- About this site
- What is a Dissertation?
- How to start preparing a dissertation
- Finding a topic for the dissertation
- Start writing at the beginning of the project
- Keep records of your reading at the preliminary stage
- Do lots of reading
- Be organised and keep notes
- When should I begin to do this?
- Time management and work planning
- Personal development planning
- Key Questions
- Further Reading
- Web resources
- Help with finding literature and research
- Formulating the research question
- Responsibility in the research process
- Research Ethics
- Supervision of the Dissertation
- Writing the Dissertation
- Developing Your Academic Style of Writing
- Dr Iain Garner
- Shawna McCoy
- Christopher Crowther-Dowey
- Talk to a member of academic staff at an early stage about your ideas. Let them know you just want to have a general discussion. (In many institutions, students are actively discouraged from approaching individual members of staff to ask them to act as a dissertation supervisor, so check the procedures in your institution before you do anything like this.)
- Talk to other students directly or in a discussion forum.
- Draw upon the unresolved questions and issues you had from other units/modules that you have studied or intend to study.
- Use the reading and knowledge from these units to develop a dissertation question.
- Use newspapers and other media to identify topical issues related to areas of social policy, politics, sociology, criminology, etc.
- Become familiar with the search sources and support available, particularly within your own institution and via the Web, to find relevant critical and scholarly material.
- Draw upon your own experience (as an employee, a parent, part of a campaigning group, a student, a patient and so on).
- Scan the academic journals.
- Think about a book you have found interesting.
- Will the topic sustain your interest over the months to come?
- Is the topic one which you can approach with analytic distance?
- Is there an existing literature within which you can locate your work?
- Is the topic one that you can research with the time and resources available?
- An area of social life.
- A type of method that you would like to use.
- A body of theory that you are interested in exploring.
- Your initial ideas.
- Points from the literature or other sources that you are consulting.
- Your observations and impressions.
- New ideas as they develop.
- Problems that you come across.
- Check that you know the referencing system specified by your course and get into the habit of using it.
- Always write the full bibliographic details on the top of any photocopies or print-outs.
- Keep a running bibliography in alphabetical order as a computer file or card index.
- Note in your research diary when you read a particular source.
- Use software that is available to you to manage your references, e.g. Ref Works.
- Classic studies in your chosen area.
- Recent studies published as books or journal articles.
- Research methods and methodology texts.
- Social theory relevant to your approach.
- Primary literature sources.
- Theoretical/conceptual material.
- Policy/practitioner literature.
- Questions or ideas that interest you.
- Possible ways of researching these.
- References to follow up at a later stage.
- Sources of information that you have found useful.
- Notes on articles and papers you have read or programmes you have seen or heard.
- What is the overall area of your interest? Write a paragraph that would give someone else a clear picture of the issues.
- How has your interest developed over time? Can you identify incidents or experiences that have generated your interest? These may be personal or professional, or to do with current work priorities.
- Are there any key writers who have shaped your interest or whose views conflict with yours?
- Where would you like the work to lead in the longer term? Is this research connected with work you currently do or would like to do at some stage?
- Does anyone else have an interest in the topic you choose for your study? This may not be a problem but it is important to recognise if there are others with interests in the work.
- What are the questions to which you want to find answers in your research? You might have a hypothesis – i.e. a belief about something (founded upon evidence) which has never been fully tested, proved or disproved. You may, on the other hand, want to couch your interest in terms of an exploration of issues, attitudes or experiences, or as a question. Write a list of all the questions you want to answer and group them into priorities or hierarchies and show the connections between them. At this stage you may want to do some weeding out of overlapping or less relevant questions. It is helpful to list your questions and then to answer why you want to know the answer and how it will help you to pursue your overall enquiry.
- Where is any work currently being done in this area? Can you identify any specialist collections of literature? Are there particular people associated with them?
- What do you know about what is currently known, written about or researched in the area?
- How are you going to track down the research and theory to support your study? Talk to tutors on the course to see if anyone can help.
- Refining the research question/hypothesis;
- Checking if your project needs Ethics Committee/School Research Governance approval;
- Designing the framework for the literature review;
- Undertaking the literature search and using the framework to develop the review;
- Developing the methodology for fieldwork and identifying appropriate methods;
- If required, gaining access and agreeing arrangements for data collection;
- Collecting the data;
- Coding/transcribing data;
- Analysing data;
- Developing the discussion;
- Writing up the study and conclusions
- negotiation (e.g. when obtaining access to research participants; with your supervisor)
- time management
- project management.
- Kevin Bonnett
- Ideas for topics can come from a variety of sources - staff, other students, past modules and essays, the media or the Internet.
- Choose a topic that will sustain your interest over the coming year.
- Choose a topic with some background and existing literature to it.
- Consider methods you would like to use, and theories you would like to explore.
- Write things down as they happen, from your initial ideas to problems and your own feelings about the project.
- Keep a bibliography of your reading, with summaries and notes for your own reference.
- Think about the different tasks you may need to do and in what order.
- Consider project management organisational tools that may help you.
- Use checklists of tasks to be completed, and adapt to suit your own needs.
- What specific topic are you really interested in? (Hint: this may not be the same thing as what you think you ought to be interested in!)
- Do you understand everything you read the first time you read it? Will you need to re-read some texts and passages? (This will take time.)
- Are you keeping notes of what you read and your ideas?
- Is your note taking time efficient and are the notes useful to you?
- Have you kept a clear record of texts you will need to refer to or read again?
- Have you mapped out the work that you need to do from start to finish for your dissertation?
- Have you linked the stages of work to timelines?
- Do you think your planning is realistic?
- Have you looked at software and proformas that may be able to help you?
How to start your dissertation 1
The dissertation or final year project requires organisational and time management skills in order to complete to a high standard. Due to competing demands on time, many students do not always devise and follow a work schedule, which can have implications for the quality of work that is produced and stress levels!
Before getting started – consider how you will manage your time
This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
The first stage is to decide on the topic that you wish to write about. You have an opportunity to explore and research in depth, using any previous study, a subject that is of personal interest to you and also helps you develop your interest even further. The topic can be related to a career aspiration. Although the dissertation is hard work, it should be rewarding, because it represents individual academic achievement of a kind that may makes a difference to your field of enquiry. Let your ideas and imagination flow!
During the first 2 years of the degree, I had often chosen topics related to female offending. Because of this, I felt I had useful background knowledge.
Reading journal articles over the summer to look at the type of research that was being done in the topic area.
Interest in the issues, personal experience of the issues, the desire to be able to make a difference. There have been areas of my degree which have looked at my chosen subject area, so my ability to tackle the subject has been heightened.
I have been working myself on subject areas, reading around my chosen subject areas and trying to work out how my dissertation can be put to good use, rather than being marked and filed away to be forgotten about.
(Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)
It's been a valuable experience for me it's so different from other stuff. With other essays you can rush them if you have to ... but this is so much work, you can't rush it. It demands more. (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p340)
Some of the first stages are not unlike deciding where to go on holiday. There are many factors that may influence your choice; will you choose a trekking holiday in the Andes or a beach holiday in the Med?Selecting a topic for your dissertation is not always easy. Some people are fortunate – an idea for a dissertation may pop into their mind immediately. For many, however, this is not the case, and you may need to be more systematic in your search for the dissertation question or topic that you wish to explore further. You may find that you have too few ideas, or too many.
You may have to do a great deal of thinking and background reading before you reach a decision about the topic in which you want to invest a lot of time and effort.
Inspiration can come from many places when looking for a dissertation topic.
The topic you select needs to be one that can be addressed in an appropriately academic manner within the time constraints of the dissertation.
Avoid too broad a topic
Avoid too broad a topic or one that is overly ambitious: it is better to find a thoroughly researched and argued answer to a small question than to fail to find the answer to one which is too big or diffuse.
Your main interest in the topic may be:
Bringing all three of these together is a way of narrowing the focus of the dissertation into a manageable project.
My supervisor was very important in defining the topic. I'm not sure that I could have come up with the question on my own. I didn't know what I could answer; I didn't know what it would benefit me to do.
(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p343)
Many people find it useful to keep a research notebook in which you can record:
Keep an accurate record of the bibliographical details of all the material that you read - doing this as you progress will save an enormous amount of time at the end of the project.
Note: When you refer directly to the work of an author in your dissertation, it is especially important to record the details precisely, to ensure that it is accurately referenced and to avoid the risk of plagiarism (for more information see the section on plagiarism).
A final year project, like many other forms of assessments, needs to be located within the existing literature in that area. In order to do this you need to do lots of reading! Typically you will read:
The typical length of a bibliography for a dissertation would include anything between 25-50 references. For example, there are, to varying degrees, references to:
The process of thinking about the dissertation topic and methods is an evolving one. It may help to get some form of personal recording of the ideas, links and resources that you come across in the initial thinking and information-gathering stages. Do not simply rely on your memory to store all the strands of information you come across. A key part of success in dissertation-writing is being organised and systematic in your approach and the earlier you can adopt this, the better.
This type of note-taking may link into the writing of other learning logs or personal development planning you are doing already within your degree.
You might want to keep a record of:
You can use library resources and the Internet to discover primary and secondary material and to find out what critical and scholarly material is available to inform your study.
Usually dissertations are undertaken in the final year of a three-year degree. If this is the case for you then you should begin the process during your second year. If you have module options in Year 3 you may decide your dissertation topic before confirming these modules.
The first task is to establish your overall area of interest. It will be important that the topic you choose can interest you enough to sustain your commitment during the coming months. Write down the reasons for your interest. These may provide pointers to the sort of questions you want to ask within the study. As you go on, you may find that your interest begins to take shape, or changes a little, as you focus more closely on it.
Dissertations usually have a long lead in time so it is essential that you think about the various stages of work that need to be undertaken and get into good habits early on in the process, for example with keeping records of searches undertaken, ideas that crop up and material to be sought after and incorporated.
You might want to devise a schedule of work from start to finish, perhaps in discussion with your supervisor or tutor, or monthly plans. Nearer the deadline you may wish to use weekly schedules to keep you on track.
If you are undertaking empirical work your planning will need to be even more detailed so that you are aware of slippage that may affect completion of the research.
Your will need to allow time for the following:
Experienced supervisors told us that students are often over-ambitious when planning their research. Organisation is extremely important, especially if you are going to collect your own data:
If you're doing empirical fieldwork, you've got to give yourself time to do it; you've got to appreciate that it takes time, doing things like designing a questionnaire or an interview schedule.
(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2006, p168)
This will require careful management of time, and keeping a check on progress. You may find it helpful to develop a chart indicating which stages of work will be undertaken when, and with what contingencies. We have made a checklist which could help you with this planning.
Doc 5 Checklist for completing dissertation or final project
Project management software is worth using. Devising your own tables for reference can be helpful.
You will probably also be involved in Personal Development Planning (PDP) linked to Progress Files and you may want to link your dissertation work to your PDP as you will be using a diverse range of skills to complete the dissertation and you may be able to identify how you have progressed or acquired new skills or learning. For example you may use skills related to:
Time management and work planning
This video clip contains comments from the following academic:
MOORE, N.(2000). How to do research. The complete guide tp designing and managing research projects. 3rd ed., London, Facet Publishing, chapters 1&2 - objectives and planning
ROWNTREE, D.(1998). Learn how to study. 4th ed., London, Warner place, chapter 9 - writing notes
SEALE, C.(2006). Researching society and culture. London, Sage, chapter 7 - palnning
Here are some web resources that you might find useful:
Identifying a research topic: