Your dissertation is probably going to be the most important piece of writing you will ever complete, so it’s essential that you choose the right topic to write about. Especially if you’re looking for a long-term career in academia, this will become the piece of writing where you will build the foundation of your professional reputation.
There are many different factors to think about when choosing a dissertation project, but your previous years of study should have provided you with some ideas about the area you want to research, and given you access to basic theories and academic writings from which to base your preparation.
What are you interested in?
Choosing a topic that you’re passionate about can make all the difference when choosing your dissertation title, but you need to research how it would work as the basis for a dissertation topic. Whilst some theoretical dissertations can rely on pre-existing literature and research findings, the chances are you will have to factor in conducting your own research, which will undoubtedly take time and possibly money.
If possible, give yourself a bit more time by reading articles, papers and books in the summer before your third year in the area that interests you. This time should also give you an idea of whether your dissertation idea is simply too big to complete in two academic terms, researching and writing your dissertation to the highest possible standard.
You’ll be able to find inspiration for your dissertation topic from your lecture notes, text books, module handbooks, seminar discussions, theories, academics you’ve read and current affairs.
Figure out your working title
Once you have the area you want to write about, a preliminary title for your dissertation will help you focus your research and study. You can have a descriptive title, or a title that poses a question if you already have a certain viewpoint you want to argue. Simplistic questions, such as “Why do people divorce?” are too vague to be of use guiding your research, and offer nothing for other academics to be interested in.
You may want your dissertation question to compare two different approaches to a situation, and then argue which one is the better policy. You need to allow yourself the ability to investigate and explore a topic in depth and give you a basis for conducting your own research.
When working on your dissertation, there are plenty of other questions you may want to ask yourself, to make sure your question sets out a realistic course. Do you have access to books and the topic you want to investigate? Are you going to need access to other data and is this additional data available to you?
You may want to check that your title isn’t too narrow, and have a Plan B if you can’t gain access to all the data or literature you need. You should also look at your course handbook at this point to familiarise yourself with the way your dissertation will be graded. This gives you a solid framework from which to base the structure and content of your dissertation.
As your dissertation needs to be an original piece of research, it can be difficult to streamline your research in order to write from the angle you want to take.
Some considerations you may want to think about include whether you’re comparing different states or staying within a British context; are you looking at a particular institution; are you going to just study a contemporary topic, or will you need to conduct historical research into your topic; how many cases you plan to explore and the kind of research you will need to complete.
Plan your research for your dissertation
If fieldwork is appropriate to your dissertation, then you need to identify the correct research methods that will help you to substantiate the viewpoint of your dissertation.
If you need access to statistics, you need to identify the best way to collect large amounts of responses and ensure your sample is either reflective of a certain demographic, or randomly selected in a way that isn’t going to compromise your results.
If you decide to undertake qualitative research, you will need access to the right respondents, and be able to build up the appropriate rapport to get in depth, accurate responses that you can analyse. You need to assess whether your fieldwork is manageable in terms of times and resources allocated to your dissertation.
Dissertation titles should reflect the type of research you intend to undertake. For example, if you wanted to explore attitude trends to remarriage in the south east of England, choosing unstructured interviews wouldn’t give you any way to compare and contrast large amounts of data.
Research descriptions help with your dissertation
At this point, you may find that writing a research description will give you a clear explanation of what you intend to research and how you plan to do it. You should also maintain regular meetings with your supervisor, who will have a great deal of experience in how best to help with students’ dissertations, as well as having experience in the general area of your title.
They will give you continued guidance on your title, the research you conduct to support your argument and any literature or theories that may be able to help your dissertation.
Ultimately, your dissertation is about showing your university that you can successfully plan a piece of research in your field of study, before undertaking research that collects, collates and assesses information on a topic in an original and innovative way.
You need to be able to communicate your findings to an academic audience in context to other relevant theorists and researchers, as well as critically assess previous research with your own findings.
You will finally be expected to present appropriate conclusions and, where appropriate, recommendations for improvement of an issue based on the theoretical research and fieldwork you have undertaken.