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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.

Finding the gap

When starting out on reading for your dissertation, you may feel a little overwhelmed with the amount of research out there related to your topic. This is normal!

 

Your first job is to start to make sense of this existing research, sketching out a map with your dissertation in the centre. Around you will be various ‘neighbourhoods’ or groups of literature that are connected in some way, perhaps by a shared theme or group of participants. You might also start to identify ‘points of interest’ - key texts, models or theories that need to be acknowledged in order for a reader to understand your approach to your research area. 

In drawing this map, your aim is to identify the research gap or problem - an issue or question that you feel has not been fully addressed by existing studies. Remember, there is no expectation that you will have read absolutely everything on your subject, but you should be able to use the wide range of sources available to you to persuade the reader of the relevance and importance of your chosen topic.

Here are a few common approaches to finding the gap that might provide some inspiration for your own dissertation:

  • Chronological, tracing change and development over time. For example, in a study of contemporary attitudes to tattoos, you might start by looking at historical examples of tattooing in other cultures, mapping out a timeline of key trends and shifts in the practice over time. 

  • Thematic, mapping out the reading around topics or themes that multiple papers have in common. If you are investigating stress and anxiety in higher education, you might start out by searching for literature on mental health in universities to establish the 'bigger picture' before zooming in on a specific topic.

  • Venn diagram, bringing together two otherwise distinct areas to find the literature that is common to both/bridges the gap. You may be working on a topic that is well-researched (stroke patient recovery) but adopting a new angle (from your perspective as a physiotherapist). Start by reading the literature in each area separately, fitting the papers into a Venn diagram that enables you to see where the closest links or overlaps between the two areas occur.

  • Context-based, where the literature is split based on which participants are involved or the geographical/cultural environment in which it was carried out. You might be interested in how Kenyan companies address fraud and financial corruption, and start your literature search by identifying examples and case studies from other countries and regions.

  • Research methods, where the literature tends to fall into different approaches to the same research problem. If the focus of your dissertation is to apply and test a new method, such as a machine learning algorithm, you could start by identifying if and where a similar method has been used in existing research (a bottom-up approach to literature searching).

By reading widely in the early stages of your project, you should begin to get a sense of what research has already been conducted in your area, and where you fit into this map of research. For some people, there will be a clear gap or under explored topic in the research that their dissertation will aim to tackle or solve. Other projects may be less radical, focusing more on testing the transferability of an existing concept or study.  By drawing on this existing research, you are justifying the relevance of your own dissertation project, showing how it contributes (even in small way) to research in your field.

Template for mapping literature, University of Newcastle

Developing research questions

Once you have identified a problem or gap in the literature, you need to begin thinking about you will address this in your research. Research questions help to focus your project by highlighting what you want to learn about your topic, as well as providing guidance about how your data will be collected and analysed.

For example:

RQ1: Do media texts improve access to learning for low attaining students?
RQ2: Does exploring poetry through the lens of student interest positively affect motivation?

These research questions are effective as they give a clear indication of the research topic (media texts/student interest), participant group (low attaining students) and research measures (access to learning/motivation and engagement).

Whilst there isn't a perfect formula for writing research questions, here are some top tips:

  • Show the relevance of your topic - make it clear what your research is trying to achieve. Is it addressing a gap in the literature? Testing theory with a specific group? Analysing professional practice?

  • Demonstrate your project is achievable - whilst your research questions don't need to go into detail about your methods, you should try to show that your project is realistic, given your available time and resources. It is important to consider what types of data you are able to collect/access to answer your research questions.

  • Be analytical, not descriptive - a good research question generally guides you to analyse a problem; this means that words like 'How', 'Examine', and 'Evaluate' are more useful than words like 'what' or 'describe'.

  • Keep questions clear and focused - ultimately these questions act as guidance for how you will address the problem/gap you have identified

Research questions are not easy to write. They take time and require work: rarely will you stumble upon your research questions with ease. Instead, you start with a problem and refine your ideas until you have a workable way to research your area of interest.

Epistemology

Epistemology concerns the nature of knowledge and how we come to know what we know. It provides a philosophical grounding for considering what knowledge is possible and that how we determine that knowledge is adequate and legitimate. As such there are quite a range of epistemologies. Fortunately, it is unlikely that you will be expected to go into great detail about the epistemology of your research. It is however, important to consider what is accepted as 'knowledge' in your research.

It is likely that the epistemology of your research will either be positivistic or interpretivist, so it's worth considering the differences between them:

The positivist research philosophy understands phenomena through objective measurement, to collect data that can be used to develop generalisations and facts about the world.

By contrast, the interpretivist research philosophy views knowledge as socially constructed and therefore accepts multiple interpretations and subjective meanings.

Though you shouldn't become too worried about understanding this distinction, it is worth having some understanding of your research philosophy as this is likely to influence your chosen methodology, which will in turn affect the methods you use to collect your data (more on this later!)  

A table showing the assumptions we might make in research depending on our stance of positivism vs. interpretivism

Adapted from Alkhalil (2016)

 

If you are interested in finding out more about epistemology and philosophies of research, The Foundations of Social Research (Chapter 1) by Michael Crotty is a good place to start - available here.

Ethical approval

Securing ethical approval for your project is a key step in the research process and must be in place before you begin collecting data. Research ethics are a set of rules and criteria that your research project must adhere to in order to protect the welfare of your participants and to ensure the integrity of your data and results. Although it is easy to see ethical approval as a barrier to the research process, it is an important process that encourages you to recognise how your research may impact the welfare and privacy of those involved.

Visit the University’s Ethics and Integrity webpages for information and guidance on Sheffield Hallam’s research ethics policy and ethical approval.

As well as securing ethical approval from the University’s ethics committee, you will also need to think about how you will ensure the data you collect remains private and confidential, and that your participants are fully informed and consent to the terms of your research. You can find a series of templates and forms to use during your research on the University’s ethics pages, including participant information sheets, participant consent forms and documents related to risk assessment.

Check with your supervisor which forms are required as some departments have their own versions of the generic forms above. Aim to start the process early – many projects are delayed while researchers wait for ethical approval; the Student Ethics checklist is a good supporting document to use when planning this aspect of your research.

 

Update for research during Covid-19
You may need to submit a new ethics application if you are changing from face-to-face to distance data gathering. In all cases, bear in mind the ethical aspects of distant data collection and take some time to explore the data collection methods that can be done remotely. You will also need to consider how to securely store participant data on your home computer so that it cannot be accessed by anyone but the researcher(s).

For detailed guidance, please see the University''s webpgaes on research ethics and Covid-19.

Methodology and methods

Methodology is the plan of action for your research. Your choice of methodology will guide the methods you choose and provide a rationale for the design of your research.

Methods are the techniques and procedures that you engage in to collect data. It is important to provide comprehensive detail about your chosen methods; this helps to justify your chosen approach and demonstrate how your chosen method of data collection will enable you to answer your research questions.

Here's an example:

"As I my aim was to 'illuminate the general by looking at the particular' (Denscombe, 2014, p.76), I chose to use a case study approach for my research. As such, the data were collected using three methods: participant observations; analysis of students' work; and a group semi-structured interview…"

It is important to remember that you should demonstrate awareness of the limitations of both your chosen methodology and methods.

"Researchers must be careful when making generalisations from case study research. As identified by Denscombe (2014, p.83) case studies “are not a ‘slice of the cake’ whose function is to reveal the contents of the whole cake”. This means that whilst case studies may be generalizable to theory, caution must be exercised before applying any findings to general populations. Consequently, I will refrain from overextending the generalisability of my research…"

"Reliability is open to doubt in any participant observation and this problem may have been further confounded when you consider the hierarchical relationship between the participants and me, as they were also my students…"

 

Ultimately, your methodology and methods are about demonstrating a clear justification for the overall design of your research and the methods you employed to collect your data. Furthermore, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the limitations of your choices and the affect this may have upon your findings/conclusions/implications/claims to generalisability. 

Your research methods are the tools that you will use to collect your data. These can either be quantitative, examining numerical data and using statistical tests to establish relationships, or qualitative, examining non-numerical data to seek an in-depth understanding of phenomena. The decision between quantitative and qualitative methods may be influenced by your methodology.

Your choice of methods will also depend on several other factors such as time, resources and knowledge. For example, whilst interviews allow you to collect very rich data, they are very time consuming to transcribe and analyse. Conversely, surveys may allow you to collect a much larger data set, but it is likely to be lacking in detail. It is important to recognise that there are strengths and weaknesses associated with any research method and it is your responsibility to consider how these factors support or inhibit your ability to answer your research questions.

Whilst not an exhaustive list, some of the most frequently used research methods include:

  • Interviews (Structured/Semi-structured/Unstructured)
  • Focus Groups
  • Secondary Data Analysis
  • Questionnaires/Surveys
  • Observation (Participant/Non-participant)
  • Measurement

More details about research methods, including strengths and weaknesses of different methods, are available here.

If you find yourself stuck when it comes to choosing your research methods, reviewing the related literature can often be a helpful place to start. This is because research on topics related to your own project is likely to have been conducted using well-established research protocols, which are appropriate for studying the topic in question. Furthermore, reviewing the methods sections of related literature can often provide you with a handy guide about what to include in your methodology section when you come to writing up your research project.

Choosing your research methods is often about balancing realism and ambition; don't be afraid of using your research project as an opportunity to learn how to use a new method, just remember that your project must also be completed within a limited timeframe, so it's important to consider if you have the necessary time and resources/support to develop the knowledge you need to successfully collect data using your chosen method.

It's really important to think about how you're actually going to collect your data. For example, if you've chosen to do interviews, you still have to decide on the type of interview, the questions you will ask and how long you want the interview to last. Planning this part of your project requires you to complete reading about your chosen method. This is important for two reasons:

  1. Reading about your chosen method will help to ensure that you build your chosen method in the best way possible. This will look very different for every research project, and will be dependent on your topic, methodology and the problem/gap you are trying to address. Nevertheless, using literature as a guide will help to ensure that your project meets the standard of 'best practice' for whatever your chosen research method(s) is.

  1. When it comes to writing up your project, it is important that you can demonstrate a theoretical grounding from the wider literature to support your choice of methodology and method(s).

Recruiting participants

Deciding on your research participants is a topic that is important to discuss with your supervisor in the early stages of your dissertation project, perhaps even in your first supervision meeting. The sooner you identify your research participants, the sooner you can begin to narrow the scope of your literature search and determine which studies will be most relevant to your aims and objectives. 

This will also help you to begin to sketch out the story of your research - why are you interested in your chosen group, what will participating in your research look like for a participant, and how will they be implicated in your findings? It would be impossible for this guide to cover everything on how to identify, recruit and collect data from your research participants, but here are some key points to consider:
 

  • Start with the existing literature. If you’re undecided on who your participants should be, start by making notes on existing studies. You might aim to build on existing research - exploring a new variable with a well-researched participant group that you will aim to replicate in your own project. Alternatively, you might be drawn to expand existing research into a new pare by considering participants and populations you feel have been previously overlooked.

  • 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, 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. For UG and PGT dissertations, it is important to be realistic about who you will be able to involve in your research, and the unlikelihood that you will have the time to gain ethics approval for working with vulnerable communities or involving participants in sensitive topics. However, this is not to say that your research idea does not have potential, but you may need to think of a group of participants - perhaps one step removed from your topic of interest - that could be involved. For example, any direct work with children, unless you are already undertaking a school-based placement, is very unlikely to be approved. However, you could shift your focus onto parents or teachers. Similarly, sensitive topics such as mental health and disability will be difficult to address directly, but you could choose to interview support workers or university staff on the subject, or write an extended literature review that does not require you to generate primary data from working with participants.

  • Read up on selection and sampling techniques. Familiarise yourself with the different ways you can recruit participants 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 online surveys or email interviews? 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 in person? 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.

Planning your analysis

It is important to consider how you will analyse the data you have collected. Furthermore, you should start to think about how the interpretation of your data will start to allow you to answer your research questions.

Your choice of analysis will vary greatly depending on your discipline and on whether you are using quantitative or qualitative research methods. In the case of quantitative research, you need to decide what statistical tests you are going to conduct and if there are any adjustments that you will need to make to avoid Type 1 or Type 2 errors. Likewise, if you are doing qualitative research you need to think about how the coding system that you will use to analyse your data and whether or not you will use any computer software to support your analysis.

Either way, you should ensure that you have the skills that you need to complete your chosen type of analysis or determine what reading/training you need to undertake!
 

More resources:
• ​For help with choosing the right statistical test, take a look at this interactive test chooser.
• For information on Type 1 and Type 2 errors see here.
• For guidance on coding and analysing qualitative data see The good research guide for small-scale social research projects (Denscombe, 2017) – full text available here.


Writing your research proposal

What is a research proposal used for?

Your research proposal is an important step in the dissertation process as it allows you to determine whether there is an evidence base for your project and a need for your research to be conducted. The proposal allows you to identify a specific area or research problem, and to reflect on the practical steps you will need to complete in order to finish the dissertation. Your proposal should therefore make your research project appear achievable with the time and resources you have available. In some departments, the proposal will also be used to match your dissertation to an appropriate supervisor.

What should I include in the proposal?

Your proposal includes many of the same sections as a dissertation, but of course it is read with the understanding that this is a proposed project and that details may change. Remember, the proposal is about demonstrating that you know what the dissertation process will involve and that you have started to reflect on the practicalities of completing such a project. 

Here are the key sections your proposal should include. Be sure to check this against your assessment criteria or module guide:

Working title
Your title should outline a clear topic area and your research approach. Some common techniques include using a question (‘For more tips on what makes an effective title, visit this online guide.

Background and research aims
Introduce your topic area, including definitions if helpful and appropriate. You should also include a bullet-point list of your research objectives (2-4 is a good number to include) or questions that you will aim to answer. It can also be helpful to include a short paragraph outlining what you hope to achieve and contribute to knowledge with your dissertation.

Literature review
You should conduct a short literature review of around 750-1000 word that includes the following three sections:

  1. Background information on your topic - Define key terms, signpost any issues or debates in the literature, introduce the research problem or question in its broadest terms.
  2. Trends in the literature - Highlight key trends in existing research – summarise the main theories or concepts in the literature in your area. Situate your project in relation to these.
  3. Identify a gap or research problem - Provide more detailed information on a focused aspect of the topic that your research will address. Identify the gap or show specifically what your research hopes to contribute – either for your participants, a theoretical development or a new methodological approach.

Methodology
This will be a brief outline of your intended methods and procedure for data collection. This should be in the future tense and use cautious language where appropriate. Aim to include:

  • your overall methodology (quantitative/qualitative) and research design (case study, pilot study, experimental design);
  • your research methods and why they are appropriate for your proposed project ;
  • identify a participant group and consider how they will be recruited, along with approach to sampling;
  • how you intend to analyse the data and any tools/software required to complete this step;
  • acknowledge that you will obtain ethical approval for the study and address any ethical considerations you must take at this stage.

Research schedule (optional – check with your module leader)
Outline key milestones in your project and identify short and medium-term deadlines. This could be presented in a table, as a monthly schedule or using a Gantt chart.

Bibliography
Make sure you include a list of the references used in your research proposal, in APA format. This will not be included in the word count for the proposal.

 

Research proposal examples
Research proposals for Masters degrees, York St John University
PhD proposals, University of Sheffield 
Writing an UG dissertation proposal, University of Bradford