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Dissertations and major projects

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

The research process for a dissertation or project is substantial and takes time. You will need to think about what you have to find out in order to answer your research question, and where and when you can find this information. As you gather your research, keep returning to your research question to check what you are doing is relevant.

This page gives advice on keeping on track during your research by using your plan, your method or research process, your structure, and your supervisor.     

Doing the research

The kinds of research you will need to do will depend on your research question. You will usually need to survey existing literature to get an overview of the knowledge that has been gained so far on the topic; this will inform your own research and your interpretations. You may also decide to do:

- primary research (conducting your own experiments, surveys etc to gain new knowledge)

- secondary research (collating knowledge from other people's research to produce a new synthesis).

You may need to do either or both.

Primary research

If you are doing qualitative or quantitative research, or experiments, start on these as soon as you can. Gathering data takes a lot of time. People are often too busy to participate in interviews or fill out questionnaires and you might need to find extra participants to make up your sample. Scientific experiments may take longer than you anticipate especially if they require ethical clearance, special equipment, or learning new methods.

  • Design and plan your data collection methods – check them with your supervisor and see if they fit with your methodology.
  • Identify and plan for any ethical issues with collecting your data.
  • Do a test or pilot questionnaire as soon as possible so you can make changes if necessary.
  • Identify your sample size and control groups.
  • Have a contingency plan if not everyone is willing to participate.
  • Keep good records – number and store any evidence – don't throw anything out until you graduate! See our advice on Managing your data in this guide for more suggestions.

Secondary research

The key to effective secondary research is to keep it under control, and to take an approach which will make your reading and your notes meaningful first time round.

  • Start small with one main text and build up.
  • Once you have an overview, formulate some sub-questions which will help answer your main dissertation question.
  • Look for the answers to these questions.
  • Do more reading to fill in the gaps.
  • Keep thinking, and analysing the relevance of the information as you go along.
  • But be aware of your work schedule – you can't read everything, so be selective.

If you need help, consult your Academic Liaison Librarian - they may know about materials you hadn't thought of.


Methodology means being aware of the way in which you do something and being able to justify why you did it that way. Each academic discipline has a number of different sets of methods for conducting research.

For example: One method of conducting qualitative research is semi-structured interviews, another method is case studies – each are appropriate for finding different levels and types of information.

The method you choose will be the model for how you go about your research:

  • Why is the method you chose the most appropriate way of finding an answer to your research question?
  • Are there any other methods you might have used…why didn't you choose them?
  • Throughout your dissertation be aware of the decisions you make and note them down explaining why you made them:
  • Did you change your plans when you encountered a problem?
  • Did you have to adjust sample size, questions, approach?

This awareness of why you did your research in a certain way and your ability to explain and justify these choices is a vital part of your dissertation.

Thinking about structure

It's a good idea to start thinking about how you might structure your dissertation quite early - it will help you to focus your research on aspects that are relevant, rather than trying to cover all of your topic. Dissertations are usually structured in one of two ways:


Do bear in mind that no structure, title or question is set in stone until you submit your completed work. If you find a more interesting or productive way to discuss your topic, don't be afraid to change your structure - providing you have time to do any extra work.

Working with your supervisor

Your supervisor can give you expert guidance, but they can't formulate and plan your project for you. They can only work with what you give them – so it is useful to prepare for supervisions and have some idea of what you need help with:

  • Have some specific questions to ask your supervisor: These can be general like "How can I narrow down my question?" or more detailed such as "Am I interpreting this result correctly?"
  • If you are unsure of an idea or approach, don't be afraid to talk it through with your supervisor – that's what they're there for! Just explaining it to someone else can help sort out your own thinking.
  • It is easier for supervisors to give advice on a specific piece of work, so bring your research proposal, or chapter draft, to the meetings – your supervisor might not have time to read it all, so highlight places you'd like feedback on.

It's worth taking the advice of your supervisor seriously. You may have a strong idea of what you want to do in your dissertation, but your supervisor has academic experience and often knows what will and won't work. If you explain your ideas and are polite and enthusiastic, your supervisor can be a great sounding board and source of expert information.

What does your department do…?

In your first meeting with your supervisor, find out about frequency and times of supervisions. Check whether they mind being contacted by email, and if they will be away at any time during your project.