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Dissertations and major projects

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

It's natural to feel slightly directionless at the start of any dissertation or major project because you are not sure what to research or how to find the information you need. Start early and allow yourself some time for reading around topics that interest you and scoping out the kinds of sources that are available. This initial reading, thinking and planning time is really valuable and will provide a good basis for focusing your ideas into a research question.

The guidance on this page gives strategies for identifying a topic, refining this into a clearer research question, and starting to plan how you will answer it.    

What does a dissertation look like?

A dissertation is an extended piece of written work which communicates the results of independent research into a topic of your own choice.

At one level all dissertations ask you to do broadly the same things:

  • Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer
  • Review the relevant literature in your field
  • Engage in independent thought and research
  • Explain and justify whatever methods you use
  • Present your findings clearly and demonstrate how they relate to your original question

What does your department do…?

Ask if you can have a look at finished dissertations from your department to get an idea of how they look and what they should contain.

Finding a topic

Finding the topic and question for your dissertation can take longer than you think. You shouldn't feel worried if you don't hit on the ideal topic straight away… you have enough time to be creative and enjoy exploring your subject. At this stage no ideas are barred!

Good sources of ideas are:

  • Something you've always wondered about
  • Lecture notes and old essays
  • Flicking through current journals
  • Media / news items
  • Things you disagree with
  • A hunch that you have… is it true?
  • Controversies / new areas in your subject
  • Talking with friends

Thinking outside your subject area may also help – are there any current affairs issues or controversies that you can apply your subject to?

It's never too early to start thinking of ideas. Keep them in one place - start an ideas book or a box file to keep any notes or articles you find that might be useful.

What does your department do…?

At this early stage, find out the word length and deadline for your dissertation – note them down somewhere obvious – this will influence the size of project you undertake.

Going from a topic to a question

A dissertation question is not the same as a topic…it has to be phrased so that it can be answered in a specific and focused way. There are various ways that you can get from your topic to a question:

  • Do some reading around your topic – are there any gaps in current research that could provide a question?
  • If you usually write too much – think smaller and focus on one narrow aspect of your topic.
  • If you usually don't write enough – think bigger and link some related areas of your topic together.
Think of two factors that might influence your topic – could they be put together to make a question?

Topic = representation of women in the media

Factor 1 = TV advertising

Factor 2 = Women's perception of their bodies

Question: Does the depiction of women in TV advertising influence women's perceptions of their bodies

Keep asking yourself "what in particular about this do I want to study?" until you get down to a question.

Subject = sociology

Topic of interest = elderly people

More specifically = elderly people in care

Especially = elderly people in residential care

Precisely = elderly people in warden-controlled residential care homes

Question: What do retired people think of the service they get in warden-controlled residential care homes?

Remember your initial question isn't set in stone at this stage – it can be modified over the course of your project to suit what you end up investigating.

It is a good idea before you make any final decisions to discuss your choice of question with your supervisor, as they will have the academic experience to know what kinds of questions will be manageable, and which will need more refining.

Before settling on a question – ask yourself:

  • "Will it keep me interested for a long period?"
  • "Can I answer it with the time and resources I have?"
  • "Is there someone who can supervise me and can I get on with them?"
  • "Do I have some idea of how to go about answering it?"

What does your department do…?

Check what you will have to include in a dissertation proposal. It should contain a clear summary of what, why and how you are going to do your research.

Dissertation presentations

You may be asked to give a presentation on your work in the early stages of your dissertation. Treat this as an opportunity to:

  • explain why your chosen topic is interesting;
  • show how it fits into the context of your course generally;
  • try out your plan for how to tackle the research.

Remember that you're not presenting the end result of your research, but work-in-progress. Think about including some questions for your audience to encourage useful feedback.