Investigative Dissertation

This guide addresses the task of planning and conducting a small research project, such as for an undergraduate or masters’ level dissertation. It aims to help you develop a clear sense of direction early on in the project, and to support you in organising, planning, and monitoring your project.

The companion guide Writing a dissertation focuses on the preparation of the written report or thesis.

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a particular kind of academic task. You will usually be asked to generate a topic for yourself; to plan and execute a project investigating that topic; and to write-up what you did and what your findings were. Important stages in the dissertation process include:

  • choosing a topic;
  • developing a research question;
  • effective planning of the research;
  • being organised and methodical while conducting your research; and
  • reporting the research.

Choosing a topic

While some students come to their research project with a clear research question to address, many others arrive at this point with several ideas, but with no specific research question. In view of the pressure to get started fairly quickly, this can cause anxiety and even panic. It is, however, a common situation to be in. There are several ways forward:

  • Talk to others: what topics are other students considering? Does this spark an interest? Don’t wait until you have a fully formed research question before discussing your ideas with others, as their comments and questions may help you to refine your focus.

  • Look at other writing: set aside some time to spend in the library, skimming through the titles of research papers in your field over the past five years, and reading the abstracts of those you find most interesting.

  • Look through the dissertations of previous students in your department: the topics may give you inspiration, and they may have useful suggestions for further research.

  • Think about your own interests: which topic have you found most interesting, and is there an element that could be developed into a research project?

  • Is there a related topic of interest to you that has not been covered in the syllabus, but would fit with the theory or methodology you have been working with?

  • Be extra critical: is there something in your course so far that you have been sceptical about, or which you think needs further study?

  • Read about an interesting topic and keep asking the question ‘Why?’ :this may identify a research question you could address.

Remember that a research study can:

  • replicate an existing study in a different setting;

  • explore an under-researched area;

  • extend a previous study;

  • review the knowledge thus far in a specific field;

  • develop or test out a methodology or method;

  • address a research question in isolation, or within a wider programme of work; or

  • apply a theoretical idea to a real world problem.

This list is not exhaustive, and you need to check whether your department has a preference for particular kinds of research study.

Discuss your proposed topic with a member of academic staff who you think might be appropriate to supervise the project. Provided they feel that they know enough about the subject to supervise it, and provided that it can be interpreted as falling within the broad fields of your degree subject, academic staff are generally open to suggestions.

You should think realistically about the practical implications of your choice, in terms of:

  • the time requirement;

  • necessary travelling;

  • access to equipment or room space;

  • access to the population of interest; and 

  • possible costs.

For example, a project on coal mining in the North East of England may require you to visit Newcastle’s Record Office, or to interview coal miners from the region. Is this something that you are prepared and able to do? If the practical considerations associated with your research ideas are unrealistic, you need to consider whether you are willing to modify or reconsider your project.

Developing a research question

Once your topic has been accepted by your department, you need to begin the process of refining the topic and turning it into something that is focused enough to guide your project. Try describing it as a research problem that sets out:

  • the issue that you are going to be investigating;

  • your argument or thesis (what you want to prove, disprove, or explore); and

  • the limits of your research (i.e. what you are not going to be investigating).

It is important that you establish a research problem at, or close to the start of, your project. It is one of the key tools you have, to ensure that your project keeps going in the right direction. Every task you undertake should begin with you checking your research problem and asking “will this help me address this problem?”.

You should be willing to revise your research problem as you find out more about your topic. You may, for example, discover that the data you were hoping to analyse is not available, or you may encounter a new piece of information or a new concept while undertaking a literature search, that makes you rethink the basis of your research problem. You should always talk to your supervisor before you make any substantial revision to your plans, and explain why you think you need to make the change.

Research problemCommentary
'Public transport in Scotland’ This sets out your research field but does not frame a research problem because it is too general. You do not have time to study everything about a topic, so you should focus on an aspect that you are interested in.
‘Examination of the influence of public transport links on new housing development in Western Scotland’This is a much better research problem as it establishes an argument (existence of public transport may have some influence on new housing development). However, it is still quite general and could be improved by further focus.
‘Investigation of the relationship between public transport links and the development of new areas of housing in Western Scotland: a comparison of local plans and building development since 1990’This is better still. It shows the limits of the project. You will be investigating a complex subject (public transport in Scotland), but will be focusing on only one aspect of it (possible influence on new housing development). You will make this large subject manageable by focusing on a limited period of time (1990 onwards), and limited sources.

Effective planning of the research

Writing a research proposal

A research proposal is a more detailed description of the project you are going to undertake. Some departments require you to submit a research proposal as part of the assessment of your dissertation, but it is worth preparing one even if it is not a formal requirement of your course. It should build on the thinking that you have done in defining your research problem; on the discussions that you have had with your supervisor; and on early reading that you have done on the topic. A comprehensive research proposal will make you think through exactly what it is that you are going to do, and will help you when you start to write up the project.

You could try outlining your project under the following headings (Booth, Williams, & Colomb, 2003. The craft of research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.):

Topic:this project will study...  
Question/problem: to find out...
Significance:so that more will be known about... 
Primary resources:the main data will be...
Secondary sources:additional data comes from... 
Methods:the research will be conducted as follows...
Justification:the method is most appropriate because...
Limitations:there are some matters that this methodology may not help me to explain. These might include... 

You may find that some of these headings are difficult to fill in right at the start of your project. However, you can use the gaps to help identify where you need to begin work. If, for example, you are unsure about the limitations of your methodology you should talk to your supervisor and read a bit more about that methodology before you start.

Creating a research plan

A dissertation is an extended project that asks you to manage your time and undertake a variety of tasks. Some courses schedule the dissertation at the end, while others have it running along concurrently with other modules. Whichever way your course is organised, it is essential that you create a plan that helps you allocate enough time to each task you have to complete.

It is useful to work out how many weeks you have until you need to submit your completed dissertation, and draw a chart showing these weeks. Block out the weeks when you know you will be unable to work, and mark in other main commitments you have that will take time during this period. Then allocate research tasks to the remaining time.

January

Christmas Write research proposal Literature reviewComplete literature review and conduct pilot studyMain data collection

 

February

Complete data collectionAnalyse data Analyse data Write dissertation plan, then begin first draft

 

March

Complete first draftDiscuss draft with supervisorSecond draftSecond draftProofing/checking  

 

It is very important to be realistic about how long each task is likely to take. Some focused thought at the beginning, then at the planning stage of each phase, could save hours later on.  Write down the resources needed for each stage. It could be time in the library; the resource of your working hours; or the use of equipment or room space that needs to be booked in advance.

Procrastination

Some people find that they procrastinate more than they would like. This is a common problem, so it is probably best to be well-prepared to identify it and deal with it if it does start to happen. People procrastinate for various reasons for example:

  • poor time management
  • dauted by the scale of the task
  • negative beliefs 
  • loss of motivation
  • perfectionism
  • difficulty concentrating
  • need to feel under pressure
  • personal problems

Early identification of the signs of procrastination will give you the best chance of minimising any negative effects. Once you suspect that you are procrastinating, it can be helpful to review what you are expecting of yourself, and check that those expectations are realistic. This is where planning is vital.

Realistic planning

To improve the prospect of completing on time, and avoiding procrastination, you need to:

  • be realistic about when you can/will start;

  • devote time to planning and revising your plan;

  • try to work out if any of your research will take a set amount of time to complete;

  • allocate appropriate time for any travelling you need to do for your research;

  • include other (non-dissertation related) things that you have to do between now and then;

  • have clear and achievable objectives for each week;

  • focus on one thing at a time;

  • leave time for editing and correcting;

  • reward yourself when you complete objectives that you have timetabled; and

  • if you fall behind make sure you spend time reworking your plan.

Your research plan should also include information about what equipment you will need to complete your project, and any travel costs or other expenses that you are likely to incur through the pursuit of your research. You should also think about whether you are dependent on any one else to complete your project, and think about what you are going to do if they are unable to help you.

Once you have created your plan it is a good idea to show it to someone else. Ideally you will be able to show it to a member of academic staff or bring it to the Learning Development, but talking it over with a friend may also help you to spot anything that you have forgotten or anywhere that you have been unrealistic in your planning.

Being organised and methodical while conducting your research

The role of the supervisor

Although a dissertation is an opportunity for you to work independently, you will usually be allocated a member of academic staff as a supervisor. Supervisors are there to help you shape your ideas and give you advice on how to conduct the research for your dissertation. They are not there to teach you the topic you have chosen to investigate: this is your project. They are, however, one of the resources that you can call on during your research.

Academics are busy people, so to get the most out of your supervisor you will need to be organised and to take responsibility for the relationship. It is not your supervisor’s job to chase you into completing your dissertation, or to tell you how to manage the different stages of the project. To ensure that you get the most out of your supervisor you need to:

  • agree a timetable of meetings at the start of your project and stick to it;

  • make sure that each meeting has a focus e.g. “setting a research problem”, “analysing the data”;

  • send something that can form the basis of a discussion about your progress to your supervisor before each meeting. This could include your research plan, early results of your data collection or draft chapters;

  • turn up on time to each meeting you have arranged. Do not assume that your supervisor is available at all times to see you;

  • at the end of each supervision agree some action points for you to focus on before the next time you meet; and

  • keep a record of what you decide in supervision sessions.

If you are not happy with the way you are being supervised, explain why to your supervisor or discuss the issue with your personal tutor.

Undertaking a literature survey

Regardless of whether you have been given a dissertation topic or you have developed your own ideas, you will need to be able to demonstrate the rationale for your research, and to describe how it fits within the wider research context in your area. To support you in doing this you will need to undertake a literature review, which is a review of material that has already been published, either in hard copy or electronically, that may be relevant for your research project. Key tools that are available to help you, include:

  • internet search engines, especially ones that offer advanced search features (see http://www.google.com/ and http://scholar.google.com/);

  • the University of Leicester Library Catalogue;

  • electronic journals available via the library; and

  • bibliographies in any key texts about your topic.

It is a good idea to make an appointment to see the librarian specialising in your subject. An information librarian should be able to give you advice on your literature search, and on how to manage the information that you generate.

You will probably generate more references than you can read. Use the titles and abstracts to decide whether the reference is worth reading in detail. Be selective by concentrating on references that:

  • are recommended by your supervisor;

  • contain a high number of specifically relevant keywords;

  • are cited in a number of other works; and

  • are published in the last five years, unless they are key texts in your field.

Once you start reading, ensure that you think about what you are trying to get out of each article or book that you read. Your notes should enable you to write up your literature search without returning to the books you have read. Refer to the guides Effective Note Making, Referencing and Bibliographies, and Avoiding Plagiarism, for further help with note-making.

Collecting data

For most research projects the data collection phase feels like the most important part. However, you should avoid jumping straight into this phase until you have adequately defined your research problem, and the extent and limitations of your research. If you are too hasty you risk collecting data that you will not be able to use.

Consider how you are going to store and retrieve your data. You should set up a system that allows you to:

  • record data accurately as you collect it;

  • retrieve data quickly and efficiently;

  • analyse and compare the data you collect; and

  • create appropriate outputs for your dissertation e.g. tables and graphs, if appropriate.

There are many systems that support effective data collection and retrieval. These range from card indexes and cross-referenced exercise books, through electronic tools like spreadsheets, databases and bibliographic software, to discipline-specific tools. You should talk about how you plan to store your data with your supervisor, an information librarian, or a study adviser in the Learning Development. As you undertake your research you are likely to come up with lots of ideas. It can be valuable to keep a record of these ideas on index cards, in a dedicated notebook, or in an electronic file. You can refer back to this ‘ideas store’ when you start to write. They may be useful as ideas in themselves, and may be useful as a record of how your thinking developed through the research process.

Pilot studies

A pilot study involves preliminary data collection, using your planned methods, but with a very small sample. It aims to test out your approach, and identify any details that need to be addressed before the main data collection goes ahead.  For example, you could get a small group to fill in your questionnaire, perform a single experiment, or analyse a single novel or document.

When you complete your pilot study you should be cautious about reading too much into the results that you have generated (although these can sometimes be interesting). The real value of your pilot study is what it tells you about your method.

  • Was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?

  • Did it take longer than you thought it was going to?

  • Did participants, chemicals, processes behave in the way you expected?

  • What impact did it have on you as a researcher?

Spend time reflecting on the implications that your pilot study might have for your research project, and make the necessary adjustment to your plan. Even if you do not have the time or opportunity to run a formal pilot study, you should try and reflect on your methods after you have started to generate some data.

Dealing with problems

Once you start to generate data you may find that the research project is not developing as you had hoped. Do not be upset that you have encountered a problem. Research is, by its nature, unpredictable. Analyse the situation. Think about what the problem is and how it arose. Is it possible that going back a few steps may resolve it? Or is it something more fundamental? If so, estimate how significant the problem is to answering your research question, and try to calculate what it will take to resolve the situation. Changing the title is not normally the answer, although modification of some kind may be useful.

If a problem is intractable you should arrange to meet your supervisor as soon as possible. Give him or her a detailed analysis of the problem, and always value their recommendations. The chances are they have been through a similar experience and can give you valuable advice. Never try to ignore a problem, or hope that it will go away. Also don’t think that by seeking help you are failing as a researcher.

Finally, it is worth remembering that every problem you encounter, and successfully solve, is potentially useful information in writing up your research. So don’t be tempted to skirt around any problems you encountered when you come to write-up. Rather, flag up these problems and show your examiners how you overcame them.

Reporting the research

As you conduct research, you are likely to realise that the topic that you have focused on is more complex than you realised when you first defined your research question. The research is still valid even though you are now aware of the greater size and complexity of the problem. A crucial skill of the researcher is to define clearly the boundaries of their research and to stick to them. You may need to refer to wider concerns; to a related field of literature; or to alternative methodology; but you must not be diverted into spending too much time investigating relevant, related, but distinctly separate fields.

Starting to write up your research can be intimidating, but it is essential that you ensure that you have enough time not only to write up your research, but also to review it critically, then spend time editing and improving it. The following tips should help you to make the transition from research to writing:

  • In your research plan you need to specify a time when you are going to stop researching and start writing. You should aim to stick to this plan unless you have a very clear reason why you need to continue your research longer.

  • Take a break from your project. When you return, look dispassionately at what you have already achieved and ask yourself the question: ‘Do I need to do more research?’

  • Speak to your supervisor about your progress. Ask them whether you still need to collect more data.

Remember that you can not achieve everything in your dissertation. A section where you discuss ‘Further Work’ at the end of your dissertation will show that you are thinking about the implications your work has for the academic community.

The companion study guide Writing a Dissertation focuses on the process of writing up the research from your research project.

Summary

  • Think carefully about your topic and ensure that it is sufficiently focused.

  • Write a detailed research proposal to help you anticipate the issues/problems that you are going to deal with.

  • Devote time to planning and stick to your plan.

  • Work closely with your supervisor and respect the time and advice that they give you.

  • Be organised and take detailed notes when you are undertaking your literature survey and data collection.

  • Make a clear decision about stopping data collection.

  • Move positively into writing-up your research.

  • Allocate enough time to reviewing and editing your writing.

  • Remember that you cannot achieve everything in your dissertation, but you can critically appraise what you have done, and outline ideas for further, relevant research.

Writing the Dissertation1

Introduction

By the time you start to write the first draft of your dissertation, you will probably already have accumulated a wealth of notes, scribbles and ideas. Planning is essential, but do not be hesitate to draw up new plans whether it is a brief abstract of your dissertation as a whole, or a detailed breakdown of a particular chapter. This section looks at effective planning, which should be a continuous process that intensifies during the writing of your dissertation and not something that fades into the background.

Do all dissertations look the same?

At one level, yes. They will have to:

  • Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer.
  • Review the literature in the field relating to your question.
  • Engage in independent research in addressing this question.
  • Justify whatever methods you choose to undertake your research.
  • Present and discuss your findings, whilst demonstrating how they relate to your original question.
Watch Different types of dissertations video (.wmv)

Do all dissertations look the same? This video clip contains comments from the following academics:

  • Kevin Bonnett
  • Malcolm Todd
    Sociology
  • Shawna McCoy
    Criminology
  • Christopher Christopher-Dowey
    Criminology

Case Study 12 Making sure your dissertation doesn't get on top of you

Producing a 'working title'

Insofar as the preparation of the dissertation is a process of investigation and discovery, the precise scope of your study may well only emerge as you become closely involved in a detailed review of the literature. At this early stage, your title may be a provisional one that you will revise later. Your dissertation supervisor may advise on the title in order to help you find and define the focus of the dissertation.
You should examine articles in scholarly journals for examples of appropriate titles for a study of this length.

Starting to write the dissertation

Supervisors have different ways of working and you will, to some degree, need to negotiate your approach to supervision style. For example, your supervisor may advise you to write a short proposal or abstract, say of about 300 words, in which you set out as clearly as possible what you intend to do in the dissertation. The value of this exercise is that it requires you to focus and articulate your thinking. It may be that you will be able to summarise the exact nature and scope of your study, in which case the proposal can serve as guide to refer to as you write the main chapters of the work. Alternatively, it may make you aware of gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and show you the areas that need further thought and research.
It is useful, therefore, to write the proposal and to retain it for reference and revision. It helps to attempt such an abstract even if your supervisor has not suggested that you write one. However, practice varies, and your supervisor will advise you on how to proceed. As you continue to write the main chapters of the work, you may find that your initial plan has changed. This means that when you have completed the chapters that form the main body of your dissertation you can return to the proposal and revise it as much as you need, to form the introduction.


It is highly advisable to draft a plan of the dissertation. There is a lot in common between different dissertations regarding the structure and although you do not need to stick slavishly to a standard plan, such a plan is very helpful as a template to impose some order on what may seem an unmanageable task. Here is an indicative structure that might help you with your initial plan.


Dissertation Structure

Section

Section Information

Introduction

The field of study, the research question, the hypothesis (if any) or, more generally, the research question that is to be investigated. It should also include a summary of the contents and main arguments in the dissertation.

The Literature Review

Usually, this comes immediately after the introductory chapter. This may be more than one chapter, but should certainly be written in sections. This should include previous work done on the field of study and anything that you consider to be relevant to the hypothesis or research question and to its investigation. It will include a large number of references to the literature in your chosen area.

Methodology

This section should include an account of the research questions and/or hypotheses to be investigated, relevant methods of investigation and an argument for why you think these methods are the most appropriate ones for the question and for your circumstances. You should consider the benefits of your chosen method as well as identifying any disadvantages and how you overcame them. Ethical issues and the ways in which you dealt with them should be noted. This section should also discuss any variations from the original fieldwork plan, and should conclude with a reflection on the experience of doing fieldwork.

Findings

This section should present the main findings of your research together with an account of the strengths and weaknesses of your data relative to your research question/hypothesis. You may also wish to include an evaluation of any difficulties you encountered in collecting and analysing data, together with an assessment of how this affected your plan of research.

Evaluation

Here you can provide an assessment of whether and how well you were able to answer your research question and/or confirm/reject your hypotheses.

Discussion

This chapter must relate the findings to the theoretical/policy discussion in your literature review. You should NOT introduce any new literature at this stage.

Conclusions and recommendations

An overall assessment of what you found out, how successful you were and suggestions for future research.

Beginning work on the main body of the dissertation

Once you have produced the proposal and discussed it with your supervisor, you may want to write the first draft of a chapter of the dissertation. When you hand in this draft, you should arrange a tutorial to receive your supervisor's verbal or written comments and suggestions on how it may be improved. You may, for example, produce a draft introduction setting out the issue, together with a literature review which covers what, if any, treatment of the topic has gone beforehand. You may also wish to draft those sections of the methodology chapter that cover the methods that you wish to use, together with a justification for why you think those methods are best.

Revising sections after receiving the supervisor's comments

When you have received your supervisor's comments on the draft of any chapter, you should revise that particular chapter immediately. Prompt revision is easier than letting things drift, and you should do it while the advice of your supervisor is fresh in your mind. This will also avoid building up a backlog of work that needs to be revised, which can be discouraging. Having the material on a computer disk will enable you to do revisions efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Be sure to back up all your work on a floppy disk, CD, or memory stick.

Organising your time

Depending on the credit rating of the dissertation, the amount of time you devote to it should be equivalent to the time you would devote to a taught course with the same credit rating; that is, seminar and lecture time plus time for private study.


Findings from our Research


In our research we found that students often did not think about the credit rating of their dissertation and actually spent more time working on it than they should have! They saw it as such an important part of their degree that they wanted to put more into it:


It [the dissertation] took up more of my time ... Once you get into it, you have to out in the effort. It’s 8000 words, plus there’s so much to do. When you’re doing it, it seems so much more that the rest of your work (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p341).
However, this can have a detrimental effect on your other modules - one student said ‘I did the dissertation and left the other work’ - don’t make his mistake. All the modules in the final year are important.


You will find that once the final year begins, the weeks go by very quickly, and you will need to organise your time well from the start so that the ongoing preparation of your dissertation continues alongside work for the taught units you are studying. Once you have a workable plan it is much easier to plan the work in sequence and to set yourself targets for the completion of the separate parts (see the section on Getting started with the Dissertation). Allow plenty of time for final revisions after your tutor has seen a complete draft.


SUGGESTION


If you are taking a dissertation over two semesters, you should aim to spend the equivalent of one full half-day per week working on your dissertation during each semester of your final year if it is worth 20 credits - nearer twice that amount of time if it is a 40-credit dissertation.

 

Deadlines for producing drafts

You will decide with your supervisor precisely when to produce drafts, but if you are taking a dissertation module over one academic year then by the end of the first semester you would normally expect to produce a proposal or abstract and a first draft of one or two chapters. You would then produce the drafts of the remaining chapters and complete the process of revision and writing-up during the second semester.


In the second semester, when drafting the remaining main chapters of the dissertation, you will follow the practice established in the first semester of submitting the drafts to your supervisor for comments and advice. You should take advantage of the period between the first semester and the start of the second semester to write a draft of a chapter, and you should plan to have produced first drafts of all the main chapters by at least four weeks before the submission date (also allowing for any vacation periods when staff may not be available).
If, however, you are taking the dissertation module over one semester, you will need to adjust this time frame accordingly.

Writing the introduction

The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature. Having completed the work on the main substance of your dissertation, you should have a much clearer idea of its nature and scope than you did when you wrote your preliminary abstract or proposal. The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature.


It is important, however, to write the introduction as though you are setting out on a process of investigation. You need to emphasise the exploratory nature of your work. You should also avoid anticipating the discoveries and conclusions that you have made in the course of your investigations. So, you might simply say that you have identified certain common features in the relevant literature, or a particular issue that it deals with, and that your dissertation will examine the literature closely in order to demonstrate the relationships between treatments of the issue in the sample texts. When you have completed the main body of the work and your tutor has commented on your complete draft, you may well wish to revisit the introduction to take into account your findings and your tutor's comments on their significance.

Writing a literature review

Your dissertation is a substantial piece of written work that ideally should conform to a number of academic conventions. One of the most important of these academic conventions is the literature review. In short, the literature review is a discussion or 'review' of secondary literature that is of general and central relevance to the particular area under investigation.


Often students ask how long a literature review should be. This is a difficult question given that the total length of your dissertation might be anything from five to twelve thousand words. Obviously your supervisor may be able to give some indication of the approximate length of your literature review. However, don't become pre-occupied with word length, the main thing is that your literature review should capture the general and specific aspects of the literature of your subject.

Why is a literature review necessary?

The literature review is an important device in your dissertation as it performs a number of related functions:

  1. It demonstrates to whoever reads the dissertation that the author of the work has read widely and is aware of the range of debates that have taken place within the given field. It provides the proof that you have more than a good grasp of the breadth and depth of the topic of the dissertation - your dissertation gives you the opportunity to show off how clever you are! The literature review is a great place to start, because it should demonstrate that you know what you are talking about because you have read everything that is relevant to your dissertation.
  2. It can provide the rationale for the research question in the study. This can be done by highlighting specific gaps in the literature – questions that have not been answered (or even asked), and areas of research that have not been conducted within your chosen field. In this way the literature review can provide a justification of your own research.
  3. It can allow you to build on work that has already been conducted. For example you might adopt a similar methodological or theoretical approach in your work to one that exists within the literature, yet place your actual emphasis elsewhere. In this way you are building on work that has already been conducted by adopting similar strategies and concepts, yet focusing the question on something that interests you.
  4. It helps to define the broad context of your study, placing your work within a well defined academic tradition. Poor dissertations often fail to relate to broader debates within the academic community. They may have a well defined research question, yet without placing this question in the appropriate context, it can lose its significance. The literature review therefore can add weight to your question by framing it within broader debates within the academic community.

How do I 'do' a literature review?

Writing a literature review is not as simple as at first it may seem. What follows is a step by step guide on how to go about conducting and presenting your literature review.

1. Generate a list of references

The first stage of your literature review is to collect a list of literature that is relevant to your study. You have already seen in the section Help with Finding Literature and Research  how you can get a list of useful references.

2. Make sense of your reading

Once you have a list of references for your dissertation, you now have to access and read this material. This is time consuming because you will be reading a large amount of material. Once you start you might find that some literature is of little relevance to your study. This is something that many researchers and dissertation students go through and is often a necessary part of the process. It is better to read something that is not central to your dissertation than miss something that might be an important and relevant contribution to the field.


Make notes about the central themes and arguments of the book, chapter or article. These notes can then be incorporated into the finished version of your literature review. Try and get a sense of the theoretical perspective of the author, this will be of use when you organise and present your literature review. Also, emphasise the way in which the piece of literature you are reading seeks to set itself apart from other literature. Importantly, start to think critically about the piece you are reading; ask: what is this person trying to say and why? How is it different from the way others have dealt with this issue? This critical component is very important as it demonstrates that you are engaging with relevant literature in an appropriate manner and that you can discriminate between different perspectives and approaches that exist within your chosen field.

3. Organisation and presentation

Once you have generated a large number of notes around your reading you might start to feel overwhelmed by the literature. In terms of the organisation and presentation of your literature review, it is worth dividing your review into two main areas: general reading and literature that is of central importance. You will also need to further divide the literature into specific areas relevant to your study for e.g. theories and concepts; policy analysis; empirical studies and so-on. What follows are some general guidelines on how you might do this.

General texts

It will be clear that some of the reading you have done is of more relevance than others. It is important, however, that you do not discard the less relevant work; instead this can form the broad background of your discussion of the more relevant literature within your field. For example you may mention different authors that have dealt with a question related to your field but may not be central to it. Highlight these in broad terms, state how these works have impacted on your particular area. You need not go into great detail about these more general works, but by highlighting these works you are demonstrating your awareness of the scope and limits of your study and how it touches upon other areas of study.

Central texts

Once you have discussed the range of literature that is only of general interest to your study, you can then go into more detail on the literature that more sharply focuses on the questions that are of interest to you. Devote more detail to these particular works as they are more important to your topic. Indeed they may highlight the gap in the literature that exists that you seek to fill; they may provide the basis on which you seek to build, or they might be works which require some critique from your particular perspective.

Further categorisation

When you have divided your literature review into general works and works of central importance, you should also further divide the literature into sub-categories. By further dividing your literature in this way, you are adding more organisation into your literature review by providing specific sub-categories of relevant literature.
For example in the general works section of your literature review, you might want one sub-heading on the main theoretical debates, one on empirical studies and maybe one on policy. With reference to the more central literature, you could organise this more important reading in a similar way. For example, if relevant, you could have a section on competing theoretical perspectives; a section on the main findings of important empirical studies; a section on policy implementation and its impacts. See the table below.


Breakdown of Literature Review

General Literature

Theoretical Approaches
Empirical Research

 
Central Literature
 

Detailed analysis of theoretical and conceptual debates
Discussion of main findings of important empirical studies and their critiques
Focused analysis of policy implementation

If appropriate you might also want to divide your sub-headings further.
One final note on the more central literature is that this more focused analysis can also serve to bring your empirical or theoretical work into sharper focus. In this sense you are prefacing your work and how it relates to other academic studies by your discussion of it in your literature review. One thing to remember however is that just because you talk about an author's work in your literature review, doesn't mean you never mention it again in your dissertation. In the discussion section of your study you will necessarily relate your findings to those central studies that you have highlighted in your literature review.

Then what?

When you have written your literature review, this is not the end of the process. Throughout your dissertation process, you will come across literature that is of relevance to your area of study, do not ignore this material, you can always add more literature to your review as you come across it.


Finally, make sure that you keep a record of all your references, even the ones that have been of little use. This will help you organise your bibliography and reference list. You may even need to go back and look over something that you looked at earlier in your studies that may have more relevance than you first thought.

Writing the Methods section

This must clearly identify the epistemological (i.e. your stance on what should pass as acceptable knowledge) basis of the study and demonstrate a good working knowledge of the methods to be employed. It should include good coverage of the process of the fieldwork and indicate how the analysis was undertaken. As well as covering the ethical issues it should also contain an element of reflection on the research process.

Writing the Findings section

Many students confuse findings with discussion and it is important to keep them separate. The findings are often presented in charts and tables (even from qualitative data). Verbatim references to participants' comments are particularly helpful. It is important to ensure that findings are truly analysed, rather than described. Finding ways of cross relating the findings is therefore important.

Writing the Discussion

Traditionally, the discussion links findings to the literature presented in the literature review.


There are arguments for extending the coverage of literature in this section but only in exceptional circumstances. The discussion should be precisely that: an opportunity to raise the different voices of interest in the research question and to explore the findings in the light of the literature and different perspectives within it.

Writing the Conclusion

The main chapters of your dissertation will have focused on particular topics or issues. For example, each chapter may have focused discussion on a particular text. Alternatively, you may have structured your work so that each chapter is devoted to discussion of a particular aspect of your overall topic. The conclusion offers the opportunity to review your work as a whole, to identify the points of comparison and contrast the various texts you have examined, and to show that, in the process of your study, you have developed a more precise, critical understanding of the way they deal with your topic. This is also an appropriate place for you to point to the limitations of small-scale research of this kind and to indicate possible avenues for researchers to address the issues in the future.


SUGGESTION
Before you submit the dissertation, you should check that the final version of the title is an accurate reflection of what the dissertation is about and, if not, change the title.

Final draft

The process of preparing your dissertation for submission begins with a careful final drafting of all your chapters and sections. Here you have the opportunity:

  • To ensure that your argument is clearly developed from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.
  • To check the accuracy of your spelling and punctuation - do not rely on spellchecker software!
  • To make sure that your sentences are well constructed and that you are expressing yourself clearly, precisely and fluently.
  • To ensure that you have not contradicted or repeated yourself.

You need to check that your quotations from and references to both primary and secondary texts are clearly and consistently identified according to the conventions of the HARVARD referencing systems (or whatever system your department requires). There is more about this in the section on Plagiarism. You will check that your bibliography is properly presented and contains all sources cited throughout your work.

Guidelines on presentation

You should refer to the guidance provided by your own department, but in general you should think about the following:

  • Your dissertation must normally be typed or word-processed on A4 paper.
  • Your own text must be double-spaced.
  • Indented quotations must be single-spaced.
  • The pages of the dissertation must be numbered.
  • It must have a title page.
  • It must have a table of contents.

Submitting the completed dissertation

The completed dissertation should be submitted in the form set out by your department. If there are no formal styles, submit the dissertation in a format that makes it easy for the examiner to handle - avoid complicated spring-back or ring-backed files.

Summary

  • Abstracts of sections and of the dissertation as a whole will help to focus your writing and direct your thoughts.
  • Set yourself deadlines for drafting chapters. Agree these with your supervisor if you think that will motivate you.
  • Depending on the rules and regulations of your own institution, give your supervisor drafts of chapters as you write them, and try to be responsive to criticism. Revise chapters as soon as you get them back.
  • Read through each completed chapter. Check that your argument flows logically.
  • Even if you write the introduction last, write it as if you have yet to find the answers to your questions. Don't give away the ending!
  • Finally, check that the title refers accurately to the finished dissertation. If it does not - change the title!
  • Follow some basic rules:
    1. Type or word-process your dissertation - do not write it out.
    2. Use double line spacing for your own writing.
    3. Use single line spacing for indented quotations (and footnote these!)
    4. Number the pages.
    5. Include a title page and a table of contents.
  • Remember to adhere to any format stipulated by your department.
  • IMPORTANT: Check how many copies your department requires.

Key Questions

  • How long is your dissertation going to be?
  • Have you mapped out the content of each of your chapters?
  • In what order will the content flow best?
  • Is your evaluation doing its job? Likewise, is your conclusion suitably conclusive?
  • Is the order of the chapters logical and coherent, will it make sense to the reader?
  • Are the beginning, middle and end clear?
  • Do your sentences and paragraphs make sense?
  • Do you know someone else who can proof-read the dissertation for you?
  • Have you allowed enough time to proof-read properly?

Further Reading

BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 26 - Doing a research project
DENSCOMBE, M. (2003). The Good Research Guide for Small-scale Social Research Projects. Maidenhead, Oxford University Press, part III
HART, C. (2000). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Imagination. London, Sage

Web Resources

Writing up your dissertation:
http://www.learnerassociates.net/dissthes/
Conducting a literature review:
http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/litrev.html

 Footnote

1. © Dr Malcolm Todd (Leeds Met), Ian Baker (Sheffield Hallam University), Professor Chris Winch (NCU), Andy Pilkington (NCU), Dr John Steel (University of Sheffield), Dr Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)


 

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