Dissertation Toolkit: Starting on the Right Track

Your dissertation is very often the first piece of academic work you get to decide for yourself. It can be really exciting to explore in depth an area of your subject which you’re passionate about – it can also seem like a big decision to make! Alternatively, you might have been allocated a project topic, and need to find a way to make it ‘your own’.

Getting a good initial grasp of the dimensions of your topic is crucial to the success of the dissertation. In this blog post, we’ll explore ways to ensure you’re on the right track. Having said that, what is the right track? Dissertation research is a bit more original and open ended than other assignments. You’re heading into the unknown. Neither you nor your supervisor quite know where you’ll end up, and after all, what would be the point of the question if you already knew what the answer would be? So, where should you start?

To help you focus and refine your dissertation proposal at any stage, you might try working your way through these questions. Try writing the answers down or talking them through with someone (perhaps your supervisor) so you’re articulating them clearly – this will also help with writing your proposal, title, introduction and conclusion.

  1. What is your dissertation about? This question is the first step: identifying the general topic. Without this, there is no dissertation! Follow your heart as much as your head – you need to be interested to sustain the project. However, if you don’t probe deeper than the overall subject, you may end up with a dissertation that is too broad, unfocussed and descriptive.
  2. What about it? What aspects will you focus on?  One of the pitfalls of writing a dissertation or research project is trying to cover too much ground, leaving you no room for in-depth analysis or fully working through an argument. Depth is always better than breadth – narrow down the topic again by choosing selected aspects to focus on in detail. You may not have written an assignment this long before, but once you get into it, trust us, you WILL find more than enough to write about! This process will also help you explore search terms when looking for literature.
  3. What are you going to do? You’re going to do more than just tell the reader everything you’ve found out- that would be too descriptive. How would you describe the intellectual work your dissertation will do? Are you analysing how something works or why something happens? Evaluating the best strategy or interpretation? Identifying common themes and patterns? Arguing for a new approach to solve a problem? Make sure you’re working at an appropriately high level – look at the kind of language used in marking criteria.
  4. What question will you answer? Even if your title isn’t in the form of a question, it’s useful to have a research question formulated in your mind. Phrasing your topic as an actual question (with a question mark!) is a very concrete and precise way to articulate your thinking and help you really put your finger on what you’re doing. A question implies an answer – they give you a direction, help you know when to stop (when you’ve answered your question!) or if you’ve gone off track (when you’ve stopped answering your question, but wandered off to answer a different one!).
  5. What problem will you solve? There are lots of questions that can be asked, but not all of them deserve an answer. Problematising the question helps you justify why it’s worth addressing so intensively. What exactly is the problem here, why is it significant enough to invest time in creating a solution? Why should your reader care?
  6. What might your answer look like? Go back to your research question. What range of possible answers might you reach? You might want to formulate this as a ‘hypothesis’ that you’re aiming to prove or test, or an aim you want to achieve, but remember to remain open minded. This will help you to make sure that you stay on track – that you answer the question you set yourself.  You might also have a look at the literature – have people tried to address this question, or a related question before? What kinds of answers were they proposing? Is there a debate here, or anything you can build on? Is there already a well-established answer to your question (which may mean a lot of literature to wade through, and might not leave you much scope)?
  7. What literature, sources and methods/tools/ideas will you use to reach it? Again, there are lots of questions that can be asked, but not all of them can be answered. Either the literature, methods, data, sources etc don’t exist, or they can’t be accessed or carried out in the timeframe you have. This question helps you address the feasibility of your project.

Part of your supervisor’s role is to help you answer these points and ensure that your dissertation or project has a clear focus and is do-able and worth doing, using their experience of the research process with all its trial and error. They understand that research is an open-ended process, and can help you to review and adjust your answers to these questions as you progress, and stay on track – wherever that track ends up leading!

You can download a worksheet with these questions: Refining your Dissertation or Project Topic

Posted by Helen