It’s that time of year again. Thousands of postgraduate students across the UK are about to embark on their dissertation journeys. While some will already be knee-deep in literature reviews and organising data collection, others will be struggling to think of an original project and worrying about the next steps.
I’m currently supervising several dissertations (spanning Special & Inclusive Education, and Psychology of Education). I’m also getting emails and knocks on the door from personal tutees and students that I taught last term. Lots of people are seeking advice, but the questions asked are often similar. This blog post is something of a collective response to student questions and concerns. Whilst the post has been written for a particular group in mind (i.e. GSoE students with a qualitative focus), some of the pointers no doubt resonate across other disciplines and I hope readers outside GSoE find them helpful.
- When it comes to choosing a topic you should follow your passions. You’ll be spending months working on your project and need to stay motivated. Make sure that you’re doing something that interests you, and not just your supervisor.
- Take research ethics seriously. Research ethics must permeate everything you do, from research design to data collection, analysis, and writing up. Instead of thinking about ethics as a departmental tick-box exercise (a barrier to data collection), see it as an on-going relationship between you and your research participants. Put yourself in their shoes and ask how you would expect to be treated during and after the research. There are plenty of articles and books on research ethics you can consult.
- Try not to be over-ambitious. I’ve read some wonderful research proposals lately but I’ve advised students to scale the workload back. Typically this is because (1) students only have a small window to collect data in schools, and (2) they only have 15,000 words to write everything up. Doing lots can weaken your overall grade if you lack space to critically engage with the literature and sufficiently analyse the findings.
- Develop clear, answerable research questions. These should guide your research design and keep you focused.
- Justify your research design. When it comes to writing up don’t simply describe what you did but explain why you did it. To help with this, read lots of methodology literature and be aware of key areas of debate. Popular textbooks on research philosophy typically dissect the research into paradigms (positivist, interpretivist, critical, etc.), methodologies (enthography, IPA, case study, etc.), methods (interviewing, observation, etc.) and analysis (thematic, discourse, descriptive statistics, etc.) Develop a critical stance and be aware of your position in relation to these debates.
- Make sure you refer back to your literature review when you analyse your data. Too many promising projects begin with a beautifully written literature review which then becomes forgotten about later on in the dissertation. Think about the significance of your findings for the field, how different lenses in the field help or hinder interpretation of the data, and how your research design adds something new. This is what goes in your Discussion section (if you’re doing empirical work).
- Create a timetable to help manage your workload, write as you go along, and finish before the deadline. You may have conducted an amazing project, but if it’s poorly written-up then your final grade will suffer. Plan for chapter revision, proof reading, reference checking, and printing/binding.
- Think about your supervisor! Academics on summer holidays won’t be reading drafts so make sure you plan to submit work way in advance of the deadline. Chase up supervisors if you have to.