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Taught postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Researching at Masters level means increasing the breadth and depth of your reading. You need to understand the overall context of the topic you are researching as well as knowing about the most up-to-date research. Reading takes time, so this involves being strategic and reading with more of a purpose, as opposed to just following a reading list or picking the first few likely texts. Your thinking doesn't stop there, because at Masters level, as well as evaluating what you are reading, you are expected to apply your reading. This could be to help interpret your own research findings or to propose potential solutions or recommendations to problems in your subject area. When conducting your own research, you need to be aware of what you are doing and why. You have to decide what you want to find out and evaluate the best methods for finding this out.

The guidance on this page will highlight some of the key issues relating to researching at Masters level so you can plan your research to take these into account.

Increasing the scope of your reading

A Masters degree is more specialised, so you'll be expected to read more widely and more deeply in a narrower field.

Ease yourself into reading complex journal articles by first reading overviews or introductory texts to get a basic understanding; build on this by going further into current research; then develop a wider focus by reading a few related articles to get a range of views, or a different perspective.

As well as gaining specialist subject knowledge, you need to read more widely to 1) set your topic in a wider context and 2) understand theoretical frameworks which will help you analyse your topic.

For example, imagine you wanted to write about the Canadian-Caribbean author Nalo Hopkinson. You are interested in the way she uses the science fiction genre to explore ideas of alien-ness and belonging in society. You might start by reading her novels (primary sources) and what critics have written about her work (secondary sources).

Wider context

However at Masters level you would also be expected to place her work in a wider context which considers how her work fits within the concept of 'literature' as a whole. Hopkinson's work is considered to be science fiction, but it also draws on Caribbean literature and myth. So you would need to read more broadly to understand how science fiction as a genre is constructed; how science fiction may use mythical structures from other cultures; and also the debates about the relationship between popular genres like science fiction, and more 'academic' forms of literature like Caribbean poetry. 

You may not need to refer in detail to all your contextual reading when writing assignments, but it enriches your understanding because a) you are aware of how your topic is positioned within the larger debates in your subject; b) you can see how the key boundaries and concepts of your subject are under dispute.

Theoretical frameworks

If you are interested in how Hopkinson's work explores ideas of alien-ness and belonging, you would also need to read relevant theories to give you the tools to be able to analyse her work. You identify recurring images of crossroads and encircled cities in her work, but you don't know why these are important or what to do next with this observation. However, on reading postcolonial cultural theories, you discover that the tension between ideas of the imperial 'centre' and colonial 'periphery' helps you explain how Hopkinson's imagery uses space to show the power relationships in ideas of belonging and exclusion. 

Theories may seem intimidatingly abstract, but they are really useful tools. They provide frameworks or sets of ideas which you can apply to your specific topic. As theories are abstract and general, it means they will never explain everything or be a perfect 'match' for your topic, so this gives you scope to critically analyse them - What does the theory fail to consider? Where are the gaps in the theory? How does the theory fit with 'real life' practice or specific examples?

Making use of the Library and wider sources

Part of doing a Masters degree also involves developing your abilities to identify, locate, and manage wider sources. To find the more specialist sources you need for your course, particularly for longer projects and dissertations, take the opportunity to use libraries and archives beyond the University Library at Reading.

You may find it useful to know about:

  • Subject specific databases and search engines
  • Finding conference papers and theses
  • Automatic email alerts when new journal articles are published in your field
  • Reference managing software like Endnote
  • Using libraries outside of Reading and inter library loans

See the Library guides on how to find information or ask your Academic Liaison Librarian for more details.

The Library also has advice on how to do a literature search.

Setting your own research questions

Deciding what to examine is part of the training in becoming a researcher. Selecting a research question isn't a straightforward process of picking a question and then answering it; it involves an ongoing process of discovery and refinement. Your question gives you a focus, but it is natural for this focus to adapt as you read more.

 - Phrase your thoughts as questions and include an aspect that can be measured, evaluated, or judged. Instead of "Use of graphical communication to promote Milton Keynes," turn this into "How successful has graphical communication been in promoting Milton Keynes?"

 - Break your main question into sub-questions. What do you need to find out to answer each of these? - This creates your research plan.

 - Keep referring back to your research questions to decide whether material is relevant, especially when analysing your results. You will probably have collected far more information than you need to answer your questions, so be ruthless!

Informed choice of research methods

"In my Undergraduate dissertation I did focus groups because everyone else was doing them. For my Masters dissertation, I wanted to use this method, but quickly realised why it wasn't right for the job." (Masters student, Management)

Deciding how to research something is also an important part of becoming a researcher. You need to make an informed choice about the research methods you use and be able to justify why they are the most appropriate. You have to take into account what other people have done, so, again, this means reading widely. You may also have to read up on research methods that you haven't used before in order to learn whether they are appropriate and how to use them.

 - What do you need to find out - how are you going to do this?

 - Is there more than one way of finding out what you need?

 - What methods have other people used in similar situations and why?

 - What are the strengths and limitations of the methods you are considering - how do these limitations influence what you can find out and what you can conclude from your results?