Doing A Dissertation
The guide below represents a small part of what you need to investigate when undertaking your dissertation. The intention of these materials is not to provide research training as such but rather to help the students move into the work of doing their dissertations. Currently, work relating to research methods and critical approaches to research reading and writing is integrated into one of our course modules (Intercultural Perspectives on Academic Writing and Research). By contrast, the materials below comprise part of a short intensive program held at the end of the second semester just prior to students starting to focus more seriously on their own research projects.
These activities can be staged over two one hour sessions or a single two hour session and involve a lot of small group discussion. Students are expected to question each other to probe beneath the surface so that topics become clearer and more refined. This gives them what is often a first chance to talk about their own particular research interests with peers and encourages them to develop their ideas in an informal but directed situation.
Normally the materials are presented on PowerPoint slides with supplementary handouts along the lines of what is below. After each stage we would normally have some kind of plenary feedback.
Get into a small group and talk about the following:
- Why do you think we ask you to do a dissertation?
- What’s it for?
- What do you think are the main differences between this and a coursework essay?
- What are you looking forward to doing and what are you dreading?
(This activity followed by a plenary helps to dispel some myths and allows the students to voice uncertainties that they might have. It also reveals that their individual concerns are actually held in common).
It is quite common for you to have a strong idea of the topic you want to write about. It may be an idea that you already had before joining the course or it might be something that you have become interested in during the course. For example, you may want to do your dissertation on the topic of ‘The Role of English in the World’ which is one of the key themes of the whole course. However a topic is not enough by itself. A topic needs to be controlled in some way to prevent it from being too general or too vague. This ‘control’ is what turns a topic into a research project.
Look at the following topics that previous students started out with when they were at a similar stage as you.
What further information would you need to know in order to understand what the dissertation is actually about? Think about the questions you might ask the students concerned.
Native speakers in ELT in China
The discourse of computer mediated communication
The relation between language and culture
If YOU were going to write about these topics, what particular aspect(s) would YOU focus on?
(These topics can, of course, be replaced according to the relevant discipline)
Now look at the titles of the dissertations. How do they help narrow down the topic?
- What do they tell you about the focus of the research?
- What do they tell you about the work involved in the dissertation?
- What kind of data do you think the students obtained and how?
What is the contribution of native speakers in ELT in China and how can they be best used?
The discourse of Computer Mediated Communication: code-switching and mode-switching in Nepalese on-line communities
Code-switching among English speaking Turkish communities in London
The relationship between language and culture in Ghana: a comparative study of address terms in two speech communities in Cape-Coast.
(Plenary feedback could involve a comparison of their own views with those chosen by the actual writers)
The way you move from topic to title is not as easy as it appears here, however. The process involves an interaction between your chosen topic, the initial questions you have about the topic, the further questions that arise as a result of your reading and the insights you develop (which result in further questions) from analyzing your data. In other words, your ideas develop in the course of actually doing the dissertation.
Starting to Write
It’s common for people to think of research as a sequence of activities moving from one to the other as if in a straight line. This is because when we read other people’s research it looks as if this is how it’s done. However, what research looks like when it’s been published doesn’t really represent ‘what you did in order to do the work’ as the physicist Richard Feynman complained in his 1966 Noble Prize speech.
IF you take the approach that first you’ve got to do all the reading (research context, methodologies, theories etc.) and then you do all the research (data collection, data analysis etc.) and then you come up with all the conclusions (discussion and implications) and finally you write it up, you’ll find it difficult to make progress. You’ll probably get stuck at the reading stage.
HOWEVER, if you start writing from the very beginning, you are more likely to get into the work itself and your reading will be more focused and therefore more relevant. Doing a dissertation is not a linear process, it is more like a series of cycles of activity involving all elements of your research work. The first cycle is to find out what you know about your chosen topic already.
What You Already Know
Get together with one or two other students and talk through the following questions:
- What topic are you planning to discuss?
- What particularly interests you about it?
- Why is it worth writing about?
- What sort of things do you want to find out?
- How is it relevant to what you’ve been doing recently (at work? on this course?)?
- How is it relevant to you personally?
Make sure you ask your colleagues to go into as much detail as they can. You might also discuss the following questions:
About the data:
- What kind of data are you hoping to collect?
- How are you thinking of getting it?
- Why do you think this data will be helpful?
About the research context:
- Who else has looked at this?
- Whose work are you planning to read?
- What kind of analytic framework are you planning to use?
Don’t worry if you don’t have ‘answers’ to all these questions. They are just to help you begin to work out your ideas. You might even be able to suggest things to one another. Remember, though, that you will all be at different stages depending on the projects you are developing. The important thing here is to use this opportunity to explore the ideas you already have and to help others to do the same.
(Feedback can involve discussion about whether and how these discussions have been helpful).
Now that you’ve talked about your research, you’re ready to start writing. In preparation for your first supervision session, write out ‘answers’ in response to the questions above. Use these questions to help you work through your ideas in writing. You don’t have to do any reading at this stage, rather start writing about what you already know, what you want to find out more about and what you’ll need to do to find it out. This will ensure that your own ideas and questions will lead your research. This, in turn, will help you manage your reading and refine your research methods. It will also mean that you have something concrete to bring to your supervision session which helps your supervisor to help you. A further advantage of this process is that it provides you with the basis of your first chapter (a working introduction) and means that you will have already started writing the dissertation itself.