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Dissertation Preparation

This guide will provide resources and services useful for preparing and navigating the dissertation process.

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 organized and methodical while conducting your research; and
  • reporting the research

As the author and researcher, you will be expected to:

  • 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 organized 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 review and edit 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.

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.

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 skeptical 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 program 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 studies. You should think realistically about the practical implications of your choice, in terms of:

  • the time requirement;
  • necessary traveling;
  • access to equipment or room space;
  • access to the population of interest; and 
  • possible costs.

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 the start, 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.


Effectively Planning 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 is, 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.

 Outlining your Proposal 

The Craft of Research (Booth, Williams, & Colomb, 2003) has some suggestions on headings.

  • 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.



sj88. (n.d.). Planning and conducting a dissertation research project — University of Leicester [Page]. Retrieved September 3, 2019, from