Slaying the dissertation dragon, part 1 – why a research project, and your first steps

I’m a tad early for St George’s Day but over here in the UK final year Master’s students are gearing up to take on one of the biggest challenges of the qualification – our dissertations, 10,000 to 12,000 word dragons that sneak up on you without you noticing. They’re probably better known as a thesis in the US, but your mileage may vary on that.  These are mandatory on most, if not all, Master’s courses here. You can graduate without one but you’re awarded a postgraduate diploma or PG Dip instead – an equally valid choice, especially for those not going into academia, or, like some students I’ve spoken to, those who are already in para-professional roles who just wanted the taught section of the course to boost them a little further.

Image by Jenny Hemming CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image by Jenny Hemming

My library school at UCL runs a dissertation boot camp every year in the Spring term Reading Week, a full day where the faculty from the entire department get together to talk to students about what to expect and where to start.  I thought I’d share some of the most valuable (for which you can mostly reading calming) lessons with you all – these will apply to anyone doing a large research project, whatever the name or length! These are a mixture of lessons from specific lecturers, and I’ll credit each as appropriate, or common themes that reappeared throughout the day.  In part 1, I’ll explore how you might go about why you might want to go for a large research project, and building your research question.

We kicked off with a panel of representatives from each programme within the department, who gave lots of fantastic advice that I’ll touch on in part 2 (and maybe part 3) of this post.

One point that kept coming up is that this project can be your USP (unique selling point) in a job interview.  Many of the faculty touched on this throughout the day, pointing out that by being asked about your dissertation you are being given a chance to be really passionate and show your potential employer what you’re like when you’re fired up and really invested in something.  Instead of the interviews leading the discussion, you get to show authority and demonstrate the sorts of transferable skills that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your professional life – literature reviews, interviewing experts, designing, distributing and analysing surveys, and demonstrating practical research ethics.

Another point that many of the faculty brought up was this a massive project like this (and this probably applies to a lot of the ‘capstone’ projects in the US) marks a shift from information worker to information professional (with thanks to Professor Elizabeth Shepherd for that wording), and from student to colleague.  Any sort of independent project like this allows you to show that you can take what your lecturers have taught you, build on it and create something truly your own.

Image from State Library Victoria Collection CC BY-NC 2.0

Image from State Library Victoria Collection
CC BY-NC 2.0

On that note, it’s also important to work out as quickly as you can what you’re expecting from your supervisor.   Think back to previous times you’ve had guidance, and try to work out what works for you.  Did you need a consultant to touch base with from time to time to give you specialist pieces of advice? Did you need a sounding board to tell you which ideas have promise and which would lead you down a dead end? Possibly you just need someone to remind you that you do know what you’re talking about and you’re not going to fail in a spectacular fashion (I think I might end up being the last sort…).  Talk to your supervisor as early as possible – before you have one allocated, if you can work out who is most likely to be allocated to you – to see if you get along, and then once the ball has really started rolling talk to them about what sort of guidance you’ll need.  This is more of a partnership than any other work you’ll have done before so setting out expectations at the start will mean less confusion for you and your supervisor later.

So you know you want to do a dissertation, and you know what support you’ll need – but how do you work out what to research?  In the UK we tend to have three months to work solely on the dissertation after the taught part of the programme ends, so it has to be something that won’t have you tearing your hair out with boredom in the second week (In the last week, yes, you’ll hate the subject for a little while!).  Choose something you are passionate about over something that looks good for a job application or something your current job is suggesting (unless you love it!) – what happens if you end up applying for jobs in a different field and you spent three months on a project you weren’t really interested in for nothing?

Dr Jenny Bunn of the Archives programme talked about different models for a Masters dissertation, including these paired points:

A topic or area of interest is not a question…

Saying ‘oh, I like this’ is an excellent place to start, yes, but you can’t start a massive research project just on that.  You need more solid foundations.  So start reading, start following those links and exploring the ideas that come up, and try to formulate a proper research question

… but having a question is not enough!

You need to be able to explain why your question is valid, why anyone else should care about your question, and why it’s something you’re going to spend three months of your life living with constantly.

Coming up with a good question is not always easy.  It can take preliminary research, talking to potential supervisors, and talking the ears of your cohort (a bend your long suffering non-librarian flatmate, if you’re me).

There are resources put there to help- here’s a quick couple of suggestions to get you started.

Succeeding with your master’s dissertation, by John Biggam – especially chapter 2, and bits of chapter 3.

This video is particularly good, especially for those of you who learn better with audio and visual aids:

And do fall down the wormhole and check out the other videos Youtube suggests, there’s a lot of people thinking about this and sharing ideas.

My biggest bit of advice, though? Ask a librarian! If you have a a subject librarian they’ll be able to suggest ways to take your vague idea and turn it into a proper research question, and they’ll also be able to point you in the direction of material your school subscribes to that will help as well.  This is a very well researched area (layers and layers of meta-research, it’s a little dizzying!) so there’s a lot of literature out there to help.  Don’t be afraid to read things from other disciplines, there’ll be bits you can cull to help you.

If you know in advance that you want to do a research project you can have potential ideas mulling over in the back of your mind, but if you’ve got a bit less time try writing down ideas for a fixed period of time – say, all the ideas that come to you over a week.  Then put those away for another week, and read them over again.  If any really jump out at you, then you have somewhere to start, and you’re ready to move forward… to Part 2!

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