1. Overview on requirements of advanced level study: critical analysis and evaluation, 'comparing and contrasting', building and sustaining arguments how diss is different to standard essay and how it is similar; ‘ Comparing and contrasting’: the fundamental of academic research: the cross -analysing different source evidence. What we are doing when we compare and contrast; get back to basics by drawing comparison with how essays should have been written all along, i.e., with heavy analytical component, comparing and contrasting information across a variety of sources, Assimilation-Analysis-Evaluation, how so few students actually do this kind of stuff yet it is essential; critical analytical questioning skills (development of); how those who have not properly developed their critical analytical skills must recognise from the outset that theirs is a difficult but not impossible task – must get cracking! not accepting evidence as truth and as fact, but questioning – and looking for arguments. Asking the right questions of the evidence. how many sources should I go to? What kind of sources?
Try to pick a topic which will sustain your interest : something you will not get bored with when ‘living and breathing’ the project over several months! It will, of course, have to fit in within the requirements of the degree you are taking! Ensure the project is manageable . Is the topic about the right size for the word count? This is of course not always easy to estimate when starting out. Indeed, students frequently overestimate the range of what can be included in dissertation-sized projects. It isn’t a monograph! It isn’t a PhD! Perhaps it is due to fear of having to put together the 6,00-15,000 words (having previously only written essays and reports up to 2,500 or 4,000 at most), but many make this mistake. So, try to gauge how feasible a project will be. Make sure your topic isn’t too general – ‘depth of analysis’ always wins against ‘width of coverage’, meaning: ensure sufficient space to analyse your subject in real detail. Students who try to cover too much ground, end up having to deal with everything in brief –. Too large/general a project will mean you are likely either to get very bogged down in your work – and to find great difficulty in completing, hopelessly over the word count; or that you will have to ‘gloss’ over the subject, dealing with everything in brief, contributing little or nothing in the way of in-depth analysis and evaluation – to the likely detriment of your grades! So, try to pick am defined subject area that will allow you to keep your research within clear, reasonable bounds. Narrow down : Try to identify areas worthy of investigation . Ask questions of your initial reading materials. Does the literature throw up any interesting questions?
Likewise, you should not pick a topic that is so obscure that it will be difficult to attain any literature. You will need there to be some discussion of the subject to allow you to properly investigate the topic. As stated above, you are ideally looking to find an area where there is some variance of opinion in the existing literature (not necessarily always academic). This will obviously lend itself well to dissertation investigation, because it invites discussion of the various explanations/ theories put forward in the literature, and your testing of these assumption via research and/or analysis of your own. In short, you are looking for a topic around which there are issues and questions worth discussing. It may help if you try to identify themes or sub-topics within general topics, rather than a whole issue itself (i.e. rather than picking a whole week’s lecture topic, pick something within that week’s topic). In other words, ask yourself ‘Was there anything in particular about a particular topic that was particularly interesting?’ This will allow detailed investigation within what is really – although it won’t that way to you – an assignment with a small word-count requirement. Even as you generate your initial ideas, think about the kind of research you will have to undertake if you take these ideas up: questionnaires, interviews, data analysis, documentary analysis, etc.. You need to work out which methods will be the most useful for the kind of research topic you wish to undertake, whilst also taking into account realistic constraints of time, project size & expectations, and, indeed, costs! The feasibility of research must be a governing factor when deciding on any topic. Is any research method likely to yield the answers you are seeking to explore?
Is there any designated person (s) in the department to whom you can seek advice? Even before you are given a project supervisor, it is in your interest to sound out informally, during office hours, the module co-ordinator on the viability of the project you are contemplating. They may refer you to a member of staff most associated with the topic (and this person may later become your supervisor). You will be able to sound them out on the merits of your proposal. They may even offer some constructive advice, perhaps on limiting the range of your proposal to make it more manageable, or encouraging you to investigate a more interesting related question. An initial survey of the most obvious literature – say, a week or two spent researching in the library, reading around potential topics – will greatly assist your ability to gauge whether you think you have a viable topic for research. Once you have identified an area you would like to research, see if you can jot down any identifiable questions that interest you, or objectives. It may be helpful to think of a realistic work plan from the start. This will enable you to have a clear idea how long you can afford to spend on each key component, e.g., how much time you have to devise, issue, and obtain completed, questionnaires; how much time for writing up; how much time for proof-reading.
Do I start with a hypothesis or an area of investigation? Some disciplines will expect you to develop your investigation around a hypothesis – ‘a tentative proposition which is subject to verification through subsequent investigation’. (Cited in Bell, 1993, p. 18). A hypothesis is a calculated hunch, an idea or theory the truth of which as an explanation you would like to test out. In other words, you might seek to investigate whether X may be seen as having an impact on Y. An initial hypothesis is important for many disciplines, feasible for all, but perhaps least used in a subject like history. If you do not think a hypothesis is appropriate, fair enough. It may be that a particular area you have identified merits investigation in itself, and it would be inappropriate to start from the outset with a single question to test. Identifying the most appropriate methodological approach(es) If you adopt a particular topic, what will be the best methods of investigation? This is something that needs to be carefully thought out. Arbitrary rather than considered investigation is a recipe for poor grades. Your research methods must be appropriate and sensible for the specific research problem you are tackling, so it is important that you spend time thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of investigation. If you are unsure about methods, seek the advice of a potential supervisor. Research methods are often categorised in terms of a dichotomy between Quantitative research – this is about the collection of facts and figures and interpreting this information. Questionnaire surveys, statistical data derived from various sources, etc. Qualitative research – this is research methods which hold much less store in the ability of numbers or other statistical information to explain phenomena. It tends to involve smaller samples and processes, measuring select individuals’ perceptions. Archival documentary evidence tends very much to this category, as do all interviews of a non-questionnaire-survey nature. Different types of project invite greater or less levels of quantitative and qualitative research, though most projects outside of the pure sciences will combine both. We will examine various research methods in weeks 2 and 3.
Getting down your proposal in writing Once you have identified potential areas of investigation, it is important to jot these themes down. Do a rough draft before filling in the ‘proposal forms’ that most departments provide (these are usually in the unit handbooks). Departmental proposal forms vary in size, normally from one to three pages. Whatever space is provided, try to fill the form with as much detail as is allowed : your work can only benefit from this detail, as it will give you a much stronger starting point. You should have allowed a couple of weeks - maybe longer, if time allows – for preliminary reading around the subject. This will help you to produce a much more satisfactory proposal outline, and you will have a clearer idea about whether you have a suitable project topic. Undertaking A Basic Literature Review/ providing a bibliography As already suggested, it is important to undertake a review of the literature at an early stage. This is so even if you do not have to submit either a preliminary review as part of your proposal, or as an advance submission in its own right. Even if you do not have to produce an early literature review, you will probably have to produce some form of bibliography of intended reading, perhaps in your proposal, perhaps following shortly afterwards. The literature review and bibliography are useful, as they will allow your supervisor to assess whether there are any gaps in the intended reading. Even if a bibliography and literature review are not required to be submitted as part of your proposal, it is useful practice to make an early start on these (i.e. before submitting your proposal) as it will give you a much clearer idea of the full-range of material that you will have to examine and incorporate. The bibliography can always be extended and adjusted later, but can be worked up as you find your feet with project and as you begin what will become your literature review. Literature reviews will be discussed next week. Hitting the ground running The important thing is not to squander any time at the outset. A good proposal, backed by sufficient initial research, is the best foundation for success, for it will give you a clear idea of the scale of the task you will face. Hit the ground running: don’t waste any valuable time!
Managing your time effectively on large projects Dissertations will always take longer to complete than you think. Much . To produce effective diss. means more than the time one would spend on a conventional module (& to in any case double up if it is a double module). Planning: motivation, setting goals, and monitoring progress The dissertation process involves a level of independent learning of which few will have had previous experience. Students often start enthusiastically but, due to the lack of imposed structure, soon flounder. The trick is to keep momentum going and this is best attained by: a time plan, if not provided by set of mini-deadlines as part of module, s etting a long-term agenda , in the form of a timetable in which you impose deadlines for completing different parts of the work; a more detailed short-term agenda , a weekly plan or timetable , designed at the start of each week, and setting challenging but realistic goals; perhaps keeping a daily diary, commenting on your progress. Highlight mistake many students make by ‘getting coursework out of the way first’ ; - because it is more familiar method of working and because deadlines are more urgent – but this can be fatal, given the sheer scale/demands of diss/project (Note: need to devise sample mock schedule?) Think: overall schedule. How many weeks? How much time for researching? How much time for writing up? Keeping log records.
Levin, Excellent Dissertations! (2005, OU), pp.64-66, suggests a 3-tiered approach: Create a ‘ dissertation calendar ’, from now to deadline, putting in all the events known. Set a ‘ comfort deadline ’, aiming to complete dissertation ‘a week, or more, before the actual deadline’, to build in for slippage. Make ‘ to-do lists ’ of all the tasks you will have to carry out, estimating time necessary – and compare with the time you have, via your ‘dissertation calender’. If not enough time, then examine where activities can be best compressed, noting which activities can only be started once others have been completed.
It is not uncommon to hear of poor relationships between supervisor and student. ‘ If your experiences with your supervisor are consistently negative’, it may be possible to transfer (Levin, 2005, pp.18-19), but you should do what you can to avoid this scenario, such as: don’t take things personally – you may be one of many being supervised – supervisor may have little time – so use what time you are able to secure well. Always go in to any meetings having done your preparation – the more you are able to discuss your thinking, your perception of possibilities, etc., the more constructive the session is likely to be: your supervisor will see that you are not a time-waster & be more willing to help. Identify your supervisor’s strengths and take advantage of them. Many students have misplaced understandings of what their relationship with their supervisor should be; confused expectations. And supervisors as human beings inevitably will bring a mix of different qualities, good/bad: Sympathy & encouragement ; take it if you need it & it’s forthcoming, but it might not be, & your supervisor may have other qualities; Expertise in the field ; - use their ‘consultant qualities’, and value the contribution they can make in terms of pointing you in particular directions with the literature; but it might not be … What if your supervisor is not a specialist , they may not have knowledge of all the relevant literature, but ‘will often be able to help with methodology and planning, and their experience in the wider field may make them good people to try your ideas out on.’ (Levin, 2005, 19). ‘ Sounding-board ’: to discuss your thinking (adapted from: Peter Levin: ‘Excellent Dissertations!’ (OU, 2005, p.18)):
But what if: Meetings seem of little value/unproductive , and short; (be realistic about demands on academic staff time and use what you do get constructively). You may have to invest some energy into developing your supervisor’s interest. Do the prep prior to any meeting – reading, investigating, thinking – Levin suggests: ‘try to come up with a dilemma or puzzle that will challenge them. Seek their advice on it. Whatever you do don’t act helpless. Don’t ask to be told what to do . Your supervisor isn’t your parent or even your instructor.’ (Levin, 2005, p.19) Crucially, the more clued up you appear to be about your topic, the more committed, the more you should find your supervisor willing to help out and offer suggestions. (– but be prepared to have your ideas challenged). Supervisor impossible to track down ; but many students admit to trying to arrange meetings at the last minute; make close note of office hours, plan well ahead, arranging meetings sufficiently in advance, even if to take place in designated open office-hour slot; give an indication of what you want to discuss, so the supervisor can prepare.
Keep a record of what is discussed/agreed at each meeting : & write up as soon as possible – (i) you’d be surprised how easy it is, 1 week, 2 weeks later, to misconstrue what was agreed when relying on memory of a meeting; (ii) Levin suggests also important because the supervisor can forget, and may give contradictory advice: ‘Having a record will help you to resolve such contradictions. And if, unhappily, your relationship with your supervisor does break down, your records will strengthen your hand and your case when you seek to remedy the situation.’ (Levin p.19) Logical places at which to consult your supervisor: Initial conversations to explore initial ideas (pre-allocation – you may have an idea of who you’d prefer as your supervisor, based on their expertise); to secure approval of topic (supervisor may suggest ways to tighten focus of project, possibilities re: research, etc.); post-submission of proposal, obtaining feedback ; to discuss the focus of your literature review ; to discuss research implications/viability ; to discuss structural revisions ; at any point where you feel a change of emphasis to the project needs to be considered (golden rule: ‘no surprises’ when the supervisor gets to mark the work!); to discuss research implementation and research findings ; (if lucky) to discuss drafts of completed sections .
Pep talk on how dissertation is a magnifier: either the worse or best thing you will produce at uni, depending on effort put in, and will tend to accentuate either way grades attained for typical assignments. How students can get hopelessly lost in dissertations because of size. This course very much about making them realise the steps that are needed to make it the best rather than worst thing they produce at uni.
An LDU short course presentationDissertations & Major Project Writing Week 1 of 5: An introduction to writing dissertations & large projectsRobert Walsha, LDU City campus, Calcutta House, CM2-22
Dissertations & Major Project Writing week 1This week’s topics:• An introduction to writing dissertations & large projects (including overview of importance of critical analytical thinking, comparing & contrasting & building & sustaining argument);• focusing & formulating the topic;• developing & writing the proposal;• time & project management;• working with your supervisor
An introduction to writing dissertations• So, how does it differ from essays, reports, etc.? Is there anything I can take that I’ve learnt from my academic studies, i.e., on smaller written assignments so far?• critical analytical thinking• ‘comparing & contrasting’• ‘engaging with “the debate”’• looking for ‘similarities & differences’ in the literature/knowledge base• ‘building’ & ‘sustaining’ ‘argument’
Focusing & formulating a topic• pick a topic which will sustain your interest;• Ensure the project is manageable;• Don’t pick too general a topic;• Instead: narrow down within a general topic;• Try to identify areas worthy of investigation, areas where there is worthwhile ‘debate’ – does your initial reading throw up interesting questions?;
Focusing & formulating a topic• Don’t go too narrow – is there some discussion out there, even if not academic?;• think about what kind of research you will have to undertake, to do justice to the project – is it feasible (time), is it realistic (attainable);
Focusing & formulating a topic• Seeking initial advice;• Be as thorough as you can in your initial survey of the literature;• Begin to develop a realistic work plan
Focusing & formulating a topic• Hypothesis vs. identifying an area of investigation;• Identifying the most appropriate methodological approach(es);• Thinking ‘quantitative’ versus ‘qualitative’ research;
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Time & project management• An overall plan/schedule;• Weekly goal-setting and performance monitoring? ~ are you keeping up?• Don’t hesitate to commence work – don’t ‘get the coursework out of the way first‘!
Time & project management • Peter Levin (Excellent Dissertations!,… 2005), suggests 3-tiered approach:• Consult text books on survey research methods: 2 days• – Create a ‘dissertation calendar’; 2 days Produce preliminary draft of questionnaire:• Redraft questionnaire: 1 day – Set a ‘comfort deadline’;• Pilot questionnaire & revise if necessary: 7 days• – Create100 questionnaire-based interviews: 14 days Carry out ‘to-do’ lists.• Transcribe quantitative data from interviews: 4 days• Collate qualitative data from interviews: 8 days• Analyse data, formulate findings & think about their significance: 7 days… (Excerpt from Levin, 2005, pp.64-65)
Working with your supervisor• The importance of establishing an effective working relationship;• What the supervisor can offer: – Sympathy & encouragement?; – Expertise in the field ~ e.g., good knowledge of the literature; – General advice ~ e.g., on methodology, planning – Acting as a ‘sounding-board’ for your thinking;
Working with your supervisor• Problems that typically occur: – Meetings seem of little value / unproductive ~and how to motivate your supervisor; – Supervisor impossible to track down;
Working with your supervisor• Keep a record of what is discussed/agreed at each meeting;• When should I see my supervisor?
The planning stages 1. Draw up a shortlist 2. Select a topic for of topics. investigation. Consult library Discuss possible catalogues, past outcomes with your lecture notes, 2 or 3 supervisor and core texts. decide what the emphasis of your study is to be.Adapted from Bell, 1993, pp. 22-3
The planning stagesopic for 3. Establish the 4. Decide on the aimsn. precise focus of the and objectives of the ible study. study or formulate a h your Draw up ‘first hypothesis.nd thoughts’ list of Think carefully about he questions and subject what is and what is notyour each to rigorous worth investigating. . examination. Adapted from Bell, 1993, pp. 22-3
The planning stagesaims 5. Draw up an initial 6. Read enough to the project outline. enable you to decide ea List aims and/or whether you are on objectives, questions to the right lines.ut be investigated, possible The initial reading may not methods of investigation give you ideas about. and literature to be approach and methods consulted. Consult your and how information supervisor. might be classified. Adapted from Bell, 1993, pp. 22-3
The planning stageso 7. Devise a timetable to ide enable you to check that n all stages will be covered Begin in-depth and time allowed for readingmay writing. and researchut It is easy to take too longhods over one stage and so n have insufficient time to carry out essential tasks in Don’t forget to the next stage. Consult consult your your supervisor over the supervisor at viability of your timetable. stages 2, 5 & 7! Adapted from Bell, 1993, pp. 22-3