Dissertation Planning

A dissertation project is an opportunity to pursue your own ideas in an environment of relative intellectual freedom. It can also present a number of new challenges relating to the scale, scope and structure of a piece of work that is likely to be more substantial than any you have undertaken before. This workshop will help you to break the process down and explore ways to plan and structure your research and your argument.

Sheffield prides itself on being a “research-led” university. Crucially, this means that teaching is informed by cutting edge research in the academic field. It also means that you are learning in an environment where you develop and use research skills as you progress. The most successful students tend to develop research skills early and use them consistently.

Watch this short screencast for ideas and strategies to get your dissertation project off the ground.

“Research” sometimes just means finding out information about a topic. You can certainly develop advanced information retrieval skills in Working with Sources. However, in the HE setting, specific understandings of “research” carry a lot of weight. The classic definition is that “research” leads to an original contribution to knowledge in a particular field of inquiry by defining an important question or problem and then answering or solving it in a systematic way.

This broad definition can be broken down and interpreted in different ways, though (before we even get to the idea of sharing your research with others: see also Academic Writing and Formal Presentations). So you will need to read on to develop a relevant understanding of what research means in your subject.

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Research Proposal

A research proposal has to be so many things. Part description, part analysis, part review, part guesswork, part advert, part CV. Writing a research proposal that can achieve all these things is a skill worth mastering, whether you are planning a small project, and undergraduate or masters level dissertation, a PhD thesis, or a bid for a grant (some do exist, honestly!). The research proposal certainly poses its own particular challenges. Here are some you might be struggling with:

  • How can you ever explain what you hope to discover in the project before you’ve done the research?
  • How do you make the proposal seem authoritative when you want to do the project to find out more about the area?
  • How do you get the writing style right if you don’t know who’ll be reading it?
  • There are specific things you’ve got to include aren’t there? And isn’t there a prescribed structure?

Of course, the department or body that you are producing the proposal for will certainly have specific guidelines on how to proceed, and these must be your first port of call. But by going on to the resources via the signpost you can find out answers to the questions above and more about the best structure, style and content of a good research proposal.

Research Design

Research is not a precise science. In order to do it well you need to combine a number of skills: some (like having original ideas) involve creativity or innovation, others (like building your knowledge of a subject area) require diligent persistence. Research projects can be big or small; ambitious or modest; exploratory or aiming to confirm existing theses. To try to give the idea of research more shape though, you could say that the classic definition of research suggests four key areas to cover:

  • Recognising and defining an important question or problem
  • Developing enough expertise on the topic area to make sure your contribution is valid and relevant
  • Understanding the methods you will need to respond to your question properly and systematically
  • Following these methods rigorously to provide a convincing solution
  • Research design is all about getting the first three of these areas right.

What is Research?

The most often used and general definition of “research” is that it will lead to an original contribution to knowledge in a particular field of inquiry by defining, and then by answering or solving in a systematic way, an important question or problem. So far, so good. However, that nothing about that definition is hard and fast. Depending on the discipline you work in, there will be different ways on conceiving what a valid or important research problem is and different methods for answering those problems. Not everything about research is “original”. Sometimes the majority (even all) of a research project will involve documenting ideas or information that is already available. 

Not all research leads to answers: sometimes research produces unusable results, or the inquiry leads to only more questions. Sometimes the originality of a research project is that it straddles more than one field of inquiry.

When you do research in different contexts (for example, as part of a short level one undergraduate essay, a level two group report, or an honours-level dissertation) your work can appropriately be more or less systematic.

This all adds up to the fact that “research” is a complicated topic that seems to mean a lot to academic experts but is very difficult to understand intimately when you are a novice. As someone new to research, you will need to do some work to find out how research is conceived of and done in your discipline.

Formulating Research Questions
The topics and questions that researchers work on do not just come out of thin air. It’s true: devising good topics involves the kind of originality and subject expertise that every researcher (novice and expert alike) develops over time. But there are approaches you can use to help you produce projects that will allow you to research to the best of your ability.

  • You can learn more about how research is conceived in your discipline, and about what is seen as important, relevant and valid work.
  • You can develop creative techniques to help you come up with novel ideas to explore in your research
  • You can learn specifically what the most important aspects of a good research topic are in your discipline.
  • You can work on research strategies to make sure your own research covers these aspects.

Literature Review
Different disciplines put different emphases on Literature Reviews but the term generally refers to a designated part of a larger research project such as a dissertation or paper. In it, you produce a written critical survey of the already available published work on the topic you are researching. Producing a Literature Review on a specific topic will sometimes be set as an assignment on your course, and the phrase can also refer more generally to the process of assessing published material in preparation for an essay.

Research Ethics

Whenever you undertake research, no matter what level you are working at, it is always important to consider the immediate and continued impact of your project. All research should proceed from a respectful attitude towards relationships with others involved in the project as subjects or participants. Such people have a right to full knowledge about the project and what its results will be used for. You should also be mindful of areas like privacy and confidentiality; data protection; research subjects’ physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing; your own safety; treating the environment properly; and the potential impacts of publicising your findings.

It is perhaps easy to think that working directly with living participants raises the most pressing ethical questions; however very important consideration equally needs to be given to the ethics of working in text-based subjects, especially when considering unpublished material (see also copyright).

Your department will have its own guidelines on the area of research ethics and you should certainly consult your tutor or supervisor as s/he will be able to give you detailed topic-specific guidance.

Experimental Design
It goes without saying that if you ask two kinds of questions you will get (at the very least) two different answers. It follows from this that the fastest way to derail your research is to spend too little time carefully designing any experiments and related research methods that you intend to use to produce data for analysis.

It’s good news, then, that over time scientists and other researchers have developed a large number of different strategies for effective, reliable and valid research inquiry. Key concerns in experiment design will include:

  • Discrimination between different hypotheses being tested
  • Selecting the subjects of the research using appropriate sampling
  • Replication of the experiment to generate enough statistical data
  • Implementing the controls that will rule out the influence on what you have observed of other factors in the experiment situation
  • Ensuring the accuracy of your measuring system

You can learn about these and more yourself to develop a sturdy framework for the collection of data. Different kinds of research project will demand different kinds of experiment, and approaches that are useful in one environment may not be so in others. Similarly, different levels of rigour will be appropriate depending on the context of your research. The key point is that you need to work through such considerations yourself to justify your approach before embarking on your research project.

Research Methods

Every research project without exception has a method (or more likely a range of them). Perhaps these are not always addressed directly or explained explicitly but it is the job of researchers not only to know which method(s) they are using and why, but to know how to make the most of any particular one they use and to work within its limitations. Consideration of what methods you will use to undertake your research is a central part of the design process and will continue beyond it, so it is a good idea to work through this section of TASH alongside the research design pages.

Research methods can be distinguished in very broad terms as qualitative versus quantitative; and different disciplines tend to draw on these to a different extent. Within these major kinds of method, however, you will find that there is a host of particular methodological research skills that are appropriate to a range of projects; you can develop these to maximise your research ability. Here are the specific kinds of methods you can find out about in this section. Which do you want to follow up?

  • Project management
  • Quantitative methods
  • Qualitative methods
  • Using critical theories
  • Using questionnaires
  • Using databases and software
  • Using archives
  • Planning and managing experiments

Project Management

The key to completing a research project successfully is planning and organisation. Of course, the questions about methodology that you’ll find answers to elsewhere in this section are absolutely fundamental to good research. However, all the careful consideration in the world about such questions is of little use if you do it at the wrong stage in the research process. And if you don’t have a strategy for making sure you complete the work on time and within your means you will waste a lot of good research effort. This is where good project management comes in.

There are key stages to managing any project from defining it and planning the work you need to do to considering self-motivation, controlling your schedule, communicating your results and reviewing your achievements.

Quantitative Methods

When you intend to produce research that tests a hypothesis objectively by producing numerical data about a large sample or set of information the quantitative method is needed. There are many key issues to consider when you are designing an experiment or other research project using quantitative methods, such as randomisation and sampling. Also, quantitative research uses mathematical and statistical means extensively to produce reliable analysis of its results.

Qualitative Methods

As soon as subjectivity - what people think or feel about the world - enters into the equation, the qualitative research method is vital. If your aim is to understand and interpret people’s subjective experience and the broad range of meanings that attach to it, then interviewing, observation and surveying a range of non-numerical data (which may be textual, visual, aural) are key strategies you will consider. Research approaches such as using focus groups, producing case studies, undertaking narrative or content analysis, participant observation and ethnographic research are all important qualitative methods. You will also want to understand the relationship of qualitative data to numerical research. And qualitative methods pose their own problems with ensuring the research produces valid and reliable results.

Using Critical Theories

Almost every Arts and Social Sciences discipline (and many more besides) has undergone major change over the past 40 years in response to the rise of critical theory. Marxism; Psychoanalysis; Structuralism; Feminism and Gender Studies; New Historicism; Postcolonialism: these are just some of the intellectual movements that have shaped the kinds of research undertaken across the disciplines. In many areas, indeed, thinking through your response to critical theory will be a central part of developing your research methodology (see also Research Design). This is a process fundamental to good research. Your academic teachers will certainly introduce you to critical theories that are relevant in your discipline, so you should always begin there. However, the value of critical theory is the range of perspectives it offers, and the leverage new critical ideas give you to change and adapt your knowledge; so it is always good to explore intellectually.

Using Questionnaires

Different questions should receive different answers. It’s an obvious principle but it lies behind the importance of good questionnaire design. A great deal of research, whether the results you are analysing are qualitative or quantitative, requires the setting of questionnaires. And there are many different ways of doing so and issues to consider. These include: what length and format of answer you require; phrasing questions so that you can shape the form but not the content of answers you receive; the usefulness of numerical or scaled results; and much else besides. Internet based questionnaire engines like SurveyMonkey™ also offer the opportunity to make the process of processing results much easier.

Using Databases and Software

As a student at a major university with an impressive research library, you have access to a huge array of major databases and a range of software programs to help with research. In Sheffield University Library through a database called CSA Illumina, for example, you can search the titles and keywords of the vast majority of articles published in academic humanities journals anywhere in the world. The same goes for other disciplines, too. Each subject area will obviously draw on databases and software differently, but these give you access to the breadth of information you need to produce research that contributes to your field, and the technology to process and analyse information effectively.

Using Archives

In disciplines right across the University, students and academics undertake archival research, studying rare or unpublished materials. The University itself holds some wonderful archives, such as the National Fairground Archive; the National Union of Mineworkers Energy Research Archive; and collections of 18th century playbills from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Working in archives gives researchers access to unique, exceptional material, and the ability to study a particular archive can often shape an original research project itself. However, working in archives poses its own problems, from rights of access and the ethics of using the material there, to the practicalities of annotating and reproducing the materials studied.

Planning and Managing Experiments

No matter how good your research design or project management, experiments that you decide to undertake as part of a research project have to be carefully organised and overseen. Issues such as choosing and getting access to instruments used in research; considering your own and others’ health and safety; organising the timing of the experiment to produce results when you need them, giving you time to adjust the research where necessary; and ensuring the right ongoing monitoring of your experiment all come into this.