Seven steps to a dissertation
by Mark Sebba
Research - a process
Research is not just an activity, it is a process. The process doesn't just involve answering questions, it involves formulating the questions to answer. The presentation of the research (writing-up) is as important as the research itself.
Levels of Research
Ph.D. level - topic and data must be original - thesis must make an original contribution to the field and at least parts of it must be publishable. The original contribution could be in terms of theory or methodology (e.g. how the data is collected or how it is analysed).
Masters level - usually the data is original, though there have been similar approaches to the topic; there may be some original methods used in data collection or analysis; the best ones will be publishable as journal articles or conference papers
Undergraduate level - you are expected to collect some original data and to do an analysis of it, showing that you understand how to apply one or more theories to the data you have collected. There is no requirement to be original in terms of theory or method. However, there is nothing to stop you aiming for originality.
Seven steps to a dissertation
This section, 'Seven steps to a dissertation', is designed to show you a way through the process of writing a dissertation, from the earliest step of defining something you are interested enough in to do research, to the final stage of writing it up and printing it out.
1. Choose your topic
2. Review the field
3. Plan your research
4. Collect your data
You may have to adapt your original methodology, research questions etc. if things do not exactly go according to plan.
Fieldwork often involves practical difficulties:
Rather than try to avoid such practical difficulties altogether (since new ones which hadn't occurred to you are bound to crop up) try to think creatively about how you can deal with them. That said, foresee problems if you can and make allowances, e.g. by allowing plenty of time for data collection and having a back-up in case your tape recorder doesn't work or your informant decides to leave town. Also, take sensible precautions like recording each session on a separate tape, making a copy and keeping it in a safe place.
5. Have a theory
6. Analyse and interpret the data
The analysis itself may involve various processes, depending on the kind of methodology and the kind of data.
Stage I: Structural Analysis
7. Write up / present your findings
Remember when you write up your research:
Your research is not just the results! It's the process as well. Some part of the dissertation is usually devoted to describing the process of planning and carrying out the research.
Your methodology and writing-up is just as important as your findings! Usually these take up at least as much space in the final dissertation.
Even a negative result is useful! Though it may be disappointing that you did not find what you originally expected, if you have carried out the research properly, the process will have been useful to you as a learning experience and may have led to useful discoveries about methodology or other things. Do not worry too much about showing some 'big result' - often there are interesting smaller things which are just as important.
Take ethics seriously! If there are ethical considerations which affect your work, you need to include a short discussion of these and mention any action you have taken (e.g. Did you use people's real names? Did you use the actual name of a school/hospital? Did you promise people anonymity? etc. etc.) See the ethics audit.
Take the time to present your work neatly and to proofread accurately. Common faults which detract from otherwise good dissertations are: silly typos, misspelt names of authors, references which are not done according to the guidelines. Remember to number the pages - it is easy to forget to insert page numbers if you are using Word.