Getting started on your dissertation
- What makes my topic interesting and important?
- What exactly do I want to know? (make sure we do not know it already)
- How can I turn this into some specific research questions? (two or three at the most)
- What research has been done on this already?
- What other literature might be relevant
- What theories might help me understand this?
- What data will be most helpful to answer my research questions? (for instance interviews, a survey, documents or something else)
- How many sources will I need? (for instance 20 interviews, 200 survey responses, 15 documents)
- When and where will I be able to access these?
- Will I need to sample my sources and how? (for instance, do you want a representative, random, convenience, purposive)
- How will I analyse my data?
- What are the ethical issues involved?
- What is my timeframe for all this so I can meet my deadline?
Finding your research topic and designing your research questions
First, ask yourself the following:
- What am I interested in? (what have I done/read/watched/listened to recently?)
- What issues do I care about? (what upsets/preoccupies/angers me and why?)
- What do I want to know? (what real-world needs can I identify?)
- (In big writing) What do I want to change?
BUT: you need to make sure your specific topic hasn’t been researched before – so read, read, read
And remember: if our knowledge of the world is one giant jigsaw puzzle, research will usually only contribute one piece.
Research questions should be: clear (easy to understand); focused (targeting specific things you want to know); complex (not yes/no or obvious answers); ethical (should you really be asking this?); feasible (can this actually be answered?); useful (do we need to know this?)
Hint: useful research often involves partnerships with frontline groups.
Think about: contexts, relationships, experiences, consequences, complexities, changes, contradictions. Free-associate before you narrow it down. Don’t make assumptions or just seek to prove what you think you already know (e.g. ‘why are methods lectures so boring?’)
Good starting words – how and why. Not-so-good starting words – who, when, where, what.
Ask yourself: SO WHAT? Actual research finding: people wear more layers of clothing when it’s cold. Actual research finding: employees hate meetings (so what?)
How do you develop good research questions? READING and PAYING ATTENTION.
Your research questions might change during your project, which is absolutely fine.
Getting through your dissertation
- Make a plan. Set yourself interim deadlines for each chapter or section, and reward yourself when you meet them (but don’t berate yourself when you don’t). Be realistic about how much time you have.
- Don’t get it right – get it written. Your writing does not have to be perfect first time. Getting anything down on the page is half the battle, and it’s a lot easier to edit material than to create it. Just write ANYTHING to start with.
- Do something else. If you do get writers’ block, try another task – update your references and/or bibliography, proof-read a completed section, sort out your formatting. Or read something different. Or have a rest!
- Don’t write in order. Don’t start at the beginning – introductions are tough and often best left till the end when you know exactly what you are introducing. Starting in the middle can feel less stressful too.
- Write an abstract. If you are struggling with your argument, write an abstract of your dissertation – boiling things down to the basics can help. You can also do this for individual chapters (especially data chapters).
- If it’s not relevant, don’t use it. You will probably do a lot of reading, and collect a lot of data, that will not appear in your final dissertation. This is fine – it will all have informed your thinking, but keep your writing to what’s relevant.
- Get feedback. Share your work – with your supervisor but also with your classmates and friends. A fresh pair of eyes, or having to explain something to a non-expert, can do wonders to help you clarify your ideas.
- You will feel awful. At some point, you will probably feel you don’t know anything and want to give up. This is normal! Trust the process – the feeling will pass, and things will become clearer. You’ve got this!
- You will feel good. Look for progress, not perfection – and give yourself plenty of breaks and positive talk. Ask for help when you need it. You will be so proud when your dissertation is done.
- Know the rules (to break them). Make sure you know appropriate syntax, grammar and punctuation. Learn how to spell and use words correctly. There’s a big difference between playing with language and misusing it.
- Show, don’t tell. If you can, use stories and/or examples to show your arguments. A well-placed metaphor or analogy can also spice things up – but don’t go overboard or your readers might fall by the wayside.
- Use your own voice. Don’t think ‘I must do academic writing now.’ Write as you would speak – you can formalise it later. Use the active voice and do use the first person – it’s much more engaging for your readers.
- Be concise. Why do academics always say, ‘the ways in which’, rather than ‘how’? Why use four words when one will do just as well? Say what you want to say in as few words as possible.
- Drop the flowery language. Similarly, use the simplest and most precise words to express your meaning. Sometimes you need a long word, but nobody needs to write ‘endeavour to ascertain’ instead of ‘find out’.
- Listen to the music. Cadence in writing – a sense of rhythm and pace – is very different from being flowery. There is a lot to learn about this but to start with, try reading your work out loud. Is it pleasing to your ear?
- Know your own process. Everybody writes differently: some are super-structured, others go with the flow. Know your own process – writing is an emotional experience and you need to know you’ll get through it in the end.
- Read, read, read. If you want to improve your writing, read widely and read often. When something draws you in, think about why. Emulate your idols (but don’t become a tribute act – do it your way).
- Have fun with it. When you have enough practice at writing it can become really rewarding. When you know what you want to say, you can have some fun with how you want to say it. Enjoy!
Principles for a feminist classroom
- We start from a position of trust – there are few rules, and we assume you know how to engage constructively with each other. Unkind and discriminatory speech and behaviour will be addressed, but we will ‘call in’ rather than ‘calling out’ when possible.
- This is a learning, not a ‘knowing’, space – we can all learn from each other and we are all responsible for our own learning. However, we respect and validate expertise where it exists, whether this is academic or in the form of lived experience/professional skill.
- We believe in dialogue, not ‘debate’ – we explore issues with an emphasis on listening and empathy, and move away from adversarial understandings and engagement.
- A ‘safer space’ is one in which we can feel deeply and be met with understanding. We also acknowledge that one person’s freedom of expression can limit another’s ability to speak.
- We recognise multiple inequalities and power relations in the classroom, but we also recognise that the structural and the interpersonal do not always connect in a linear way.
- We know that the system is dysfunctional, institutionally and globally, and while we can all work to resist and mitigate its effects, nobody among us should be responsible for fixing it.