Starting your Dissertation: A brief guide

Stage 1

What does a dissertation look like?

A dissertation is an extended piece of written work which communicates the results of independent research into a topic of your own choice.

At one level all dissertations ask you to do broadly the same things:-

  • Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer
  • Review the relevant literature in your field
  • Engage in independent thought and research
  • Explain and justify whatever methods you use
  • Present your findings clearly and demonstrate how they relate to your original question

Have a look at finished dissertations to get an idea of how they look and what they should contain. There are 2 PCs in the Library on the ground floor which have a variety of past dissertations on them for you to browse.

Stage 2

Finding a topic

Finding the topic and question for your dissertation can take longer than you think. You shouldn't feel worried if you don't hit on the ideal topic straight away… you have enough time to be creative and enjoy exploring your subject. At this stage no ideas are barred!

Good sources of ideas are:

  • Something you've always wondered about
  • Lecture notes and old essays
  • Flicking through current journals
  • Media / news items
  • Things you disagree with
  • A hunch that you have…is it true?
  • Controversies / new areas in your subject
  • Talking with friends

Thinking outside your subject area may also help – are there any current affairs issues or controversies that you can apply your subject to?

It's never too early to start thinking of ideas. Keep them in one place - start an ideas book or a box file to keep any notes or articles you find that might be useful. Remember to keep FULL references of anything you find.

At this early stage, find out the word length and deadline for your dissertation – note them down somewhere obvious – this will influence the size of project you undertake.

Stage 3

Going from a topic to a question

A dissertation question is not the same as a topic…it has to be phrased so that it can be answered in a specific and focused way. There are various ways that you can get from your topic to a question:-

  • Do some reading around your topic – are there any gaps in current research that could provide a question?
  • If you usually write too much – think smaller and focus on one narrow aspect of your topic.
  • If you usually don't write enough – think bigger and link some related areas of your topic together.

Think of two factors that might influence your topic – could they be put together to make a question? For instance:

  • Topic  = representation of women in the media
  • Factor 1 = TV advertising
  • Factor 2 = Women's perception of their bodies
  • Question: Does the depiction of women in TV advertising influence women's perceptions of their bodies?

Keep asking yourself "what in particular about this do I want to study?" until you get down to a question. For instance:

  • Subject = sociology
  • Topic of interest = elderly people
  • More specifically = elderly people in care
  • Especially = elderly people in residential care
  • Precisely = elderly people in warden-controlled residential care homes
  • Question: What do retired people think of the service they get in warden-controlled residential care homes?

Remember your initial question isn't set in stone at this stage – it can be modified over the course of your project to suit what you end up investigating.

It is a good idea before you make any final decisions to discuss your choice of question with your supervisor, as they will have the academic experience to know what kinds of questions will be manageable, and which will need more refining.

Before settling on a question – ask yourself:

  • "Will it keep me interested for a long period?"
  • "Can I answer it with the time and resources I have?"
  • "Is there someone who can supervise me and can I get on with them?"
  • "Do I have some idea of how to go about answering it?"

Check what you will have to include in a dissertation proposal. It should contain a clear summary of what, why and how you are going to do your research.

Adapted from A Guide to starting your dissertation from the University of Reading

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