Dissertations need to demonstrate knowledge and understanding beyond undergraduate level and should also reach a level of scope and depth beyond that taught in class. All dissertations must be presented in an appropriate academic style and format to ensure that the precise aims of the dissertation are met. It is important that the aims and objectives of the dissertation are clearly expressed and are achievable within the scope of the dissertation framework. Academic style does not just refer to the clarity of expression, grammar, use of citation and referencing but relates to a clearly structured approach to the justification and validation of facts, theories and opinions presented to form a precise argument.
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.
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?’