Scope and structure
Some students begin the dissertation process with a clear research question to address. Many others begin with several ideas, but with no specific research question. In view of the pressure to get started quickly, this can cause anxiety and even panic. It is, however, a common situation to be in. There are several ways forward:
- Talk to others: what topics are other students considering? Does this spark an interest? Discuss your own ideas. You don’t need to wait until you have a specific research question. The comments and questions of fellow students and staff may help you to refine your focus.
- Look at other writing: set aside some time to spend in the library. Skim through the titles of research papers in your field published over the past five years. Read the abstracts of those you find most interesting.
- Look through the dissertations of previous students in your department. The topics may give you inspiration or provide useful suggestions for further research.
- Think about your own interests: which topic have you found most interesting? Is there an element that could be developed into a research project?
- Be extra critical: is there something in your course so far that you have been sceptical about? Have you come across a topic which you think needs further study?
- Read about an interesting topic and ask questions. 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 programme of work; or
- apply a theoretical idea to a real world problem.
We have now thought of the scope of the dissertation
Use this scope planner
Writing a research proposal
A research proposal is a 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. However, it is worth preparing one even if it is not a formal requirement of your course. The proposal should build on the discussions that you have had with your supervisor and on early reading that you have done on the topic. It will thus make you think in detail about what it is that you are going to do, and will define your research problem. Producing a research proposal will help you when you start to write up the project.
Although the introduction to the dissertation comes first it should be written last, after everything else is complete. Only then will you know exactly what is in your dissertation and how to introduce it.
The background section tells the story of what led you to undertake this work – for example, a recent placement, clinical experience or a presentation in an academic forum. It brings the reader to the table, so to speak.
Aims and objectives
Aims and objectives must be determined at the outset. Have at least one (main) aim and four (contributory) objectives: fewer than four objectives might appear superficial, especially considering that the aim has been deemed interesting enough to merit a study. Objectives must be relevant to the aim(s), and aims and objectives must be clearly stated and explained.
The aim is the overall destination and the objectives are what you need to do to get there; for example, if your aim was to help women to decide what method of contraception to choose, your objectives would include establishing what methods are available, examining the risks and benefits of each, and evaluating different forms of patient information.
The literature review – sometimes called literature search or literature enquiry – is crucial. What you have read must be current and relevant, and you need to show that you have examined it critically. If one author’s assertion is contradicted by another, your role is to unravel the arguments and extract meaning from them. The fact that authors have had their work published does not mean they are necessarily right.
Synthesise what you have read, bring the information together and demonstrate how it has contributed to your thinking. From your reading you will develop ideas on how to investigate your topic – including what design best fits your purpose.
Journal articles are generally more focused and detailed than books. Ensure the journals you cite are peer-reviewed: this means its articles have been scrutinised by people with the relevant spe-cialist expertise before being accepted for publication. How many articles or books you include depends on the nature of your work. You are likely to need at least 20 current articles or books to make sense of your topic. Fewer sources may betray an unwillingness to delve into the subject, whereas featuring a huge amount of literature may indicate you have skimmed through it. Be selective and be prepared to justify your choice of included work.
The design – also referred to as approach or method – is the way in which you explore your topic. This section can adopt various presentations but should be clear and succinct, and you should avoid becoming mired in uncertainties. It may feature:
- The epistemological approach – for example qualitative or quantitative, or perhaps eclectic – and why you made that choice;
- The method – for example, if you have chosen a quantitative approach your method could be a survey, while a qualitative approach could be the observation of informants and interpretation of their behaviour with the help of follow-up interviews. These methods are by no means exhaustive and relevant texts on research principles, such as Parahoo (2014); Moule and Aveyard (2016); Ellis (2016) will help you select your method.
- Resources needed for your project;
- Any perceived limitations, such as availability of informants, response rates or equipment, and how these were dealt with.
Research is awash with ethical challenges; you need to identify them early and show what steps you have taken to address them. Do refer to the theories on ethics that you have used to guide your thinking. As a general rule, undergraduates should not be encouraged to involve patients in their research projects, but they will still need to secure ethical approval if they intend to involve peers, staff or any other informants who could potentially be harmed. Obtaining ethical approval is a long and sometimes complex process that should not be taken lightly.
This section states what sources you derive information from; for example, this could be literature only, different types of literature, individual informants or observations.
Describe what you have done, what worked and what did not. Do not avoid exploring errors in your work, but when doing so, demonstrate how they have contributed to your understanding.
This is the section where you describe what has emerged from your study and what you think needs to be examined further (and why). Do not merely end with a series of superficial comments about what else could be done, but explain what brought you to these views.
The discussion is your chance to shine. It is likely to be longer than most other sections – if not there may be a problem. Start by stating what resulted from your enquiry, and every time you make a statement, ask yourself: so what? It may seem odd, but this self-enquiry will result in deeper insights, which will impress examiners.
If you want to excel, incorporate the findings from the literature review into your discussion and explore whether the findings from your work concur with or differ from the literature. You can further enhance the discussion by integrating fieldwork, findings and ethical challenges. The more fully you engage with the dissertation at this stage, the more sophisticated the end product will be.
The conclusions (or recommendations) need to be brief, draw everything together and suggest what needs to happen next and why.
Your work must include a carefully compiled list of literature cited in your dissertation. Bear in mind that examiners do check references – especially if they are themselves among the authors cited. They may find incomplete reference lists – or, even worse, their published work misquoted or wrongly interpreted – extremely irritating. Refer to your institution’s guidelines for reference protocols.
Simple- just don't go there. Many of you will hand your dissertations in via a 'Turn-It-In' or similar interface. It detects % similarities with millions of stored research articles and essays. Of course there will be some degree of similarity especially if you are referencing peer reviewed research. If you have simply lifted content from another author you will be found out. I recently wrote 3 essays for postgraduate studies and was amazed that Turn it in found 9% similarities with other published work even though i knew my work was original content. You cannot fool the system.
Another point to consider - DO NOT PAY FOR SOMEONE TO WRITE YOUR DISSERTATION FOR YOU!
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