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:
As the author and researcher, you will be expected to:
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:
Remember that a research study can:
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:
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:
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.
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.
The Craft of Research (Booth, Williams, & Colomb, 2003) has some suggestions on headings.
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.