A Very Short, Easy and Free Guide: How to Plan a Dissertation

[I wrote this short note for UG and PG dissertations students I supervise. If it’s of any use to anyone else, please feel free….with acknowledgement of course. Wouldn’t want you falling foul of TurnItIn.]

Having an outline – a road map – that tells you and your supervisor what you expecting to cover in your UG or PG dissertation is an invaluable aid to thinking, researching and writing.

I emphasize expecting because it will – indeed should – change as your work and thinking progresses – if it doesn’t change it suggests your aren’t learning. But it also shouldn’t change too much, unless you have to switch topics completely.

For my last book I did precisely this and when I went back and checked my outline had gone through three major revisions and a few minor ones.

I usually suggest the outline should be a page or two of A4 at most.

Most dissertations – whether UG or PG – usually end up being divided into about seven chunks (chapters, sections, etc) plus or minus 2, of very roughly equal length.

So it’s important to remember if you have 10,000 words to play with each chunk is only going to be somewhere between about 1,000 and 2,000 words (ish). (Breaking it down like this also makes it much easier to manage).

The sections don’t have to be in this precise order.

At the risk of being over-prescriptive I would suggest it would commonly look something like this….


DISSERTATION OUTLINE

TITLE

Usually this should be in the form of a question that you are going to try to answer.

  1. INTRODUCTION (fairly short)

Why this topic? Why is it interesting to the world, relevant to my degree, “do-able” in a dissertation, interesting to me (a bit of subjectivity is OK here).

This is what journalists would call “the hook” – getting the readers attention and making them feel its worth reading about (I know we have to read them but it helps if we want to read them too).

Here you should also tell the reader what you are going to tell them – a brief outline of the dissertation structure (best left until the rest is written!)

  1. BACKGROUND/CONTEXT

This should expand in your introduction to set out why this topic is worthy of investigation, what is interesting about it, and what your investigation may add to the sum of human knowledge.

This is what I call the “throwing the rock in the pond” stage where you can mention all the potential ripples before (in the next section) narrowing down what precisely you are (and are not) going to investigate further. (This helps demonstrate your omniscient understanding of the subject, and boost the number of citations/references).

  1. THE ISSUE DEFINED

How has this issue been defined by others (part of your so-called “literature review”)? This a should demonstrate a reasonable knowledge of existing thought and research on the issue. (If there isn’t much it’s probably a wee bit over ambitious for a UG or PG dissertation).

How are you going to define it for the purposes of this dissertation? A bit of theory comes in useful here – different theoretical ‘frames’ would point to different aspects of a complex issue (they are all complex). But it is also important to ‘operationalise’ your definition – to put it in a form that can be investigated.

It’s important to cut the issue down to size to fit the limitations of what you can do in a dissertation – limitations of time, space, money, access, etc. You can spell out these limitations here and then explain them in your design for investigating the issue.

  1. INVESTIGATING THE ISSUE

You can start here by outlining how others have gone about investigating this issue – what alternative methods have been used, or could be used – what are their strengths and weaknesses?

You then should outline how precisely you are going to investigate the issue (desk research, interviews, survey, etc) and why you have chosen these methods (including the practical limitations of what you can do, issues of access, ethical considerations, etc).

You can also give a ‘warts and all’ account of what actually happened with the investigation – what problems, adjustments, detours, happy (or unhappy) accidents you encountered and how you dealt with them and how they affect your results.

  1. RESULTS – WHAT HAVE I FOUND?

This is the section that most often ends up as more than one ‘chapter’ – if you have used different methods for example, you might report them separately and then combine (triangulate) the findings.

You may well have far more ‘raw’ data than you can put in here (e.g. if you’ve done interviews or a survey). One trick is to put summaries in here and include more detail in appendices (which usually aren’t included in the word-count – but please check).

  1. ANALYSIS – WHAT DO THESE RESULTS MEAN?

This is the “so what?” section. What do your results tell us about the topic? Have you confirmed and extended previous work or maybe challenged it? Have you found something new and interesting?

Remember to relate this back to your original question(s)/issue(s) – one of the ways many dissertations are weakened is by not rigorously relating findings back to the objectives. That does not mean you can’t discuss unexpected or serendipitous results, just don’t get carried away and forget what you set out to do.

  1. CONCLUSIONS

More research needed. There is always more investigation needed because all research has limitations – what are they for your efforts and what have you added.

(With thanks to shed-loads of colleagues and the by-now hundreds of students I’ve supervised – even the “advice resistant” ones.)

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