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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.

Abstracts

What is an abstract?

The abstract is a brief summary of your dissertation to help a new reader understand the purpose and content of the document, in much the same way as you would read the abstract of a journal article to help decide whether it was relevant to your work. The function of the abstract is to describe and summarise the contents of the dissertation, rather than making critical or evaluative statements about the project.

When should I write the abstract?

The abstract should be the last section you write before submitting your final dissertation or extended project report, as the content will only be decided once the main document is complete. 

What should I include?

Abstracts should be no longer than 250 words, and should cover the following content:

​1. Begin with a brief statement that should ‘hook the reader’, capturing the research problem or what makes your project relevant. You may also want to set the scene for the project and give some brief contextual information.

2. Give one summary sentence per section of the dissertation, including your key findings and conclusions. Remember, the abstract is designed to inform the reader about the key aspects of the project, rather than teasing them with a sense of mystery!​

3. Finish by summarising your key findings and stating what the project contributes to existing literature/what the project has achieved.
 
What style of writing should I use in the abstract? 

 

One of the best ways to find the right ‘voice’ for the abstract is to look at other examples, either from dissertations in your field or study, or from journal articles. Look out for examples that you feel communicate complex ideas in a simple and accessible way. Your abstract should be clear and understandable to a non-specialist, so avoid specialist vocabulary as far as possible, and use simple sentence structures over longer more complex constructions. You can find a list of phrases for abstract writing here.

Most abstracts are written in the present tense, but this may differ in some disciplines, so find examples to inform your decision on how to write. Avoid the future tense - ‘this dissertation will consider’ - as the research has already been completed by the time someone is reading the abstract! You can explore some key phrases to use in abstract writing here.

Examples of dissertation abstracts
Dissertation abstracts, University of Leeds
Overview of what to include in your abstract, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Abstract structures from different disciplines, The Writing Center

For examples from Sheffield Hallam University, use the 'Advanced Search' function in Library Search to access ‘Dissertations/Theses’.

Introductions

What should the introduction include?

Your introduction should cover the following points:

  • Provide context and set the scene for your research project using literature where necessary.
  • Explain the rationale and value of the project.
  • Provide definitions and address general limitations in the literature that have influenced the topic or scope of your project.
  • Present your research aims and objectives, which may also be phrased as the research ‘problem’ or questions.

Although it is important to draft your research aims and objectives early in the research process, the introduction will be one of the last sections you write. When deciding on how much context and which definitions to include in this section, remember to look back at your literature review to avoid any repetition. It may be that you can repurpose some of the early paragraphs in the literature review for the introduction.

What is the ‘research aim’?

The research aim is a mission statement, that states the main ambition of your project. In other words, what does your research project hope to achieve? You may also express this as the ‘big questions’ that drives your project, or as the research problem that your dissertation will aim to address or solve.

You only need one research aim, and this is likely to change as your dissertation develops through the literature review. Keep returning to your research aim and your aspirations for the project regularly to help shape this statement.

What are the research objectives? How are they different from research questions?

Research objectives and questions are the same thing – the only difference is how they are written! The objectives are the specific tasks that you will need to complete – the stepping stones – that will enable you to achieve your overall research aim.

You will usually have 3-5 research objectives, and their order will hep the reader to understand how you will progress through your research project from start to finish. If you can achieve each objective, or answer each research question, you should meet your research aim! It is therefore important to be specific in your choice of language: verbs, such as ‘to investigate’, ‘to explore’, ‘to assess’ etc. will help your research appear “do-able” (Farrell, 2011).

Here’s an example of three research objectives, also phrased as research questions (this depends entirely on your preference):

Research objectives Research questions
To provide an overview on how national identity and culture have emerged as a key feature of contemporary Olympic opening ceremonies. How have representations of national identity and culture in Olympic opening ceremonies changed over time?
To analyse how national identity and Chinese culture were presented in the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics for both domestic and international audiences. How were national identity and Chinese culture presented in the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics for both domestic and international audiences?
To assess how the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics impacted lasting public perceptions of Chinese culture and national identity What long-term impacts did the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics have on public perceptions of Chinese culture and national identity?

For more ideas on how to write research objectives, take at look at this list of common academic verbs for creating specific, achievable research tasks and questions.

Literature review

We have an online study guide dedicated to planning and structuring your literature review.

Methodology

What is the purpose of the methodology section?

The methodology outlines the procedure and process of your data collection. You should therefore provide enough detail so that a reader could replicate or adapt your methodology in their own research.

While the literature review focuses on the views and arguments of other authors, the methodology puts the spotlight on your project. Two of the key questions you should aim to answer in this section are:

  • Why did you select the methods you used?
  • How do these methods answer your research question(s)?

The methodology chapter should also justify and explain your choice of methodology and methods. At every point where you faced a decision, ask: Why did choose this approach? Why not something else? Why was this theory/method/tool the most relevant or suitable for my project? How did this decision contribute to answering my research questions?

Although most students write their methodology before carrying out their data collection, the methodology section should be written in the past tense, as if the research has already been completed.

What is the difference between my methodology and my methods?

There are three key aspects of any methodology section that you should aim to address:

  • Methodology: Your choice of methodology will be grounded in a discipline-specific theory about how research should proceed, such as quantitative or qualitative. This overarching decision will help to provide rationale for the specific methods you go on to use.
     
  • Research Design: An explanation of the approach that you have chosen, and the type of data you will collect. For example, case study or action research? Will the data you collect be quantitative, qualitative or a mix of both?
     
  • Methods: The concrete research tools used to collect and analyse data: questionnaires, in-person surveys, observations etc.

You may also need to include information on epistemology and your philosophical approach to research. You can find more information on this in our research planning guide.

What should I include in the methodology section?

  • Research paradigm: What is the underpinning philosophy of your research? How does this align with your research aim and objectives?

  • Methodology: Qualitative or quantitative? Mixed? What are the advantages of your chosen methodology, and why were the other options discounted?

  • Research design: Show how your research design is influenced by other studies in your field and justify your choice of approach.
     
  • Methods: What methods did you use? Why? Do these naturally fit together or do you need to justify why you have used different methods in combination?
     
  • Participants/Data Sources: What were your sources/who were your participants? Which sampling approach did you use and why? How were they identified as a suitable group to research, and how were they recruited?
     
  • Procedure: What did you do to collect your data? Remember, a reader should be able to replicate or adapt your methodology in their own research from the information you provide here.
     
  • Limitations: What are the general limitations of your chosen method(s)? Don’t be specific here about your project (ie. what you could have done differently), but instead focus on what the literature outlines as the disadvantages of your methods.

Should I reflect on my position as a researcher?

If you feel your position as a researcher has influenced your choice of methods or procedure in any way, the methodology is a good place to reflect on this. Positionality acknowledges that no researcher is entirely objective: we are all, to some extent, influenced by prior learning, experiences, knowledge, and personal biases. This is particularly true in qualitative research or practice-based research, where the student is acting as a researcher in their own workplace, where they are otherwise considered a practitioner/professional.

The following questions can help you to reflect on your positionality and gauge whether this is an important section to include in your dissertation (for some people, this section isn’t necessary or relevant):

  • How might my personal history influence how I approach the topic?
  • How am I positioned in relation to this knowledge? Am I being influenced by prior learning or knowledge from outside of this course?
  • How does my gender/social class/ ethnicity/ culture influence my positioning in relation to this topic?
  • Do I share any attributes with my participants? Are we part of a s hared community? How might this have influenced our relationship and my role in interviews/observations?
  • Am I invested in the outcomes on a personal level? Who is this research for and who will feel the benefits?
Visit our detailed guides on qualitative and quantitative research for more information.

Results

The purpose of this section is to report the findings of your study. In quantitative research, the results section usually functions as a statement of your findings without discussion.

Results sections generally begin with descriptive statistics before moving on to further tests such as multiple linear regression, or inferential statistical tests such as ANOVA, and any associated Post-Hoc testing.

Here are some top tips for planning/writing your results section:

  • Explain any treatments you have applied to your data.
  • Present your findings in a logical order.
  • Describe trends in the data/anomalous findings but don’t start to interpret them. Save that for your discussion section.
  • Figures and tables are usually the clearest way to present information. It is important to remember to title and label any titles/diagrams to communicate their meaning to the reader and so that you can refer to them again later in the report (e.g. Table 1).
  • Remember to be consistent with the rounding of figures. If you start by rounding to 2 decimal places, ensure that you do this for all data you report.
  • Avoid repeating any information - if something appears in a table it does not need to appear again in the main body of the text.
For further help with statistics take a look at the Maths and Statistics support page where you can book appointments and access resources.

Presenting qualitative data

In qualitative studies, your results are often presented alongside the discussion, as it is difficult to include this data in a meaningful way without explanation and interpretation. In the dsicussion section, aim to structure your work thematically, moving through the key concepts or ideas that have emerged from your qualitative data. Use extracts from your data collection - interviews, focus groups, observations - to illustrate where these themes are most prominent, and refer back to the sources from your literature review to help draw conclusions. 

Here's an example of how your data could be presented in paragraph format in this section:

In analysing the interview data, two themes emerged which will be discussed in this section. These themes were: the complexity and challenges of working with families and the professional satisfaction and challenges of program planning for children in preschool or childcare.

Introduction to the key themes identified from the interviews.

For each of these graduates, their work with children was clearly the area of their professional lives that was bringing the most satisfaction, although there were some challenges identified. In the interviews, the data reveal that they were all seeking ways to improve their pedagogy and achieving success in different ways…

Summary of theme A identified from the data.

Angela suggested that in her second year of teaching she had changed in that she was programming in a "more child oriented" way. She discussed this change:

One of the things I've changed is this idea of herding children through the Kinder day: they go from indoor play to snack time to the mat and so on. How I do it now is that I have a lot of different things happening at once. I'll have a small group on the mat and there might be some children sitting down and having a snack and there's still some children in home corner playing.

Specific example from your interviews to support this theme, embedded as a direct quotation.

These comments seem to provide evidence that Angela is growing professionally for two reasons. First, the ability to identify changes in her program suggests to me that she has deeper pedagogical knowledge gained through critical reflection on her practice, and second, there is congruence between her expressed beliefs and the practice she describes… This is supported by…(Source A; Source B).

Discussion/ interpretation of the findings, what they suggest, and what conclusions you can draw. Refer back to texts from the literature review that support your conclusions.

Example from 'Reporting and discussing your findings', Monash University.

 

Discussion

What should I include in the discussion section?

The purpose of the discussion section is to interpret your findings and discuss these against the context of the wider literature. This section should also highlight how your research has contributed to the understanding of a phenomenon or problem: this can be achieved by responding to your research questions.

Though the structure of discussion sections can vary, a relatively common structure is offered below:

  • State your major findings – this can be a brief opening paragraph that restates the research problem, the methods you used to attempt to address this, and the major findings of your research.

  • Address your research questions - detail your findings in relation to each of your research questions to help demonstrate how you have attempted to address the research problem. Answer each research question in turn by interpreting the relevant results: this may involve highlighting patterns, relationships or statistically significant differences depending on the design of your research and how you analysed your data.

  • Discuss your findings against the wider literature - this will involve comparing and contrasting your findings against those of others and using key literature to support the interpretation of your results; often, this will involve revisiting key studies from your literature review and discussing where your findings fit in the pre-existing literature. This process can help to highlight the importance of your research through demonstrating what is novel about your findings and how this contributes to the wider understanding of your research area.

  • Address any unexpected findings in your study - begin with by stating the unexpected finding and then offer your interpretation as to why this might have occurred. You may relate unexpected findings to other research literature and you should also consider how any unexpected findings relate to your overall study – especially if you think this is significant in terms of what your findings contribute to the understanding of your research problem!

  • Discuss alternative interpretations - it’s important to remember that in research we find evidence to support ideas, theories and understanding; nothing is ever proven. Consequently, you should discuss possible alternative interpretations of your data – not just those that neatly answer your research questions and confirm your hypotheses.

  • Limitations/weaknesses of your research – acknowledge any factors that might have affected your findings and discuss how this relates to your interpretation of the data. This might include detailing problems with your data collection method, or unanticipated factors that you had not accounted for in your original research plan. Likewise, detail any questions that your findings could not answer and explain why this was the case.

  • Future directions (this part of your discussion could also be included in your conclusion) – this section should address what questions remain unanswered about your research problem. For example, it may be that your findings have answered some questions but raised new ones; this can often occur as a result of unanticipated findings. Likewise, some of the limitations of your research may necessitate further work to address a methodological confound or weakness in a tool of measurement. Whatever these future directions are, remember you’re not writing a proposal for this further research; a brief suggestion of what the research should do and how this would address one of the new problems/limitations you have identified is enough.

Here are some final top tips for writing your discussion section:

  • Don’t rewrite your results section – remember your goal is to interpret and explain how your findings address the research problem.
  • Be clear about what you have found, how this has addressed a gap in the literature and how it changes our understanding of your research problem.
  • Structure your discussion in a logical way that highlights your most important/interesting findings first.
  • Be careful about how you interpret your data: be wary over-interpreting to confirm a hypothesis. Remember, we can still learn from non-significant research findings.
  • Avoid being apologetic or too critical when discussing the limitations of your research. Be concise and analytical. 

Conclusions

How do I avoid repetition in the conclusion?

The conclusion is your opportunity to synthesise everything you have done/written as part of your research, in order to demonstrate your understanding.

A well-structured conclusion is likely to include the following:

  • State your conclusions – in clear language, state the conclusions from your research. Crucially, this not just restating your results/findings: instead, this is a synthesis of the research problem, your research questions, your findings (and interpretation), and the relevant research literature. From your conclusions, it should be clear to your reader how our understanding of the research topic has changed.
     
  • Discuss wider significance – this is your opportunity to highlight (potential) wider implications of your conclusions. Depending on your discipline, this might include recommendations for policy, professional practice or a tentative speculation about how an academic theory might change given your findings. It is important not to over-generalise here; remember the limitations of your theoretical and methodological choices and what these mean for the applicability of your findings/conclusions. If your discipline encourages reflection, this can be a suitable place to include your thoughts about the research process, the choices you made and how your findings/conclusions might influence your professional outlook/practice going forwards.
     
  • Take home message – this should be a strong and clear final statement that draws the reader’s focus to the primary message of your study. Whilst it’s important to avoid being overly grandiose, this is your closing argument, and you should remind the reader of what your research has achieved.

Ultimately, your conclusion is your final word about the research problem you have investigated; don’t be afraid of emphasising your contribution to the understanding of that problem. Your conclusion should be clear, succinct and provide a summary of everything that has been learned as a result of your research project. 

Working with your supervisor

What supervisors expect from their dissertation students:

  • to determine the focus and direction of the dissertation, particularly in terms of identifying a topic of interest and research question.

  • to work independently to explore literature and research in the chosen topic area.

  • to be proactive in arranging supervision meetings, email draft work before meetings for feedback and prepare specific questions and issues to discuss in supervision time.

  • to be honest and open about any challenges or difficulties that arise during the research or writing process.

  • to bring a problem-solving approach to the dissertation (you are not expected to know all the answers but should show initiative in exploring possible solutions to any problems that might arise).

What you can expect from your supervisor:

  • to offer guidance on the best way to structure and carry out a successful research project in the timescale for your dissertation, and to help you to set achievable and appropriate research objectives.
  • to act as an expert in your discipline and sounding board for your ideas, and to advise you on the literature search and theoretical background for your project.
  • to serve as a 'lifeline' and point of support when the dissertation feels challenging.
  • to read your drafts and give feedback in supervision meetings.
  • to offer practical advice and strategies for managing your time, securing ethics approval, collecting data and common pitfalls to avoid during the research process.

Making the most of your supervision meetings

Meeting your supervisor can feel daunting at first but your supervision meetings offer a great opportunity to discuss your research ideas and get feedback on the direction of your project. Here are our top tips to getting the most out of time with your supervisor:
 

  • You are in charge of the agenda. If you arrange a meeting with your supervisor, you call the shots! Here are a few tips on how to get the most out of the time with your supervisor.
  • Send an email in advance of the meeting, with an overview of the key ideas you want to talk about. This can save time in the meeting and helps to give you some structure to follow. If this isn't possible, run through these points quickly when you first sit down as you introduce the meeting - "I wanted to focus on the literature review today, as I'm having some trouble deciding on the order my key themes and points should be introduced in."
  • What do you want to get out of the meeting? Note down any questions you would like the answers to or identify what it is you will need from the meeting in order to make progress on the next stage of your dissertation. Supervision meetings offer the change to talk about your ideas for the project, but they can also be an opportunity to find out practical details and troubleshoot. Don't leave the meeting until you have addressed these and got answers/advice in each key area.
  • Trust your supervisor. Your supervisor may not be an expert in your chosen subject, but they will have experience of writing up research projects and coaching other dissertation students. You are responsible for reading up on your subject and exploring the literature - your supervisor can't tell you what to read, but they can give you advice on how to read your sources and integrate them into your argument and writing.
  • Choose a short section to discuss in the meeting for feedback - for example, if you're not sure on structure, pick a page or two that demonstrate this, or if you want advice on being critical, find an example from a previous essay where you think you did this well and ask your supervisor how to translate this into dissertation writing.
  • Agree an action plan. Work with your supervisor to set a goal for your next meeting, or an objective that you will meet in the week following your supervision. Feeling accountable to someone can be a great motivator and also helps you to recognise where you are starting to fall behind the targets that you've set for yourself.
  • Be open and honest. It can feel daunting meeting your supervisor, but supervision meetings aren't an interview where you have to prove everything is going well. Ask for help and advice where you need it, and be honest if you're finding things difficult. A supervisor is there to support you and help you to develop the skills and knowledge you need along the journey to submitting your dissertation.