Planning and conducting a dissertation research project

Study guide

This guide addresses the task of planning and conducting a small research project (e.g. an undergraduate or masters’ level dissertation). It aims to help you develop a clear sense of direction early on in the project. It can also support you in organising, planning, and monitoring your project.

The companion study guide Writing a dissertation focuses on the preparation of the written report or thesis.

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Study guide table of contents:

choosing a topic | developing a research question | writing a research proposal | creating a research plan | procrastination | realistic planning | the role of the supervisor | undertaking a literature survey | collecting data | pilot studies | dealing with problems | reporting the research | summary

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a particular kind of academic task. You will usually be asked to generate a topic for yourself. The next stage is to plan and execute a project investigating that topic. Finally, you will write-up what you did and what your findings were. Important stages in the dissertation process include:

  • choosing a topic
  • developing a research question
  • effective planning of the research
  • conducting research
  • reporting the research

Choosing a topic

Some students begin the dissertation process with a clear research question to address. Many others begin with several ideas, but with no specific research question. In view of the pressure to get started quickly, this can cause anxiety and even panic. It is, however, a common situation to be in. There are several ways forward:

  • Talk to others: what topics are other students considering? Does this spark an interest? Discuss your own ideas. You don’t need to wait until you have a specific research question. The comments and questions of fellow students and staff may help you to refine your focus.
  • Look at other writing: set aside some time to spend in the library. Skim through the titles of research papers in your field published over the past five years. Read the abstracts of those you find most interesting.
  • Look through the dissertations of previous students in your department. The topics may give you inspiration or provide useful suggestions for further research.
  • Think about your own interests: which topic have you found most interesting? Is there an element that could be developed into a research project?
  • Be extra critical: is there something in your course so far that you have been sceptical about? Have you come across a topic which you think needs further study?
  • Read about an interesting topic and ask questions. This may identify a research question you could address.

Remember that a research study can:

  • replicate an existing study in a different setting;
  • explore an under-researched area;
  • extend a previous study;
  • review the knowledge thus far in a specific field;
  • develop or test out a methodology or method;
  • address a research question in isolation, or within a wider programme of work; or
  • apply a theoretical idea to a real world problem.

This list is not exhaustive. You need to check whether your department prefers particular kinds of research study.

Discuss your proposed topic with a member of academic staff who you think might be appropriate to supervise the project. Academic staff are generally open to suggestions as long as:

  • they feel that they know enough about the subject to supervise it
  • the topic falls within the broad field of your degree subject

You should think realistically about the practical implications of your choice

  • Is it likely that you can complete the project to a reasonable standard in the time available?
  • Will it be necessary to travel? If so, are you able or willing to do so?
  • Will you have access to the equipment or room space you need?
  • Do you have access to the population of interest?
  • What are the potential costs involved?

For example, a project on coal mining in the North East of England may involve travel. You might need to visit Newcastle’s Record Office or to interview coal miners from the region. Is this something that you would be willing and able to do? The practical considerations associated with your research ideas must be realistic.

Developing a research question

Once your topic has been accepted by your department, the next stage of the process begins. You will need to refine the topic and establish goals to guide your project.

describing the project as a research problem that sets out:

  • the issue that you will investigate
  • the argument or thesis (what you want to prove, disprove, or explore)
  • the limits of your research (i.e. what you will not be investigating)

It is important that you establish a research problem at, or close to the start of, your project. It is one of the key tools you have to ensure that your project keeps going in the right direction. Every task you undertake should begin with you checking your research problem and asking “will this help me address this problem?”

You should be willing to revise your research problem as you find out more about your topic. You may, for example, discover that the data you were hoping to analyse is not available. You may encounter a new piece of information that makes you rethink the research problem. Always talk to your supervisor before making any substantial revision to your plans. Explain why you think you need to make the change and your supervisor can advise on the best course of action.

Research problemCommentary
'Public transport in Scotland This sets out your research field but does not frame a research problem because it is too general. You do not have time to study everything about a topic, so you should focus on an aspect that you are interested in.
'Examination of the influence of public transport links on new housing development in Western Scotland This is a much better research problem as it establishes an argument (existence of public transport may have some influence on new housing development). However, it is still quite general and could be improved by further focus.
Investigation of the relationship between public transport links and the development of new areas of housing in Western Scotland: a comparison of local plans and building development since 1990 This is better still. It shows the limits of the project. You will be investigating a complex subject (public transport in Scotland), but will be focusing on only one aspect of it (possible influence on new housing development). You will make this large subject manageable by focusing on a limited period of time (1990 onwards), and limited sources.

Effective planning of the research

Writing a research proposal

A research proposal is a detailed description of the project you are going to undertake. Some departments require you to submit a research proposal as part of the assessment of your dissertation. However, it is worth preparing one even if it is not a formal requirement of your course. The proposal should build on the discussions that you have had with your supervisor and on early reading that you have done on the topic. It will thus make you think in detail about what it is that you are going to do, and will define your research problem. Producing a research proposal will help you when you start to write up the project.

You could try outlining your project under the following headings

Topic: this project will study...
Question/problem: to find out...
Significance: so that more will be known about...
Primary resources: the main data will be...
Secondary sources: additional data comes from...
Methods: the research will be conducted as follows...
Justification: the method is most appropriate because...
Limitations: there are some matters that this methodology may not help me to explain. These might include...

Booth, W.C., Williams, J.M. and Colomb, G.G. (2003) The craft of research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

You may find that some of these headings are difficult to fill in right at the start of your project. However, you can use the gaps to help identify where you need to begin work. If, for example, you are unsure about the limitations of your methodology, you should talk to your supervisor. You might also read a bit more about that methodology before you start.

Creating a research plan

A dissertation is an extended project that asks you to manage your time and undertake a variety of tasks. It is essential that you create a plan that helps you allocate enough time to each task you have to complete.

It is useful to work out how many weeks you have until you need to submit your completed dissertation. You can then draw a chart showing these weeks. Block out the weeks when you know you will be unable to work, and set aside time for other commitments you have during this period. Then allocate research tasks to the remaining time.


Christmas Write research proposal Literature review Complete literature review and conduct pilot study Main data collection


Complete data collection Analyse data Analyse data Write dissertation plan, then begin first draft


Complete first draft Discuss draft with supervisor Second draft Second draft Proofing/checking

It is very important to be realistic about how long each task is likely to take. Some focused thought at the beginning, then at the planning stage of each phase, could save hours later on.  Write down the resources needed for each stage. It could be

  • time in the library
  • the resource of your working hours
  • use of equipment or room space that you may need to book in advance.


Some people find that they procrastinate more than they would like. This is a common problem, so it is best to be well-prepared to identify it and deal with it if it does start to happen. People procrastinate for various reasons such as:

  • poor time management
  • being daunted by the scale of the task
  • negative beliefs
  • loss of motivation
  • perfectionism
  • difficulty concentrating
  • need to feel under pressure
  • personal problems

Recognising the signs of procrastination will give you the best chance of minimising any negative effects.

Realistic planning

To improve the prospect of completing on time, and to avoid procrastination, you need to:

  • be realistic about when you can/will start
  • devote time to planning and revising your plan
  • try to work out if any of your research will take a set amount of time to complete
  • allocate appropriate time for any travelling you need to do for your research
  • have clear and achievable objectives for each week
  • focus on one thing at a time
  • leave time for editing and correcting
  • reward yourself when you complete objectives that you have timetabled
  • rework your plan if you fall behind

Your research plan should list the equipment you will need to complete your project. It should also take into account any travel costs or other expenses that you are likely to incur through your research.

Once you have created your plan, it is a good idea to show it to someone else. Ideally you will be able to show it to your dissertation supervisor. However, discussing your plan with a friend may also help you to spot any gaps or unrealistic elements in your planning.

Being organised and methodical while conducting your research

The role of the supervisor

A dissertation is an opportunity for you to work independently on a project of your own design. Even so, you will usually be allocated a member of academic staff as a supervisor. Supervisors are there to help you shape your ideas and give you advice on how to conduct the research for your dissertation. They are not there to teach you the topic you have chosen to investigate: this is your project. They are, however, one of the resources that you can call on during your research.

Academics are busy people, so to get the most out of your supervisor you will need to be organised. It is not your supervisor’s job to chase you for work. Rather, it is your responsibility to keep your supervisor informed of your progress. To ensure that you get the most out of your supervisor you should adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Agree a timetable of meetings at the start of your project and stick to it;
  • Ensure that each meeting has a focus e.g. “setting a research problem”, “analysing the data”;
  • Keep your supervisor informed of progress. Before each meeting send relevant work to your supervisor. This could include:
    • your research plan
    • early results of your data collection
    • draft chapters;
  • Arrive on time to each meeting you have arranged. At the end of each supervision meeting agree some action points for you to focus on before the next time you meet
  • Keep a record of what you decide in supervision sessions.

If you are not happy with an aspect of your supervision, discuss this with your supervisor. Your personal tutor may also be able to offer advice.

Undertaking a literature survey

As part of your dissertation you will need to be able to demonstrate the rationale for your research. It is also necessary to explain how the dissertation fits within the wider research context in your area. To do this you will need to undertake a literature review. A literature review is an evaluation of research relevant to your dissertation. Key tools that are available to help you, include:

It is a good idea to make an appointment to see the librarian specialising in your subject. An Information Librarian can give you advice on your literature search. S/he can also provide advice on how to manage the information you generate.

You will probably identify more sources than you can read. Use titles and abstracts to decide whether sources are worth reading in detail. Be selective by concentrating on sources (articles, books etc.) that:

  • are recommended by your supervisor
  • contain a high number of specifically relevant keywords
  • are cited in a number of other works
  • were published in the last five years (unless they are key texts in your field).

Once you start reading, consider the specific information you wish to gain from each source. Take detailed notes. Your notes will form the basis of your literature review. Refer to the study guides Effective Note Making, Referencing and Bibliographies, and Avoiding Plagiarism, for further help with note-making.

Collecting data

For most research projects the data collection phase is paramount. However, you should avoid jumping straight into this phase. If you are too hasty you risk collecting data that you will not be able to use. First, you must ensure you have adequately defined your research problem. Then, you need to establish the extent and limitations of your research.

You must also consider how you will store and retrieve your data. You should set up a system that allows you to:

  • record data accurately as you collect it
  • retrieve data quickly and efficiently
  • analyse and compare the data you collect
  • create appropriate outputs for your dissertation e.g. tables and graphs, if appropriate

You should discuss with your supervisor how you plan to store your data.

As you undertake your research you are likely to come up with lots of ideas. It can be valuable to keep a record of these ideas in a dedicated notebook, or in an electronic file. You can refer to this ‘ideas store’ when you start to write. The ideas you record may be useful as ideas in themselves. They may also be useful as a record of how your thinking developed through the research process.

Pilot studies

A pilot study is a process of preliminary data collection carried out on a very small sample. It purpose is to identify potential weaknesses that need to be addressed before the main data collection goes ahead. For example, you could perform a single experiment, analyse a single novel or document, or have a small group fill in a questionnaire.

When you complete your pilot study you should not read too much into the results that it generates. The real value of your pilot study is what it tells you about your method.

  • Was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?
  • Did it take longer than you thought it was going to?
  • Did participants, chemicals, processes behave in the way you expected?
  • What impact did it have on you as a researcher?

Consider the implications that your pilot study might have for your research project. Make adjustments to your approach if necessary. If you do not have the opportunity to run a formal pilot study, it is still important to reflect on your methods.

Dealing with problems

Once you start to generate data you may find that the research project is not developing as you had hoped. If you encounter a problem, try not to worry. Research is, by its nature, unpredictable. Analyse the situation. Think about what the problem is and how it arose. Is it possible that going back a few steps may resolve it? Or is it something more fundamental? Weigh up how significant the problem is to answering your research question. Try to determine what it will take to resolve the situation. Changing the title of the dissertation is not normally the answer. However, modification of some kind may be useful.

If a problem is intractable you should arrange to meet your supervisor as soon as possible. Give him/her a detailed analysis of the problem, and always value their recommendations. The chances are they have been through a similar experience and can give you valuable advice. Never try to ignore a problem, or hope that it will go away. Also do not think that by seeking help you are failing as a researcher.

Every problem you encounter can provide useful insight into your research. So don’t be tempted to skirt around any problems you encountered when you come to write-up. Rather, flag up these problems and show your examiners how you overcame them.

Reporting the research

As you conduct research, you may realise the topic you have chosen is more complex than you initially realised. The research is still valid even though you are now aware of the greater size and complexity of the problem. A crucial skill of the researcher is to define clearly the boundaries of their research and to stick to them. You may need to refer to wider concerns (e.g. a related field of literature or alternative methodology). However, you must not spend too much time investigating separate fields (even if related).

Starting to write up your research can be intimidating. Even so, it is vital that you ensure that you have enough time to write up your research in detail. During the writing process, you will need to take a critical approach to your work. Time will also need to be spent editing and improving it. The following tips should help you to make the transition from research to writing:

  • In your research plan you need to specify a time when you will stop researching and start writing. You should stick to this timeline unless there is a very clear reason for continuing your research for longer.
  • Take a break from your project. When you return, you should be able to look at your work with fresh eyes. Look in detail at what you have already achieved and ask yourself the question: ‘Do I need to do more research?’
  • Speak to your supervisor about your progress. Ask them whether you still need to collect more data.

Remember that you need to be realistic about what you can achieve in your dissertation. At the end of your dissertation you can include a section titled ‘Further Work’. Here you can discuss the implications of your work for the academic community.

The study guide Writing a Dissertation focuses on the process of writing up the research from your research project.


  • Consider your topic in detail and ensure that it is focused.
  • Write a detailed research proposal to help you anticipate potential issues/problems.
  • Devote time to planning and stick to your plan.
  • Work with your supervisor and respect the time and advice that they give you.
  • When undertaking your literature review and data collection, it is important to be organised and to take detailed notes.
  • Make a clear decision about the appropriate time to stop data collection.
  • Move positively into writing-up your research.
  • Set aside enough time to reviewing and editing your writing.
  • Remember to be realistic about what you can achieve in your dissertation. Critically appraise what you have done, and outline ideas for further, relevant research.
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