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Dissertations and research projects

Online study guides for every stage of your research project, from planning to writing up. Also includes advice on writing a remote dissertation while social distancing measures are in place.

Primary vs. secondary research

What type of data should I use?

One of the first decisions you will need to make as part of the planning process is whether you will generate primary data or use existing, secondary data:

  • Primary data is generated when you collect information directly from the participants or context of your research topic. Some common methods for generating primary data include interviews, surveys, observations, action research or experimental/lab work.
     
  • A dissertation that uses secondary data will either analyse an existing data set - produced by another researcher - or bring together existing literature - case studies, theories, journal articles - to answer a research question.

You should talk to your supervisor about which option would work best for your project and ultimately enable you to answer your research question or meet your overall aim for the project. You can find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of these reaserch approachs in the SAGE Research Methods online project planner.

 

Should I change to secondary data due to Covid-19 and remote working?

Social distancing and remote working have made collecting primary data more challenging: it can be more difficult to recruit participants without face-to-face meetings, and you will need to consider whether you have the equipment and software needed to communicate with participants online. However, this does not mean you cannot generate primary data for your dissertation, just that you may need to get creative in how you approach your research question. For more information on collecting primary data while social distancing measures are in place, visit the University's online guide to remote research and ethics.

Switching to secondary data may offer a solution to some of the challenges posed by Covid-19. There are a wide range of existing data sets available online, which you can then analyse or interpret using your own theoretical framework or analytical methods. A list of online data sets can be found on the Hallam Library webpages and in the SAGE Research Methods repository

Other common dissertation types that use existing data are extended literature reviews, systematic reviews and policy analysis studies. Once you've explored the different dissertation types, consider which approaches are common in your discipline or research area, and always talk to your supervisor about which option works best for your project.

Extended literature reviews

Read our full guide on how to structure an extended literature review here.

Extended methodologies

What is an 'extended methodology' dissertation?

In an extended methodology, you are required to describe a project that you have not completed, usually when external circumstances have prevented you from carrying your research out as planned. It’s important to recognise that an extended methodology will be speculative, but it must demonstrate that you have thought about how you would actually conduct the research you’re proposing. In many ways, your write up won’t differ too much from a traditional methodology section but there are a couple of additional sections to include.

What should I include?

Many of these sections should be familiar as they replicate those found in the methodology section of a normal piece of research; for further guidance on how to approach planning and writing these sections of your methodology, browse the menu on the left-hand side of this guide or visit our writing up guide to get started.

To produce a comprehensive extended methodology you should: 

  • Provide research questions that have a clear link to the conclusions of your literature review.
     
  • Give an overview of your epistemological position and how this has informed your approach to research.
     
  • Outline your research approach – this should include a clear justification for your approach and why you have rejected other approaches (more on this later!)
     
  • A detailed description of your chosen research methods and their relationship to your chosen research approach. This section should also reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of your methods. Finally, detail how the academic literature has influenced the construction of the materials associated with your chosen methods. For example, if you have chosen surveys as a method, how did you decide how many questions to have? What considerations did you take into account when writing the questions for your survey? This is a really important step as it helps demonstrate your active engagement with the research process by reflecting on how the format/design of research materials can influence participant responses and, therefore, the subsequent findings and conclusions of the research.
     
  • Explain who your participants would be and how you would intend to recruit them.
     
  • Demonstrate that you have considered ethical implications within your planning.
     
  • Include a detailed explanation of your procedure; this is how you would actually collect your data and is likely to include details such as duration, any devices that you would use to record the data you are collecting as well as any instructions given to participants.
     
  • Develop a proposed timetable for your project. This demonstrates that you’ve considered how to appropriately structure your research in order to manage your time and achieve realistic outcomes. You might include significant deadlines, any resources that you’ll need and any technical skills that you might need to develop to complete the proposed project.
     
  • You might like to include a short discussion of potential dissemination routes for your research. This could include presentations, reports, or academic publications. It should be noted, that is isn’t always a requirement and you should check with your supervisor before including this as a section in your work.
     
  • A considerable discussion of your potential findings and subsequent implications for your chosen topic. This might take the form of potential recommendations for professional practice or policy, or, alternatively, how your research might fill a gap, resolve an inconsistency or change our understanding of a theory/concept. This section can be tricky to write as it you are speculating about the outcomes of research that hasn’t been conducted. Consequently, it is especially important to be very cautious in any claims or recommendations that you make; it’s better to be slightly too reserved in your writing than to over-reach and starting making huge claims to generalisability and applicability that can’t be substantiated.
For more information on writing about potential findings and implications, look at Research Proposals: A Practical Guide (Chapter 10) by Martyn Denscombe.

Justifying your methods

It’s always important to justify your chosen research approach and methods, whether you’re writing-up a piece of research that you’ve conducted or writing an extended methodology/research proposal. This will involve a detailed discussion of alternative approaches/methods, and, crucially, an explanation of why your chosen approach/method is the most suited to answering your research questions rather than the alternatives.

This might be due to your epistemological position, conventions within your academic discipline, or the nature of what your research is trying to achieve; for example, if you were trying to understand the experiences of postgraduate students at Sheffield Hallam, it would not be appropriate to send hundreds of questionnaires out to people all over the country. This type of research aim would be better suited to a case study approach as the intentions and associated methods of this approach, are more appropriate for understanding a specific group, in a specific context.

This is really your opportunity to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the intersection between the philosophical, theoretical and practical factors that go into research. By establishing a clear justification for your chosen approach, you help to convey your own positionality as a researcher and situate your proposed project against the wider academic context.

Many people have had to change their methodologies due to COVID 19, but it’s important that you still provide a rich and nuanced justification for your new chosen approach. Unfortunately, saying ‘COVID 19 made me change to research method X’ isn’t a good enough justification! 

Recruiting participants

The same principles of participant recruitment that apply to face-to-face research should be considered when recruiting and expanding your participant base remotely. Contacting people by email or phone will always be a longer process than communicating face-to-face, so be patient if communication is slower than you would like. Think about how to be effective in communicating information about the project to potential participants, and at every stage consider how you will protect their data in an online environment. 

Here are some key points to consider:


  • Start with the existing literature
    If you are yet to recruit your participants, start by making notes on existing studies that have used remote data collection methods, and talk to your supervisor about where you might recruit your participants (and how many you need for a viable project).

  • Draw on your networks
    Be practical, thinking about potential participants that you can easily access and engage with in your project. These might be coursemates, other university students, or communities you have worked with on placement. If you already know your participants, or belong to the group yourself, be sure to consider your positionality and think about the potential for research bias.

  • Be realistic about ethical approval
    It is important to balance your ambitions for the project with practical considerations, and to
    be realistic about who you will be able to involve in your research. For example, for PGT projects, it is unlikely that you will have time to gain ethics approval for working with vulnerable communities or involving participants in sensitive topics. Similarly, by working remotely, it may be difficult to access certain groups to share their perceptions, particularly if you are interested in a group of participants based on their profession (for example, teachers). 

  • Consider switching to a secondary data set for your research
    Rather than collecting primary data, you could write a secondary research project, such as an extended literature review, systematic review or policy analysis. You can access a wide range of existing data sets and find information on how to write an extended literature review from the Skills Centre.
  • Read up on selection and sampling techniques
    Familiarise yourself with the different ways you can recruit participants remotely to ensure a representative sample. For more information on sampling techniques, and their relative advantages and limitations, visit our SAGE Research Methods resource via the library.

  • Think about the logistics of recruiting and gathering data from participants
    How will you reach out to participants and are you using multiple methods of communication, or relying entirely on a single point of contact, such as an online survey? Some communication methods may be easier for your participants to engage with than others - try to build this into your research design. You will also need to think about how you ensure data is anonymised and how you will keep track of the number of participants involved in your project if they are participating remotely.

  • Have a contingency plan
    Reflect on the possible points of failure in your project and possible solutions for these. If your online survey fails to attract enough participants, can you run a second phase of data collection using focus groups? What is your minimum number of participants needed to meet your research aims.

  • Set yourself a goal
    Set an ideal sample size as well as a lower limit. Aim for the minimum in the time you have available - any extra participants would then be a bonus!

  • Share your findings
    You will need to let your participants know how their data will be stored and how they can access the results of your project once it is completed. You can find guidance on this, and wider GDPR considerations, on the university's ethics pages.

Data collection tools

There are various ways in which you can conduct interviews or focus groups remotely. Which one you use depends on a number of factors, in particular the technology which is available to you and your respondents

Phone or video calls

 

When carrying our phone or video calls, please bear in mind your respondent's home situation. For example, they may not be able to find a private space for the call. Discuss with participants how you can manage these issues, for example by not using cameras in sevices such as Google Meet and Skype.

  • You can conduct voice interviews via phone. This is the simplest method, but there may be issues with the quality of the recordings. Members of staff can use Jabber to sign in to their SHU number, and can use software such as Audacity to record the call.

  • Students and staff can sign in to their SHU Google account and use Google Meet.

  • Students and staff can use their SHU details to login to Zoom and set up a meeting. If you are using Zoom please follow the guidance on securing your Zoom session.

  • Students and staff can use Skype.

  • Staff can use Blackboard Collaborate. In a Blackboard module site go to 'Site tools' where you will find a link to 'Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.' Set up an ‘interview room’ and send respondents the guest access link.

  • Some services will require the respondent to set up an account and / or download software - it is important to include such details in your recruitment and information documents.


Interview via e-mail or documents

 

You may be able to conduct an interview via an e-mail exchange. It is best to use an encrypted email service. If instead you would like to use documents for the interactions, it is best to use a secure drop-off service such as https://zendto.shu.ac.uk using an agreed password, or sending an encrypted document. You should also scan documents for viruses.

The following tools can be used for qualitative and quantitative data gathering, such as surveys and questionnaires:

In all cases please transfer the data to the Research Store as soon as possible.
 
We recommend against using other tools such as SurveyMonkey. Free accounts on such services are limited, for example they may offer a small number of questions, and there are concerns about where the data is stored.

 

SHU policies

You can also find useful information from the following sites:

Ethics

University policies and guidance for remote data collection:

For NHS related research please see the HRA Guidance about COVID-19 for sponsors, sites and researchers.

If you have any concerns about how remote working may affect your ethical approval, speak to your supervisor or your research support librarian

For more guidance and support on remote research for staff, Masters by Research and doctoral students, visit the new online guide to remote research from the Library and Doctoral School: