
are recommended by your supervisor;
contain a high number of specifically relevant keywords;
are cited in a number of other works; and
are published in the last five years, unless they are key texts in your field.
Once you start reading, ensure that you think about what you are trying to get out of each article or book that you read. Your notes should enable you to write up your literature search without returning to the books you have read. Refer to the guides Effective Note Making, Referencing and Bibliographies, and Avoiding Plagiarism, for further help with note-making.
For most research projects the data collection phase feels like the most important part. However, you should avoid jumping straight into this phase until you have adequately defined your research problem, and the extent and limitations of your research. If you are too hasty you risk collecting data that you will not be able to use.
Consider how you are going to store and retrieve your data. You should set up a system that allows you to:
record data accurately as you collect it;
retrieve data quickly and efficiently;
analyse and compare the data you collect; and
create appropriate outputs for your dissertation e.g. tables and graphs, if appropriate.
There are many systems that support effective data collection and retrieval. These range from card indexes and cross-referenced exercise books, through electronic tools like spreadsheets, databases and bibliographic software, to discipline-specific tools. You should talk about how you plan to store your data with your supervisor, an information librarian, or a study adviser in the Learning Development. As you undertake your research you are likely to come up with lots of ideas. It can be valuable to keep a record of these ideas on index cards, in a dedicated notebook, or in an electronic file. You can refer back to this ‘ideas store’ when you start to write. They may be useful as ideas in themselves, and may be useful as a record of how your thinking developed through the research process.
A pilot study involves preliminary data collection, using your planned methods, but with a very small sample. It aims to test out your approach, and identify any details that need to be addressed before the main data collection goes ahead. For example, you could get a small group to fill in your questionnaire, perform a single experiment, or analyse a single novel or document.
When you complete your pilot study you should be cautious about reading too much into the results that you have generated (although these can sometimes be interesting). The real value of your pilot study is what it tells you about your method.
Was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?
Did it take longer than you thought it was going to?
Did participants, chemicals, processes behave in the way you expected?
What impact did it have on you as a researcher?
Spend time reflecting on the implications that your pilot study might have for your research project, and make the necessary adjustment to your plan. Even if you do not have the time or opportunity to run a formal pilot study, you should try and reflect on your methods after you have started to generate some data.
Dealing with problems
Once you start to generate data you may find that the research project is not developing as you had hoped. Do not be upset that you have encountered a problem. Research is, by its nature, unpredictable. Analyse the situation. Think about what the problem is and how it arose. Is it possible that going back a few steps may resolve it? Or is it something more fundamental? If so, estimate how significant the problem is to answering your research question, and try to calculate what it will take to resolve the situation. Changing the title is not normally the answer, although modification of some kind may be useful.
If a problem is intractable you should arrange to meet your supervisor as soon as possible. Give him or her a detailed analysis of the problem, and always value their recommendations. The chances are they have been through a similar experience and can give you valuable advice. Never try to ignore a problem, or hope that it will go away. Also don’t think that by seeking help you are failing as a researcher.
Finally, it is worth remembering that every problem you encounter, and successfully solve, is potentially useful information in writing up your research. So don’t be tempted to skirt around any problems you encountered when you come to write-up. Rather, flag up these problems and show your examiners how you overcame them.
Reporting the research
As you conduct research, you are likely to realise that the topic that you have focused on is more complex than you realised when you first defined your research question. The research is still valid even though you are now aware of the greater size and complexity of the problem. A crucial skill of the researcher is to define clearly the boundaries of their research and to stick to them. You may need to refer to wider concerns; to a related field of literature; or to alternative methodology; but you must not be diverted into spending too much time investigating relevant, related, but distinctly separate fields.
Starting to write up your research can be intimidating, but it is essential that you ensure that you have enough time not only to write up your research, but also to review it critically, then spend time editing and improving it. The following tips should help you to make the transition from research to writing:
In your research plan you need to specify a time when you are going to stop researching and start writing. You should aim to stick to this plan unless you have a very clear reason why you need to continue your research longer.
Take a break from your project. When you return, look dispassionately at what you have already achieved and ask yourself the question: ‘Do I need to do more research?’
Speak to your supervisor about your progress. Ask them whether you still need to collect more data.
Remember that you can not achieve everything in your dissertation. A section where you discuss ‘Further Work’ at the end of your dissertation will show that you are thinking about the implications your work has for the academic community.
The companion study guide Writing a Dissertation focuses on the process of writing up the research from your research project.
Think carefully about your topic and ensure that it is sufficiently focused.
Write a detailed research proposal to help you anticipate the issues/problems that you are going to deal with.
Devote time to planning and stick to your plan.
Work closely with your supervisor and respect the time and advice that they give you.
Be organised and take detailed notes when you are undertaking your literature survey and data collection.
Make a clear decision about stopping data collection.
Move positively into writing-up your research.
Allocate enough time to reviewing and editing your writing.
Remember that you cannot achieve everything in your dissertation, but you can critically appraise what you have done, and outline ideas for further, relevant research.
How to Write Your Best Dissertation: Step-by-Step Guide
When you get to the point of writing a dissertation, you're clearly near the end of an important stage of your educational journey. The point of this paper is to showcase your skills and capacity to conduct research in your chosen discipline, and present the results through an original piece of content that will provide value for the academic and scientific community.
Before we get any further, let's clarify one main thing: what is a dissertation?
This term is usually used to present the final result of independent work and research for an undergraduate program. A thesis, on the other hand, is crafted for the completion of a Master's degree.
Dissertation - the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree.
However, the term dissertation is also used for the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about an undergraduate or PhD dissertation; the form of the assignment is very similar, although the PhD project is much more serious.
This guide will be useful both for undergraduate and PhD students, who are working on their dissertation projects, as well as for students developing theses for MA programs.
It's not easy to write the best dissertation.
Most candidates usually start with great enthusiasm, but this intimidating project can throw them to despair. The process of planning, research, and writing will be the longest and most complex challenge you've ever committed to. The end result will be very rewarding, but you might go through several obstacles to get to that point. These are some of the most common problems students have when writing their dissertations:
- Procrastination. They think there is plenty of time to work on the project, and they keep delaying the starting point. This is a big problem, since these students usually find themselves in frantic stress when the deadline approaches. Check out article ”7 Signs You Might Need Academic Writing Help” and find the best solution
- Lack of research skills. Students who don't have enough experience with academic writing think they just need to collect few relevant resources and extract relevant quotes from them. That's far from the truth. You need to analyze those materials thoroughly and discuss them in the paper.
- Lack of writing skills. The dissertation paper should follow the strict rules of academic writing. You should write in proper form, style, and language; and you should make sure to implement the correct citation guidelines.
Although the challenge seems overwhelming, the important thing is to start from the beginning and complete each stage step by step. We have a guide that will show you the right direction.
Step 1: Write a winning dissertation proposal
We already explained what a dissertation paper is, but what is a dissertation proposal?
As the term itself suggests, this is a proposal for the final dissertation project, which should persuade the committee members that you're going to commit to a valuable, interesting, and complex questions. This is a shorter paper than the final dissertation, but it's equally as important because this is the point when you'll think of a significant question and you'll set up a plan for assembling information and writing the paper. Even if the proposal is not mandatory in your university, you should still write it and discuss the points with your mentor.
These are the main points to pay attention to when wondering how to write a dissertation proposal:
Choose the theme, question, and title
- What problem is your dissertation going to tackle?
- Why is it a problem for the research, academic, and scientific community you'll belong to?
- Why is it important for you to find a solution?
- How are you going to search for the answers?
Do you want to find out more about choosing your dissertation topic? Check out our article.
“How to Come up with a Topic for Your Dissertation”
All these questions are important for making the final commitment. Make sure to brainstorm and choose a theme that will be valuable, unique, and reasonable. You don't want to end up with a too complex question that would trick you in a dead end. The question you choose should lead you to a testable hypothesis that you can prove with strong arguments.
Discuss few alternatives of the dissertation title with your mentor before you start writing the proposal.
Structure of the dissertation proposal
If you want to make the proposal convincing, its format has to be clean and easy to follow. Here are the points you should include in the proposal:
- Dissertation title
- Objectives - Aim for up to three objectives. If you're too extensive at this point, it will seem like your plan doesn't have a focus, so you'll need to narrow it down.
- Literature - Ask your mentor if you're expected to list some specific references in this section. If that's not the case, you'll at least need to mention the areas of study, schools of thought, and other sources of information you're going to use during the research stage.
- Research - This is the main section, where you'll elaborate the ideas of your research question. You will clearly outline the area of research.
- Methodology - The dissertation project can be non-empirical (if the resources come from previously published projects) or empirical (if you collect data through questionnaires or other methods). In this section, you need to explain the methods of collecting data.
- Potential outcomes - Where do you think you'll end up after all the research and analyzing? Explain the outcome you expect to come down to.
- Timeframe - Create a schedule that explains how you will manage all stages of dissertation writing within a specific timeframe.
- List of references - Ask your mentor if you're supposed to include this part, and he'll provide you with the instructions.
Step 2: Conduct an effective research
The dissertation research stage is going to determine the overall development of your project. It has to be methodical and effective, since you don't want to waste your time reading and analyzing irrelevant resources. Here are a few tips that will help you go through it:
- Make a timeline for the research stage
- Find the right places to look for sources
- Organize your resources
It's important to find enough resources to fully understand the phenomenon you're focused on, but you'll need to stop researching at one point or another.
Many students fall into a trap: they think they have to read everything that was ever written regarding the dissertation question they are about to elaborate. How much time do you plan to spend in the research stage? Make a timeline and stay committed to it.
The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.
The Internet is a good starting place during the research stage. However, you have to realize that not everything you read on the Internet is absolutely true. Double-check the information you find and make sure it comes from a trustworthy resource. Use Google Scholar to locate reliable academic sources. Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can take you to some great publication if you check out the list of references on the pages of your interest.
Librarians are really helpful at this point of the project development. Don't avoid the actual library and ask the librarian to provide you with some interesting publications.
You have to take notes; otherwise you'll end up seriously confused and you won't know where you located a certain important argument that you plan to use. Use Evernote, Penzu, or another online tool to write down notes about your impressions, as well as the sources you plan to reference.
The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.
Step 3: Write a mind-blowing dissertation
Now, you're left with the most important stage of the dissertation writing process: composing the actual project, which will be the final product of all your efforts.
It's surprising to see that many students have some level of confidence during the previous two stages of the process, but they crack when they realize they don't really know how to write a dissertation. Remember: you already did a great job up to this point, so you have to proceed. Everything is easier when you have a plan.
- Make an outline
- Literature Review
- Manage your time
- Write the first draft
You already have the dissertation proposal, which is a preliminary outline for the actual dissertation. However, you still need a more detailed outline for the large project. Did the research stage lead you in an unexpected direction? Make sure to include the new points in your outline.
This is a basic outline that will make it easier for you to write the dissertation:
The first chapter should include a background of the problem, and a statement of the issue. Then, you'll clarify the purpose of the study, as well as the research question. Next, you'll need to provide clear definitions of the terms related to the project. You will also expose your assumptions and expectations of the final results.
In this chapter of the dissertation, you will review the research process and the most important acknowledgements you've come down to.
This part of the dissertation is focused on the way you located the resources and the methods of implementation of the results. If you're writing a qualitative dissertation, you will expose the research questions, setting, participants, data collection, and data analysis processes. If, on the other hand, you're writing a quantitative dissertation, you will focus this chapter on the research questions and hypotheses, information about the population and sample, instrumentation, collection of data, and analysis of data.
This is the most important stage in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity. At this point, you'll restate the research questions and you will discuss the results you found, explaining the direction they led you to. In other words, you'll answer those questions.
In the final chapter of the dissertation, you will summarize the study and you'll briefly report the results. Don't forget that you have to explain how your findings make a difference in the academic community and how they are implied in practice.
At the end of this chapter, include a "Recommendations for future research" section, where you'll propose future research that will clarify the issue further. Explain why you suggest this research and what form it should take.
Use the recommended citation style for your field of study, and make sure to include all sources you used during the research and writing stages.
You'll need another timeline, but this one will be focused on the writing process. Plan how to complete your dissertation chapter by chapter. When you have attainable goals, it will be easier for you to write the project without getting overwhelmed by its length and complexity.
There is no life-changing advice to give at this point. You just need to stay away from distractions, stick to your timeline, follow the outline, and complete the first draft. You already have what it takes; now you're ready to do the real work.
Findings stage is the most important in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity.
Step 4: Edit and Proofread the Dissertation like a Pro
Now that you've completed the first draft of the paper, you can relax. Don't even think about dissertation editing as soon as you finish writing the last sentence. You need to take some time away from the project, so make sure to leave space of at least few days between the writing and editing stage. When you come back to it, you'll be able to notice most of its flaws.
- Start editing
There is a substantial difference between editing and proofreading: editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper. You need to deal with the essence first, since it would be silly to proofread the dissertation to perfection and then start getting rid of unnecessary parts and adding more details.
Pay attention to the logical connection between each argument. Are there any gaps in information? Fill them in with more details you collected through the research stage. Maybe you got carried away with the explanations at some point? Make sure to reduce the volume of those parts and clarify them as much as possible. The point is not in quantity; it's in quality and clarity.
Finally, it's time to do the final few readings and catch all spelling, grammar, and style errors you made. Read word by word, sentence by sentence, and consult a dictionary or thesaurus if you have any doubts.
If you notice that you're struggling through the stages of editing and proofreading, you should know you're not the only one with such problem. You are too attached to this project and it's difficult for you to see the flaws in it. That's why it's recommended for students to use an editing service that will bring their projects to perfection. This is a smart investment that will save you from embarrassment after all that effort and stress you went through.
Editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper.
Step 5: Get feedback
Before you can submit the dissertation project to the committee, you need to get some feedback.
Start with a friend or colleague who has knowledge in this discipline. You need to trust this person, since the dissertation is your unique intellectual property. Ask about their opinions and suggestions for improvement.
Then, discuss the project with your mentor. He/she will point out any possible weak points, and you'll get instructions on how to finalize the process before getting ready for the presentation.
The dissertation writing process is a great challenge, which not all students are capable to cope with. You need to keep in mind that you've come this far in your studies, so there is no other way to go but forward. Tackle the project stage by stage, and you'll soon complete the most important paper in your whole educational journey.
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