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Fully updated since first publication in 2007, and with extended and revised sections in key areas such as Plagiarism & Copyright, Ethics in research, and Citing & Referencing, How to write Dissertations & Research Projects will allow a student to assess and address their particular weaknesses in researching and writing dissertations and longer pieces of coursework and delivers detailed tips, techniques and strategies to enable them to significantly improve their abilities and performance in time to make a difference.
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Pearson Education Limited
Edinburgh Gate
Essex CM20 2JE

and Associated Companies throughout the world

Visit us on the World Wide Web at:

First published 2007
Rejacketed edition published 2010
Second edition published 2011

© Pearson Education Limited 2008, 2010, 2011

The rights of Kathleen McMillan and Jonathan Weyers to be identified 
as authors of this work have been asserted by them in accordance with 
the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in 
a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, 
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without either the prior 
written permission of the publisher or a licence permitting restricted copying 
in the United Kingdom issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency Ltd, 
Saffron House, 6–10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS.

Pearson Education is not responsible for the content of third party internet sites.

ISBN: 978-0-273-74383-5

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McMillan, Kathleen.

How to write dissertations and project reports / Kathleen McMillan 
and Jonathan Weyers. — 2nd ed.

p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-273-74383-5 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Report writing.

2. Dissertations, Academic. I. Weyers, Jonathan. II. Title.
LB1047.3M45 2011


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
15 14 13 12 11

Typeset in 9.5/13pt Interstate by 35
Printed and bound in Great Britain by Ashford Colour Press Ltd, Gosport, H; ampshire

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Smarter Study Guides v

Smarter Study Skills


Instant answers to your most pressing university skills

Are there any secrets to successful study?

The simple answer is ‘yes’ – there are some essential skills, tips and
techniques that can help you to improve your performance and
success in all areas of your university studies.

These handy, easy-to-use guides to the most common areas 
where most students need help, provide accessible, straightforward
practical tips and instant solutions that provide you with the tools and
techniques that will enable you to improve your performance and get
better results – and better grades! 

Each book in the series allows you to assess and address a particular
set of skills and strategies, in crucial areas of your studies. Each book
then delivers practical no-nonsense tips, techniques and strategies
that will enable you to significantly improve your abilities and
performance in time to make a difference.

The books in the series are:

● How to write Essays & Assignments

● How to write Dissertations & Project Reports

● How to Argue

● How to Improve your Maths Skills

● How to use Statistics

● How to Succeed in Exams & Assessments

For a complete handbook covering all of the study skills and more:

● The Smarter Study Skills Companion

Get smart, get a head start!

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Contents vii

Preface and acknowledgements xi
How to use this book xii


1 Tackling a dissertation or project report: how to 
make the best possible start 3

2 Choosing a dissertation or research topic: how to 
decide on a theme for your investigation 10

Planning your research

3 Writing a proposal: how to structure a successful 
dissertation or research proposal 21

4 Time management: how to write your dissertation or 
project while balancing family, work and leisure 29

5 Planning for dissertations: how to begin your research 
and evolve a model for your writing 40

6 Planning for experimental projects: how to organise 
your efforts effectively 51

Finding and filtering information

7 Information literacy: how to make best use of the 
library resources 61

8 Effective academic reading: how to read efficiently 
and with understanding 71

9 Analysing and evaluating source material: how to 
filter and select relevant material as part of the 
research process 85

10 Note-making from source material: how to create 
effective notes to support your dissertation and 
project research 94



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viii Contents


Applying research techniques

11 Principles of quantitative research: how to obtain and 
analyse numerical information 109

12 Principles of qualitative research: how to obtain and 
analyse descriptive information 123

13 Experimental research and field visits: how to develop 
and apply your skills 135

14 Thinking critically: how to develop a logical approach 
to analysis and problem-solving 143

Working with data and numbers

15 Number crunching: how to solve problems in 
arithmetic and algebra 157

16 Interpreting and presenting data: how to understand 
and produce graphs, tables and basic statistics 170

Addressing issues of plagiarism, referencing and ethics

17 Plagiarism and copyright infringement: how to avoid 
being accused of ‘stealing’ the ideas and work of others 185

18 Citing and listing references: how to refer appropriately 
to the work of others 194

19 Ethics in researching and reporting: how to follow 
good research practice 211

Writing a first draft

20 Structuring a dissertation: how to organise your 
writing within a standard framework 221

21 Structuring a project report: how to select and shape 
your content appropriately 227

22 Academic writing style: how to adopt the appropriate 
language conventions 235

Editing, revising and presenting

23 Reviewing, editing and proof-reading: how to make 
sure your writing is concise and correct 249

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Contents ix


24 Exploiting feedback: how to understand and learn 
from what your supervisor writes on your work 259

25 Presentation of dissertations and reports: how to 
follow the appropriate academic conventions 265

References and further reading 279
Glossary 280

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Preface and acknowledgements xi

Welcome to How to Write Dissertations and Project Reports. 
We’re pleased you have chosen this book and hope it will help you
compose and present high-quality work that reveals your academic
skills in the best possible light. Our aim has been to provide practical
tips to guide you from planning to submission, so that your work is
well developed and meets academic requirements. We’ve tried to
remain faithful to the philosophy of our earlier book, The Smarter
Study Skills Companion, by creating a quickly accessible resource that
you can dip into in time of need. We had many kinds of students in
mind when we decided to write this text and we hope that it will meet
your personal needs – regardless of your experience and background.

We would like to offer sincere thanks to many people who have
influenced us and contributed to the development and production of
this book. Countless students over the years have helped us to test
our ideas, especially those whose writing we have supervised or guided.
We are grateful to the following colleagues and collaborators who
have helped us directly or indirectly: Margaret Adamson, the late John
Berridge, Margaret Forrest, Alan Grant, Neale Laker, Fiona O’Donnell,
Neil Paterson, Anne Scott and Gordon Spark. Also, we acknowledge
those at other universities who have helped frame our thoughts,
particularly our good friends Rob Reed, Nicki Hedge and Esther
Daborn. We owe a special debt to the senior colleagues who encouraged
various projects that contributed to this book, and who allowed us 
the freedom to pursue this avenue of scholarship, especially Robin
Adamson, Ian Francis, Rod Herbert and David Swinfen. At Pearson
Education, we have had excellent advice and support from Steve
Temblett, Katy Robinson, Lauren Hayward and Joan Dale Lace. Finally,
we would like to say thanks to our long-suffering but nevertheless
enthusiastic families: Derek, Keith, Fiona and Tom; and Mary, Paul and
James, all of whom helped in various capacities.

We’d be delighted to hear your opinion of the book and receive any
suggestions you have for additions and improvements.

Kathleen McMillan and Jonathan Weyers
University of Dundee

April 2011

Preface and acknowledgements


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xii How to use this book

How to use this book



How to Write Dissertations & Project Reports has been organised 
and designed to be as user-friendly as possible. Each chapter is 
self-contained and deals with a particular aspect of its subject matter,
so that you can read the book through from end-to-end, or in sections,
or dip into specific chapters as and when you think you need them.

At the start of each chapter you’ll find a brief paragraph and a 
Key topics list, which lets you know what’s included. There is also 
a list of Key terms at this point, and, should you be uncertain about
the meaning of any of these, you will find definitions in the Glossary
at the end of the book.

Within each chapter, the text is laid out to help you absorb the key
concepts easily, using headings and bulleted lists to help you find 
what you need as efficiently as possible. Relevant examples are
contained in figures, tables and boxes, which can be consulted
independently, if necessary. The inset boxes are of three types:

Smart tip boxes emphasise key advice to ensure you adopt a
successful approach.


Information boxes provide additional information, such as
useful definitions or examples.


Query boxes raise questions for you to consider about your
personal approach to the topic.


At the end of each chapter, there’s a Practical tips section
with additional tips. You should regard this as a menu from
which to select the ideas that appeal to you and your learning

Finally, the And now box provides three suggestions that you
could consider as ideas to take further.

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Tackling a dissertation or project report 3

1 Tackling a dissertation orproject report
How to make the best possible start
Dissertations and project reports are extensive exercises in
researching and writing and they usually contribute significantly to
module and degree classification grades. It makes sense, therefore,
to tackle them professionally and with energy. This chapter offers
strategies that will help you to start off well and demonstrate
your full potential by producing an excellent submission.

Key topics

● Starting off well
● Making sure you work efficiently and effectively
● Avoiding the common pitfalls

Key terms
Effectiveness Efficiency Learning objective Learning outcome

Looking proudly at the finished version of your dissertation or project
report will probably be one of the highlights of your undergraduate
academic career. In most cases, its production will be the result of
many months of serious work. The final document will represent the
pinnacle of your achievements at university and provide concrete
evidence of your advanced academic skills in your discipline.

In carrying out the necessary research, thinking, writing and
presentation, you will be delving deep into the subject material of 
your chosen discipline and stretching yourself in the production of a
piece of original work. In some cases, the skills involved may be very
closely allied to those you will use in the workplace: employers will be
interested in seeing your work because it represents your full potential
in the working environment. Your university tutors will demonstrate
the perceived importance of dissertations and reports by allocating 
a high proportion of marks from them towards your final grade.


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4 Introduction


These are all good reasons for trying to produce the best possible
product and, to do well, you will need to be focussed from the start
and disciplined in your effort.

● Starting off well

In this chapter, the emphasis is on starting as you mean to go on, and
establishing good working habits. Many students drift aimlessly at the
start of their project or research-based studies, so one of the most
important things you can do is to become focussed on the task right
from the beginning. To ensure this happens you should:

● Make sure you understand precisely what you are being asked 
to produce, and how. You can do this by reading the supporting
material in the course handbook or regulations (particularly the
learning objectives or outcomes), or by speaking to your supervisor
or a potential supervisor.

● Try to make the initial connection with your research or source
material. Sometimes this will appear bewildering in its breadth,
obscure in its jargon or genuinely difficult to master. The best 
way to overcome this is to immerse yourself in the topic, read
background material and ask questions. The sooner you take this
step, the better.

● Try not to luxuriate in the comfort of having a deadline many
months away. Graduates will tell you that every part of the 
process took longer than they estimated, and that, if they had 
to do it all again, they would try to organise themselves better. 

Taking account of the task you have been set

While there are many similarities in the production of dissertations and
project reports, there are also some key differences. Throughout this
book, we have tried to provide generic material wherever possible, 
but have also written chapters and sections that focus on tasks and
outcomes relevant to specific types of document. You should select
the material of relevance both to your personal needs and the
approach required in your discipline.


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Tackling a dissertation or project report 5


The time will quickly evaporate, and the earlier you start the more
likely you will be to avoid stress near to the end. Details of the
component elements of any extensive writing task, and advice 
for good timetabling and project management, are provided in 
Ch 4 and Ch 6.

● Do something active to kickstart your work. Appropriate actions
will depend on your subject, but will probably include taking notes
of your background reading, or creating a plan of action or
timetable. In some research projects it will involve making initial
observations or setting up a pilot experiment; in others getting 
your hands on the right textbooks and references.

Starting off well also means understanding what constitutes good
working practice and avoiding common pitfalls. There follows a quick
summary of these aspects, as they apply to the research and writing
phases of your dissertation or project.

● Making sure you work efficiently and effectively

Efficient working means using your time well. If you can do this, 
it will mean you have more time available for thinking and 
relaxing, creating a virtuous cycle that will result in a better 
end product. 

How motivated are you?

Getting started and maintaining momentum depend on your
motivation to succeed. It may be assumed by friends, family and 
tutors that you are highly motivated. If this is indeed true, use this
feeling to energise your start to work, and tap into your motivation
whenever things get difficult. If you feel that you lack motivation, 
you should speak to someone about this: some supervisors are
excellent at motivating students; staff in support services such as
counselling and the careers service will also be able to help.
Sometimes all it takes to rekindle an interest in a subject is to immerse
yourself in it. Recognise this fact and use it to push yourself over any
initial barriers.


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6 Introduction


The keys to working efficiently are:

● thinking and planning ahead for each day or part of a day;

● understanding what you are trying to achieve during each day or
part of a day;

● getting down to work as quickly as possible;

● prioritising tasks appropriately;

● avoiding distractions;

● keeping your papers and workplace well organised; and

● taking breaks when you need to rest.

Effective working is effort that brings meaningful results. It involves
having a continual focus on the end product and making sure that for
each subsidiary task undertaken you keep this in mind. The keys to
working effectively are:

● getting started;

● focussing on the end product;

● minimising unproductive work;

● identifying things that are barriers to progress;

● finding ways to overcome obstacles to progress; and

● making sure you complete each component, even if this means
some loss of quality.

Effective working in a nutshell

This involves smart working, rather than putting in extra effort. This
means identifying SMART goals, that is, those that are:

Specific (What am I aiming to achieve in this work episode?)

Measurable (What milestones can I set myself for this period?)

Attainable (What can I achieve in the time available?)

Realistic (Have I created a goal that is achievable?)

Tangible (Will I be able to see the progress I’m making?)


Efficient working in a nutshell

This means cutting out wasteful or unproductive effort, and focussing
on using your time to maximise productivity.


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Tackling a dissertation or project report 7


● Avoiding the common pitfalls

Your dissertation or project report will probably be the most extensive
piece of writing you will have to complete on your course. In addition,
it will require and test some demanding skills, in relation to both
research and presentation. Because of this, you should be aware of
potential risks so that you can take steps to avoid them:

● you may underestimate the time it takes to carry out the research;

● your initial reading may be aimless;

● your writing skills may be rusty;

● you will need to organise large amounts of information;

● you will need to keep records of research sources so you can cite
them properly;

● you may need to carry out advanced forms of data analysis;

● you may need to adopt a professional approach to data presentation;

● you may underestimate the time it takes to write, or you may suffer
from writer’s block;

● you will need to be aware of copyright infringement and plagiarism;
and employ strategies to avoid them;

● you may need to allow time for your supervisor to provide feedback;

● you may need to allow time to take your supervisor’s feedback into
account; or

● for longer pieces of work, you will need to allow time for your
dissertation or report to be typed, or, if you need this service, 
for graphics to be produced or printed, and for binding, if this is
required by your department.

Suggestions on how to avoid most of the common problem areas are
provided in subsequent chapters.

Try not to be a perfectionist

Many projects never get started, stall or fail to be completed because
the people involved are aiming for perfection, when this is either
impossible or impractical. Often, achieving perfection would be a 
waste of resources. If you identify this as a potential characteristic in
yourself, try to accept that fact, and focus on minimising the larger
flaws in your work and on completing the task despite any minor 
faults you believe are present.


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8 Introduction


Practical tips for starting your dissertation 
or report

Engage with the subject as soon as possible. Read a basic text to 
gain background; create a personal glossary of specialist terms; 
ask questions of your supervisor or tutors; find out about current
research in your area; explore online databases to begin your
literature search.

Allocate a substantial period of time to carry out initial reading
around your subject. Try to distance yourself from distractions and
make sure you take notes as you go. Keep a meticulous record of all
material you consult because you will need this for citations in your
text and for compiling your reference list.

Clear the decks. Finish other tasks that are outstanding; tidy your
work area; make it clear to others that you may not be available for
socialising as frequently as before; make sure you have a good stock
of all your stationery and other study requirements.

Start note-making. This is a form of writing that ensures that 
your reading has a purpose. Research into academic writing has shown
that the act of writing is part of the thinking process, so creating
isolated paragraphs on the basis of what you have read or on what
you think about what you have read can help you to clarify your
thoughts. These short pieces of writing can form the basis for further
development once you have undertaken further reading and may fit
within a structure that is decided later. However, even if you are
unable to use what you have written, as an exercise it will probably
have contributed to your understanding of your topic, so the effort 
will not have been wasted. There is the added advantage of providing
you with the opportunity to find your own writing ‘voice’, that is,
where you position yourself in relation to the topic, and this signals
your development as an academic author.

Work through the rough patches. Some days go well; some just do
not. Accept that this is simply part of the research process. Once you
start writing, you’ll find that sometimes the words will flow almost
effortlessly. At other times, every paragraph, sentence or even word 
is a struggle. That’s all part of the thinking process and will eventually
contribute to a fresh stream of high-quality writing.

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Tackling a dissertation or project report 9


Make sure that you are keeping on track. Review each day as it
passes. Ask yourself:

● What have I achieved?

● What went well?

● What could have gone better?

● Am I keeping up with my timetable?

● What do I need to do next?

● What do I need to do to ensure the next session is better?

1.1 Reflect on your previous experience in research and
writing. What limited your progress and ability to start and to
complete the task? Were these factors under your control or 
the outcome of other influences? What were the good and bad
aspects of your work or study practices? What aspects of your
approach would you change? Try to continue good practice and
reduce or eliminate poor approaches.

1.2 Make lists. There are two important lists: those things 
you need to do before you can start properly and those things
that can safely be put to one side to tackle once the project 
is finished. Focus all your efforts on making sure that the
preliminary tasks are achieved and be self-disciplined about not
undertaking the post-project tasks as a displacement activity 
that distracts you from working on the project.

1.3 Make an appointment to meet with your allocated
supervisor or a potential supervisor. Discuss what might be
achievable goals for your work, and what might be profitable
avenues to pursue. You might also want to consider, with your
supervisor, the order in which you should do things and also ask
for guidance about the first directions.

And now . . .GO

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10 Introduction


2 Choosing a dissertation orresearch topic
How to decide on a theme for your investigation
The correct choice of dissertation topic or research project will
improve the chances of a successful outcome. This chapter
outlines the issues that you need to think about as you weigh up
the possibilities.

Key topics

● Taking account of the options open to you
● Deciding on your personal research interests
● Other factors to take into account

Key terms
Action research Dissertation Qualitative Quantitative Supervisor

The topic you choose to research has a great influence on how well
you succeed in carrying out the investigation and in writing up your
work. A crucial factor is whether you have a genuine interest in the
subject matter, as this will motivate you to complete the task to the
best possible standard. In addition, many practical matters need to be
taken into account, such as the availability of relevant resources, or
the feasibility of the intended investigation.

● Taking account of the options open to you

In many cases, you may find that the dissertation or project topics 
are prescribed or restricted. The decision is not so much one of what 
you would like to research, but more which topic you will choose from
a list of options provided by academic staff. A variation on this closed
option list is the semi-closed list, where academics provide a list of
broad topics but leave the student to choose the detailed perspective
that they wish to pursue.

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Constraints such as these may feel restrictive, especially at first when
you do not know the details of the topics outlined. However, they are
generally designed to provide you with a degree of freedom within
parameters controlled by those who will need to supervise and assess
the finished work, and who will have carefully considered the practicalities
of each option and the chances of obtaining a successful outcome.

A less restricted approach to the selection of dissertation topic or
research project is also found. In this case, no list is provided and you
are asked to choose not only the topic but the specific research
question to be addressed. In this open-choice case, you will be
expected to make a selection largely on the basis of your personal
interests within the discipline. These might have developed from your
personal experience or from previous detailed consideration of related
topics arising from your course of study, for example, from reading
carried out when studying for coursework.

Where approval on the topic or perspective is required, you may need
to present a written proposal that outlines the question and the
method of approach to be adopted (Ch 3). This may involve presenting
a reasoned argument justifying the research topic and approach. This
then goes to the supervising academic or a panel of academics for
consideration and approval.

Your own topic

If you have a specific topic in mind that is not on a prescribed list of
dissertation or research project options, you could try approaching a
potential supervisor and asking whether it might be considered. If you
do this, be prepared to answer searching questions about its viability
as a research theme. This may require some detailed research.


Make your decisions with speed but not haste

If a list of dissertation or research options is presented, find out about
it as quickly as possible, as there may be competition for specific
topics or for particular supervisors. However, make sure you take all
relevant factors into account in a deliberate decision-making process,
rather than hastily choosing under pressure. You should give the
matter high priority and allocate time and attention to activities that
may help you make a decision, such as library or internet searches and
discussions with potential supervisors.


Choosing a dissertation or research topic 11


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12 Introduction


● Deciding on your personal research interests

It is essential that you find your study area interesting and that 
there is enough about the topic that is novel and challenging for you.
If this is the case, then your levels of motivation will be high and may
sustain you through any problems you encounter. If not, you will be
liable to become bored or disillusioned, and this will hinder your ability 
to complete and write up your work.

By the time that you’re considering a potential research topic, you 
will almost certainly have an above-average interest in the broader
field of study. However, you may never have thought rigorously about
your true underlying interests. Now, when you are forced into making
a decision, this will need to be considered quite deeply. For some,
stating a primary interest might be easy, but for many, it will be quite
difficult to commit their efforts to one highly focussed subject, or to
settle on which option on a list interests them most. There may be a
range of possibilities, each with a balance of attractions and negative

What, then, is the best way to arrive at a decision? This may depend
on your personality, the discipline and the degree of choice you have
been given:

● If you have an open choice, then one approach might be to
brainstorm possible topics and sub-topics within your subject, then
to rank these in order of your interest. You could do this in phases,
moving sequentially from broader subject fields to more closely
specified research areas, until a clear favourite emerges or you can
narrow down the choices.

● If your choice is restricted or from a fixed menu of options, consider 
each option in turn. Do not reject any possibility out of hand until

Rewind your past experiences

Remind yourself about the issues that arose in debate in the lectures,
tutorials, seminars or practicals. Reflect on those areas of your course
where you found your curiosity and interest being fired. This may give
you some direction in selecting a topic.


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you know more about it. Obtain background information where
necessary and, if a reading list is offered, consult this. Rank the
options according to how they appeal to you.

With luck, you will now have created a shortlist of potential topics. 
The next phase, potentially of equal importance, is to think further
about the practical matters that should influence your decision.

● Other factors to take into account

Many factors will influence your ability to complete your studies to a
high standard, and they should all be borne in mind as you arrive at 
a decision. You should also think about how useful the experience 
and end-product might be. Again, it will be beneficial to score these
aspects in relation to the specific topics in your shortlist. You may
wish to take into account the following:

Potential research approaches

While you may have distinct preferences for specific areas of study,
you should still consider the options at a finer level before making 
a final decision. Is it possible for you to identify the approach that
might be required? Is there a question to be answered, a problem 
to be solved or an issue to be debated? How will you restrict the
potential areas to cover? How exactly will you set about researching
the topic? You may alter this ‘research angle’ through time, but
refining your thoughts might aid the decision-making process. 
Also, bear in mind that if you have a distinct direction to your work
from the start, this will increase your chances of success.

A simple way of ranking your choices

Consider each option in turn, and award it a mark out of 10. When you
have completed a scan of all the options, look again at the ones which
scored highly and reject the ones that scored weakly. Try explaining
the reasons for your scores to someone else. This may force you to
put into words how you feel, and thereby become more confident in
your decision.


Choosing a dissertation or research topic 13


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14 Introduction


Time aspects

In selecting a topic, it is particularly important to guard against being
over-ambitious. Ensure that you will have enough time to be able to
demonstrate, through your written work, that you have completed the
task required. You need to factor in not only the time that you will
need to read, analyse or present the material, but also the sometimes
considerable period that it may take simply to obtain the material or
data you need. If you spend too much time on project work and/or
writing this may adversely affect your performance in other

In some cases, approval for your work will be required from an ethics
committee, and this may also take time (see Ch 19). Remember too
that the writing phase for a dissertation or a project report requires 
a lot of time. Where you can anticipate that simply identifying and
obtaining the material, let alone reading and digesting it, is going to
take an inordinate amount of time, then you may need to eliminate
some of your first-choice possibilities.

Availability of resources or experimental material

Some dissertations or research projects run into difficulties because it
is not possible to obtain the material required to carry out the work.

● Obtaining printed material. You will need to evidence your work 
by reference to the literature (Ch 7, Ch 17, Ch 18 and Ch 22). Thus,
access to printed material is critical to the research process. You
need to review the materials relevant to each potential topic that:

– are available locally in hard copy in book and journal format
within your own institution’s library;

– can be accessed electronically through your library’s subscription
to online journals;

Finding out more about a research option

If the answers to questions about the practicalities or relevance of 
a topic are not immediately evident, ask around. Discuss options with 
a potential supervisor or other academic contact. Sometimes it is
useful to get more than one perspective on the issue, so try to find
several people who can give you an opinion.


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– can be obtained through inter-library loan (taking into account
any cost implications; and

– may require you to visit another library site for on-site access.

● Obtaining data. You need to take into account the most realistic
method of garnering data, recording and interpreting the findings
within the time-frame that you have to do the work. If you need 
to analyse quantitative data, then you should also consider what
statistical analysis software packages you may need to master.
Where your data are qualitative in nature, then you should also
consider with your supervisor the most appropriate methods 
for gathering and interpreting the information. For example, 
an action research approach might require different techniques 
to a questionnaire-based approach (Ch 12).

Using new primary sources

Research topics may focus on contemporary events and you may 
have to use recently published primary sources as the basis for your
study. For example, you might consult material such as a recently
produced Royal Commission Report, a new piece of legislation, or a
newly published item of literature. Since the novelty of the topic would
make it unlikely that there would be very little, if any, critical appraisal
of such things in the public domain, then your research task would be 
to place your own interpretation on this material. If you encounter
difficulty, then seek guidance from your supervisor.


How can I find out what sources are available?

The best people to consult are the subject librarians in your library.
They will know about:

● the resources already present in your library, including stored

● the main routes for obtaining information, including advanced
online searches;

● alternative approaches that you may not have thought about;

● obscure resources and how to access these;

● contacts at other institutions who can help; and

● professional organisations which may have exclusive databanks that
you might be able to access through your department.


Choosing a dissertation or research topic 15


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16 Introduction



Your dissertation or research topic will need to offer sufficient depth
to allow you to show off your skills. These may depend on your
discipline, but might include the ability to think critically through
analysis and evaluation, or the ability to design an experiment or
survey and report it professionally. Avoid choosing a well-worked 
area, or even one that you feel is likely to provide easy results, if it 
will not allow you to demonstrate advanced skills.

Extent of support and supervision

At all levels of study, the writing of the dissertation or project report is
a major task and you will not be expected to do this alone. Incorporated
into the process will be a level of support provided by an assigned
supervisor. However, you need to be clear at the outset about what
you can expect in terms of this support. In some institutions,
supervision is mapped onto the research/writing process with regular
student–supervisor meetings. In others, arrangements are agreed by
the partners for meetings as required. Generally, the supervision will
enable you to ask questions, seek guidance and debate some key
issues. Be sure, however, that you reach an understanding with your
supervisor about the extent to which you can expect them to review
and provide feedback on your written work. Often this will not extend
to reading the whole dissertation, or to proof-reading the text, as this
is regarded as being the responsibility of the student.

Impact on your CV and career options

Although this is rarely the primary aspect to consider, it is a factor 
to bear in mind. It may already be that your subject interests are 
very closely aligned to your ideas for your future career. You may 

Choosing a supervisor

If you have a choice, bear in mind that this should be a member of
staff you feel comfortable talking to, who you feel will offer support
and guidance, and inspire you to work hard and complete on time. 
Ask past students if you want the ‘inside track’ on different tutors, 
and, where appropriate, the environment where you will be expected
to work.


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also wish to take into account specific skills you might gain that will be
of interest to an employer. If you are an undergraduate interested in
further studies, your choice of topic may be valuable in giving you
experience to take to a potential postgraduate supervisor.

Weigh up the pros and cons of your options

If you remain undecided after considering both your interest in
potential topics and the practical aspects, try laying out your thoughts
about the options in a set of simple tables with columns for advantages
and disadvantages. This process may help order your thoughts and
clarify the factors that are important to you.


Practical tips for choosing your dissertation
or research topic

Make sure that you are making an informed choice. Do the
necessary background reading. Discuss the topics with your course
director or assigned supervisor so you avoid taking on a topic that is
risky and understand fully the challenges of the topic area.

Speak to students who have already completed this kind of study.
Postgraduates in your department might be useful contacts to ask.
Discuss with them any aspects in the process that they felt were
important to them when they were researching and writing their
dissertations or project reports.

Look at past work. Dissertations and reports produced by students 
in previous years will help you gain a sense of the style and standard
required. They will also enable you to look at a variety of approaches
relevant to your discipline. But don’t be put off by apparently
sophisticated structure and style in these completed examples.
Remember that achieving this standard did not happen spontaneously.
Your starting point may not be at this level, but the learning process
will very likely result in a similarly high standard of report.

Plan out a dissertation or report as part of the decision-making
process. Sketch out the structure at the macro-level and then, later,
for selected options, think about a more detailed plan. In practice, 
you may not stick rigidly to the plan you create, but the process of

Choosing a dissertation or research topic 17


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18 Introduction


planning will help you to sort out the ideas and decide how appealing
and feasible they are.

Think for yourself. When choosing a topic, try not to be influenced 
by other students’ opinions. This is, and should be, a highly personal
decision. Some of your peers may have their own reasons for liking 
or disliking certain topics or supervisors; you will need to distance
yourself from their thoughts when considering your own options.

Finding a topic for yourself. If you are given the option to choose
your own topic, but have difficulty identifying a theme, then you 
might find it stimulating to refer to some of the generic periodicals –
such as Nature, New Scientist, Time, The Economist, or The Spectator
– to identify emergent issues, new strands of research or possible
controversies arising from contemporary developments in your field.

2.1 Set aside time to make your decision. As indicated
throughout this chapter, you should consider your options very
carefully and carry out the necessary research to ensure your
decision is informed. This will take time, but you must act quickly,
or others may choose an option before you. Therefore, as soon
as information is available, lay aside the necessary time to focus
your attention on this issue.

2.2 Go back to basics. If the choices are bewildering, it may 
pay to revisit your old lecture notes and general texts to gain 
an overview of potential research areas. It may also be valuable
to avoid the constraints of the booklists, if provided, and look 
at material that might be available online, for example, from 
writers and publishers in other countries. This can sometimes
introduce a refreshingly different angle to a subject that might
help you decide.

2.3 Visit your library and its website. Browse journals and
books within your discipline shelving areas to obtain ideas;
consult library staff or the online catalogue to find out about 
the availability of resources relevant to potential study areas.

And now . . .GO

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Writing a proposal 21

3 Writing a proposal

How to structure a successful dissertation 
or research proposal
A dissertation or project proposal may be required by your
department before you start studying in depth or writing
seriously. In some cases, your choice of topic may influence 
the selection or allocation of the person who will act as your
supervisor. However, you should not regard your proposal solely
as an administrative exercise; it will help you organise your
preliminary thoughts, plan your approach and complete 
your work on time.

Key topics

● Benefits of writing a proposal
● What will be taken into account in assessing your proposal
● Writing your proposal

Key terms
Aims Objectives Proposal

The procedures for writing a dissertation or project report may involve
constructing a proposal. This document will outline the scope and
methods of the research you intend to carry out and, in some cases,
will indicate how you plan to organise your writing. 

At an early stage in the process you will probably be allocated 
a supervisor and your proposal may need to be referred to the
appropriate ethics committee within your institution (see Ch 19). 
You may also be offered feedback on your proposal and advice 
on how to proceed. Once approval is given, you may be given 
the go-ahead to proceed with your studies under the guidance 
of your supervisor.


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22 Planning your research


● Benefits of writing a proposal

The discipline of composing a proposal is a valuable exercise and 
you should approach this task in a positive frame of mind. The benefits

● ensuring your research has aims and objectives that are achievable
in the time allocated;

● compelling you to read and review some of the relevant background
material to orientate your thoughts;

● checking that you have a realistic notion of the research methods
you could and should use;

● making sure you think about resources you may require at an early

● verifying that you have considered safety and ethical issues relating
to your research;

● assisting you to create an outline structure for your dissertation or

● helping you to create a viable timetable for your work; and

● matching your interests and needs to an appropriate supervisor.

Your relationship with your supervisor

A supervisor may be a lecturer or other member of staff. They will
usually be experienced in conducting research and in mentoring
students, so their views are worth taking seriously. Supervisors have 
a notional amount of time for advising dissertation students and this
time is therefore precious. Thus, it is important that you attend all
meetings promptly, come well prepared and communicate effectively
with your supervisor. Making a list beforehand of questions or issues
you want to raise at these meetings will save time and lend structure
to them, and your organisation will commend you to your supervisor
as someone who is taking on the responsibility of autonomous
research. Responding appropriately to your supervisor’s feedback will
almost certainly improve the quality of your dissertation. Remember,
too, that your supervisor will be a potential referee when you apply 
for professional employment.


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Writing a proposal 23


● What will be taken into account in assessing 
your proposal

The person or group reading your proposal will be considering it from
several viewpoints. They will expect you to be able to answer ‘yes’ to
the questions in the checklist below:

❑ Do you have an up-to-date and accurate view of the research field?

❑ Have you outlined the focus of your studies in sufficient detail? 
(In some disciplines, this means the hypothesis you intend to test.)

❑ Is the scope of your proposed study realistic in the time allocated?

❑ Is your proposed research study sufficiently original?

❑ Is your proposed research sufficiently challenging?

❑ Will the research allow you to demonstrate your academic ability?

❑ Will the research give you the chance to develop and refine your skills?

❑ Are the proposed methods appropriate and are you aware of their

❑ Are you likely to gain access to all the resources you need?

❑ Are you planning to deal with safety and ethical issues appropriately?

❑ Is the proposed structure of your dissertation or project and the
underlying research evident?

❑ Will your proposed dissertation and the underlying scholarship meet
the requirements of the department or university regulations?

❑ Have you carried out appropriate background reading?

Finally, and in summary:

❑ Is your dissertation or project report likely to meet the required

A key element that will be assessed is the ‘core hypothesis’ or main
idea underlying your dissertation or project report, so you should try
to express this clearly. Essentially, this involves framing a question or
topic that you will be seeking to address. The word ‘address’ is used
deliberately here rather than ‘answer’, because a clear-cut answer 
or conclusion is rarely possible, and, in fact, you will gain credit by
considering the evidence from all sides of an argument or case,
arriving at a clearly stated viewpoint, and giving reasons for adopting
this position.

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24 Planning your research


Topics that will be looked on favourably are those that are novel, take
an unusual perspective on a research area, and are relevant within 
the research field as it stands at the time of writing. A mistake
commonly made is to try to cover too ‘large’ a problem or too wide 
an area of discussion, rather than one capable of adequate analysis
given the resources likely to be at hand.

● Writing your proposal

In many cases, a form may be provided for your dissertation or project
proposal. This will normally include some or all of the components
shown in Table 3.1, so that the person or committee evaluating your
proposal can answer the questions noted in the previous section.

Present your proposal neatly. It should be word-processed and should
stick very closely to any word limits. Regardless of any length constraints,
try to make your proposal succinct and to the point. There will be ample
time to expand your thoughts when writing the real dissertation or
project report. The proposal committee will be trying to arrive at a quick
decision and this will be made easier if your proposal is ‘short and sweet’.

Example of refining a subject area

Let’s say you are interested in bi-cameral systems of government.
Clearly you cannot expect to write a dissertation on this topic in its
entirety. Suppose you had been enthused by a lecturer (a potential
supervisor?) who talked about the checks and balances that arise from
having two chambers of government. However, you are interested in
contrasting the idea of an elected second chamber with one that is
dependent on patronage and selection. Perhaps you are interested in
exploring arguments for changes in the composition of the UK House
of Lords as the non-elected second chamber in the UK. This might help
you define a topic related to the implications of replacing the existing
system with a method where the Members of the Lords might be
elected rather than selected by birth or by patronage. This might 
lead you into examining the current composition of the Lords 
and examining the levels of participation and contribution to the
governmental process made by selected members in contrast to 
the activities of elected Members of the Commons. This might be
translated to a dissertation title such as: Representative Second
Chambers: the House of Lords as a case study.


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Writing a proposal 25


Table 3.1 Typical components of a dissertation or project proposal.
A selection of these categories will be used in individual cases. The choice of
elements used in a proposal will depend on the discipline and level of study.


Personal details

Details of your degree course or 

Proposed title (it may alter as 
the work evolves)

Description of the subject 
Brief review/Statement of 
the problem or issue to be 

Aim of research


Literature to be examined

Research methods or critical 

Preliminary bibliography

(Special) resources required

Outline plan of the dissertation 
or project report

Indication of whether discussions 
have already been held with a 
nominated supervisor/indication 
of a potential supervisor

Indication of whether discussions 
have already been held with the 
programme or course director in 
case of a project report

Names of possible supervisors


Statement or declaration that 
you understand and will comply 
with safety and/or ethical rules

Content and aspects to consider

Required so that you can be identified and

There may be subtle differences according to
your precise degree

This should be relatively short; a two-part title
style can be useful

A brief outline that provides context such as: 
a synopsis of past work; a description of the
‘gap’ to be filled or new area to be explored; a
summary of current ideas and, where relevant,

General description of the overall purpose; 
a statement of intent

Listing of specific outcomes you expect to
fulfil in order to achieve the aim

Sources you intend to consult during your

How you propose to carry out your

Details (in appropriate format) of the key
sources you have already consulted

Information sources, samples, instruments,
people, and other requirements for your

For example, the likely section or chapter
headings and subheadings

Valid only in cases where there is an element
of choice of supervisor

Valid only in cases where this is an
administrative requirement

Your chance to influence this aspect

A realistic breakdown of the stages of 
your dissertation, ideally with appropriate

The committee’s guarantee that you have
considered these; details may be required in
certain cases (see Ch 19)

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26 Planning your research


Try not to prepare your proposal in a rush – if possible, write out a
near-final draft and leave it for a few days before coming back to it
again with a critical mind, then make suitable modifications before
your final submission.

Practical tips for producing a successful

Carry out an appropriate amount of background reading
beforehand, selecting the sources carefully. You don’t need to 
read all of the papers at the start, as this will take up too much of 
your study time, but you do need to gain an up-to-date appreciation 
of key topics and trends in your chosen field. Choose recently
published reviews of the area, especially those likely to prompt ideas
about key aspects that need to be looked at in more detail.

Try to formulate a key hypothesis or idea to investigate. Your
dissertation needs a focus and this will come from trying to answer a
specific question; investigate a key issue or highlight a specific topic.
Use brainstorming techniques as you read sources to help you develop
your ideas and potential topics.

Remember that your proposal is only a proposal. You do not need 
to write the complete work at this stage. You merely need to establish,
for the benefit of the reviewing group, that you have chosen a
reasonable topic and are likely to succeed in producing a dissertation
or project report that meets the regulations or fulfils the learning
outcomes of your course.

Choosing a title

The point at which you write your proposal may be the first time you
have concrete thoughts about your title. Consider adopting a two-part
title – an attention-grabbing statement, followed by a colon or a dash
and a secondary title that defines the content more closely. It is also
worth noting that the title given at the proposal stage should be seen
as provisional, for the nature of the study and the outcomes may
dictate a change at the end of the process.


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Writing a proposal 27


Discuss your proposal with staff beforehand. At an early stage, 
try to arrange an appointment with a staff member for a brief
discussion about possible directions. If you have been allocated a
supervisor, then consult them; if not, think about who you would like 
to be a supervisor and ask them.

Get feedback from your peers. Show an early draft to a friend 
or family member, or swap proposals with a classmate. Ask for
comments and respond to them. This kind of feedback is especially
valuable to ensure that the logic of your proposal is transparent 
to readers.

Use appropriate language. Your proposal should be clear to the 
non-specialist, but must include appropriate terminology to show 
that you understand key concepts and jargon.

Set yourself realistic aims and objectives, bearing in mind the 
need for originality in your work. The group considering your
proposal will be aware that a major reason for students having
problems with dissertations and project choices is that they were 
over-ambitious at the start.

The difference between aims and objectives (goals)

The distinction between these can be confusing. Widely accepted
definitions generally suggest that aims are statements of intent or
purpose that are broad in nature, and hence defined in general terms
perhaps relating to an overall outcome, while objectives (goals) are
outlined in more specific terms and tend to relate to individual,
achievable outcomes that are required to achieve the ultimate aim. 
For example, the aim of a dissertation might be to ‘summarise
viewpoints within a particular research field’ while an objective might
be to ‘compare the various research methods in use to measure a
particular variable’. Ideally objectives will state ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘where’
and ‘when’ (as appropriate). Some people favour SMART objectives
that are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Tangible 
(see p. 6).


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28 Planning your research


3.1 Imagine you are assessing your own proposal. Having
completed a draft, answer all the questions in the checklist on 
p. 23 for any answers that might be problematic, go back to the
proposal and see if you could improve on it, or provide evidence
to back up your case.

3.2 List potential dissertation or project report titles.
Consult other dissertations and project reports completed
recently to gain a feel for the modern style in your discipline.
Write down a few options for your own work and ask your
supervisor or fellow students what they think of them.

3.3 Create a detailed timetable for your research and writing.
Consult Ch 4 for advice on managing time and remember to
factor in some slippage time. Include suitable milestones, for
example, ‘finish first draft’.

And now . . .GO

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Time management 29


4 Time management

How to write your dissertation or project
while balancing family, work and leisure
Managing your time effectively is an important key to completing
a dissertation or project report. This chapter provides ideas 
for organising your activities and tips to help you maintain focus
on the key tasks in the research and writing process.

Key topics

● Diaries, timetables and planners
● Listing and prioritising
● Routines and good work habits
● What to do if you can’t get started on a task or can’t 

complete it

Key terms
Perfectionism Prioritising Writer’s block

Successful people tend to have the ability to focus on the right tasks
at the right time, the capacity to work quickly to meet their targets,
and the knack of seeing each job through to a conclusion. In short,
they possess good time-management skills.

As a student preparing to undertake dissertation or project report
writing, you will need to balance the time you devote to study, family,
work and social activities. Although you probably have more freedom
over these choices than many others, making the necessary decisions
is still a challenge. Table 4.1 illustrates why good time management is
especially important at this level. However, time management is a skill
that can be developed like any other. Here are some simple routines
and tips that can help you improve your organisation, prioritisation
and time-keeping. Weigh up the following ideas and try to adopt those
most suited to your needs and personality.

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30 Planning your research


Table 4.1 Some of the ways in which students demonstrate poor time
management. Examples of ‘last-minute’ strategies that don’t work well for
large pieces of writing like dissertations or project reports.

Personality type

The late-nighter

The extension-

The last-minuter

The know-it-all


Typical working ways . . . and the problems that may result

Luke likes to work into the night. His draft chapter is due
tomorrow morning, but he couldn’t get down to doing it earlier
on. It’s 2.00 a.m. and he’s panicking. The library’s shut, so he
can’t find a reference to support one of his points; he’s so
tired he won’t be able to review his writing and correct
punctuation and grammatical errors; he’ll probably miss the 
9.00 a.m. deadline . . . his chapter can be ‘polished’ later. 
He’d be better to get some sleep and proof-read early in 
the morning.

Elaine always rationalises being late with her draft submissions.
She always has good reasons for being late, and it’s never her
fault. This time her printer packed up just before submission,
last time she had tonsillitis and the time before she had to visit 
her granny in hospital. This is beginning to wear rather thin
with her supervisor . . . her project is front-loaded with detail,
but weak in the analytical sections.

Lorna is a last-minute person and she can only get motivated
when things get close to the wire. She produces her best work
close to deadlines when the adrenaline is flowing. However,
her final-year dissertation is supposed to be a massive 
10,000 words, there’s only two weeks to go and she hasn’t felt
nervous enough to get started until now . . . the time she would
need to structure a well-organised dissertation has expired.

Kevin has it all under control. He thinks that the literature 
is all on the internet or in e-journals, so there’s no need to 
get worked up about this project. He’ll catch up on his sleep
and his social life; he’ll run off the report over the weekend.
Trouble is that his university doesn’t subscribe to the journals
he’ll need and that means that he can only read the abstracts
or summaries, not the full text . . . at the weekend the library
will be closed and so he’ll not be able to get hold of any of the
books . . . his project is going to be weak on in-depth analysis.

Pat wants to do really well at uni. She signed up for a
vocational degree and has plans to land a plum job on
graduation to start her climb up the career tree. She did really
well in her assignments and it’s vital that the project report
that she’s working on starts with a cracking first sentence.
Just can’t phrase it right though – she’s tried 15 different ways
and crossed them all out. Time is running out now . . . the
quality of the analytical section and conclusion is bound to

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● Diaries, timetables and planners

Organising your activities more carefully is an obvious way to gain
productive time.


Use a diary to keep track of your day-to-day schedule (for example,
meetings, lectures, sports activities) and to note submission deadlines
for university work including that for your dissertation or project report.

● Work your way back from key dates, creating milestones such as
‘finish library work for research’ or ‘prepare first draft of section 1’.

● Refer to the diary frequently to keep yourself on track and to plan
out each day and week. Try to get into the habit of looking at the
next day’s activities the night before and the next week’s work 
at the end of the week. A diary with the ‘week-to-view’ type of
layout such as the ‘Smarter Student Planner’ will enable you to 
plan over the longer term.

● Number the weeks, so you can sense how time is progressing over
longer periods, such as a term or semester.


Create a detailed timetable of work to make sure you take into
account all aspects of the work you have to complete by:

● breaking the task down into smaller parts;

● spacing these out appropriately;

● scheduling important work for when you generally feel most
intellectually active (e.g. mid-morning).

One advantage of a timetable is that you can see the progress you 
are making if you cross out each mini-task as it is completed.

Choosing a diary

Some universities and many bookshops sell academic diaries that
cover the year from September to August. This format helps you 
keep track of the numbered weeks in each semester or term, and to
highlight draft or final submission dates for your written work.


Time management 31


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32 Planning your research


Wall planners

These are another way of charting out your activities, with the advantage
that you can see all your commitments and deadlines at a glance.

● Listing and prioritising

At times you may run into problems because you have a number 
of different tasks that need to be done. It is much better to write 
these tasks down as a list each day, rather than risk forgetting them.
You will then have a good picture of what needs to be done and 
will be able to prioritise the tasks more readily.

Once you’ve created a list, rank the tasks by numbering them 1, 2, 3
and so on, in order from ‘important and urgent’ to ‘neither important
nor urgent’ (see Figure 4.1). Your ‘important’ criteria will depend on
many factors: for example, your own goals and submission dates.

Figure 4.1 The urgent–important
approach to prioritising. Place each
activity somewhere on the axes in 
relation to its importance and urgency. 
Do all the activities in sector 1 first, 
then 2 or 3, and last 4.

Advantages of being organised

If you organise your time well, you will:

● keep on schedule and meet your submission deadline;

● complete work with less pressure and fulfil your potential;

● build your confidence about your ability to cope;

● avoid overlapping commitments and having to juggle more than 
one piece of work at a time.

Being organised is especially important for large or long-term tasks
because it seems easier to put things off when deadlines seem distant.


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Time management 33


Each day, you should try to complete as many of the listed tasks 
as you can, starting with number one. If you keep each day’s list
achievable, the process of striking out each task as it is completed
provides a feeling of progress being made, which turns into one of
satisfaction if the list has virtually disappeared by the evening. Also,
you will become less stressed once high-priority tasks are tackled.

Carry over any uncompleted tasks to the next day, add new ones to
your list and start again – but try to complete yesterday’s unfinished
jobs before starting new ones of similar priority, or they will end up
being delayed for too long.

This technique works well for practical aspects of researching. Once
you get to the writing-up phase of your dissertation or project report,
it becomes less easy to apply list-making on the writing task itself.
However, keeping lists of non-writing things you need to do helps 
you to deal with this items separately and so keep your mind free 
to focus on the writing in progress.

● Routines and good work habits

Many people find that carrying out specific tasks at special periods 
of the day or times of the week helps them get things done on time.
You may already adopt this approach with routine tasks like doing
your shopping every Tuesday morning or visiting a relative on Sunday
afternoons. You may find it helps to add work-related activities to 
your list of routines – for example, by making Monday evening a time
for library study.

How can you decide on your priorities?

This involves distinguishing between important and urgent activities.

● Importance implies some assessment of the benefits of completing
a task against the loss if the task is not finished.

● Urgency relates to the length of time before the task must be

For example, in normal circumstances, doing your laundry will be
neither terribly important nor particularly urgent, but if you start to
run out of clean underwear, you may decide otherwise. Hence,
priorities are not static and need to be reassessed frequently.


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34 Planning your research


Good working habits can help with time management:

● Do important work when you are at your most productive.
Most of us can state when we work best (Figure 4.2). When you
have worked this out for yourself, timetable your activities to suit:
academic work when you are ‘most awake’ and routine activities
when you are less alert.

● Make the most of small scraps of time. Use otherwise
unproductive time, such as when commuting or before going to
sleep, to jot down ideas, edit work or make plans. Keep a notebook
with you to write down your thoughts.

● Keep your documents organised. If your papers are well filed, then
you won’t waste time looking for something required for the next step.

● Make sure you always have a plan. Often, the reason projects don’t
go well is because there is no scheme for the work. Laying out a plan
for any academic research or writing helps you to clarify the likely
structure behind your efforts. Writing out a fairly detailed plan saves
you time in the long run. It is also an aid to consolidating your thinking.

● Extend your working day. If you can deal with early rising, you 
may find that setting your alarm earlier than normal provides 
a few extra hours to help you achieve a short-term goal.

Figure 4.2 Are you a morning, afternoon
or night person? Rate yourself (marks out
of 10) according to when you find yourself
most able to study productively.

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Time management 35


● What to do if you can’t get started on a task or 
can’t complete it

People agree that one of the hardest parts of time management is
getting started on tasks. Putting things off – procrastination – is all too
easy, and can involve the following:

● convincing yourself that other low-priority work is more important
or preferable;

● switching frequently among tasks, and not making much progress in
any of them;

● talking about your work rather than doing it;

● planning for too long rather than working;

● having difficulty starting a piece of writing (‘writer’s block’);

● spending too long on presentational elements (for example, the
cover page or a diagram), rather than the ‘meat’ of the project;

● finding mundane TV programmes fascinating or being easily
persuaded to go out socialising.

If you admit to any of these symptoms, you may be subconsciously
procrastinating. Becoming more aware of how you might be falling
into this trap is the first stage in consciously avoiding it.

Delaying completion of a task, in itself a form of procrastination, 
is another aspect of time management that many find difficult. It may
be that you are avoiding moving on to another, more difficult task.
Another possibility is that you are subconsciously anxious about the
quality of the final submission and therefore reluctant to produce 
the final version.

Procrastination is a special problem for perfectionists (see Ch 1). 
Good time managers recognise when to finish tasks, even if the task 
is not in a ‘perfect’ state. At university, doing this can mean that 
the sum of results from multiple assignments is better, because 
your attention is divided more appropriately, rather than focussing 
on a single task.

Tips for getting started on tasks and completing them on time are
provided in Table 4.2.

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36 Planning your research


Table 4.2 Ten tips for getting started on academic tasks and 
meeting deadlines

1 Improve your study environment. Your focus and concentration will depend
on this.
● Create a tidy workplace. Although tidying up can be a symptom of

procrastination, in general it is easier to start studying at an empty desk
and in an uncluttered room.

● Reduce noise. Some people like background music, while others don’t – 
but it’s generally other people’s noise that really interrupts your train of
thought. A solution might be to go to a quiet place like a library.

● Escape. Why not take all you need to a different location where there will be
a minimum of interruptions? Your focus will be enhanced if the task you
need to do is the only thing you can do, so take with you only the notes and
papers you require.

2 Avoid distractions. If you are easily tempted away from study by your friends,
you’ll have to learn to decline their invitations politely. Hang up a ‘do not
disturb’ sign, and explain why to your friends; disappear off to a quiet location
without telling anyone where you will be; or switch off your phone, TV or
email. One strategy might be to say to friends ‘I can’t come just now, but how
about having a short break in half an hour?’

3 Work in short bursts while your concentration is at a maximum. After this,
give yourself a brief break, perhaps a short walk, and then start back again.

4 Find a way to start. When writing, finding a way to start is a very common
problem because of the perceived need to begin with a ‘high impact’ sentence
that reads impressively. This is unnecessary, and starting with a simple
definition or restatement of the issue or problem is perfectly acceptable. 
If you lack the motivation to begin work, try thinking briefly about the bigger
picture: your degree and career, and how the current task is a small but
essential step to achieving your goals.

5 Focus on the positive. You may be so anxious about the end point of your
task that this affects your ability to start it. For example, many students are 
so nervous about the apparent difficulty, or prospect, of writing a dissertation
or project report that they freeze in their preparation and put the whole 
thing off. One way to counter this would be to think about the aspects of the
work ahead that excite you – doing the research, experiments or field work.
Once you become immersed in your research topic the writing will become
less daunting.

6 In written tasks, don’t feel you have to tackle the writing in a linear fashion.
Word-processing software allows you work out of sequence, which can help
get you going. So, for a large report, it might help to start on a part that is
‘mechanical’, such as a reference list or results section. Sometimes it’s a good
idea to draft the summary, abstract or contents list first, because this will give
you a plan to work to.

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Time management 37


Table 4.2 continued

7 Cut up large tasks. If you feel overwhelmed by the size of the job and this
prevents you from starting it, break the task down to manageable, achievable
chunks. Then, try to complete something every day. Maintaining momentum in
this way will allow you to whittle away the job in stages.

8 Work alongside others. If you arrange to work alongside others, you can spur
each other on with sympathy, humour and the promise of a break after each
study period.

9 Ask for help. You may feel that you lack a particular skill to attempt some
component of the task (for example, the ability to use a statistics program)
and that this is holding you back. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, rather than
suffering in isolation: consult a fellow student, lecturer, or skills adviser; or
visit one of the many websites that offer assistance.

10 Don’t be a too much of a perfectionist. We all want to do well, but doing your
very best takes time – a commodity that should be carefully rationed so that
all tasks are given their fair share. Perfectionism can prevent or delay you
getting started if you feel your initial efforts need to be faultless (see point 4
above). Also, achieving fault-free work requires progressively more effort, with
less return as you get nearer to perfection. The time you need to spend to
attain the highest standards will probably be better used on the next task.

Practical tips for managing your time

Invest in items to support your time management. Helpful items
could include a diary, wall planner, personal digital assistant (PDA),
mobile phone with diary facility and alarm clock.

Investigate how you really use your time. Time-management
experts often ask clients to write down what they do for every minute
of several days and thereby work out how and where the productive
time disappears. If you are unsure whether you are optimising time 
you might like to keep a detailed record for a short period, using a
suitable coding for your activities. When you have identified any time
that has been less productive you could try analysing how this has
happened. Those of a more numerical bent might wish to construct 
a spreadsheet to do this and work out percentages spent on different
activities. Once you have completed your timesheet, appraise it to see
whether you spend excessive amounts of time on any one activity or
may not have the balance right. As you think about this, remember
that universities assume you will be carrying out academic-related
activities for roughly 40 hours per week.

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38 Planning your research


Create an artificial deadline. Set yourself a finishing date that is
ahead of the formal submission deadline for your dissertation or
project report. That way you will have the luxury of time to review
your work, correct errors and improve the quality of presentation.

Build flexibility into your planning. We often end up rushing things
because the unexpected has interrupted a timetable that is too tightly
scheduled. To avoid this, deliberately introduce empty slots into your
plans to allow for these contingencies.

Try to prioritise the items on your ‘to do’ list. If you produce a 
daily list of tasks, then spend some time thinking about how you wish
to prioritise and order them through the day. You might adopt a
numerical system or one using stars, for example.

Ask yourself whether your lifestyle needs radical surgery. You may
find that little in this chapter seems relevant because your time is
dominated by a single activity. This might be socialising, caring for
others, outside employment or travelling, for example. In these cases,
you may need to make fundamental changes to your lifestyle to place
greater emphasis on your studies. In some cases a student counsellor
might be able to help you identify what needs to be done.

4.1 Analyse your time-management personality. Can you
recognise any character traits that are preventing you from
organising your time effectively? Might any of the ‘Practical tips’
help you become better at time management? How could you
adapt them to your own situation?

4.2 Experiment with listing and prioritising. If you haven’t
used this strategy before, test it out for a week or so. Make a 
list of all your current and future tasks, academic commitments,
appointments and social events. Rearrange the list in order of
priority. Take special care to take account of events that depend
on other jobs being completed. Now try to complete the different
components, ticking them off the list as you go. After your trial
period, decide how effective the method was in organising 
your activities and helping you to ensure that tasks were done 
on time.

And now . . .GO

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Time management 39


4.3 Declutter and reorganise your life. If you reckon that
disorganisation is a reason for lack of progress (Table 4.2), make
a determined effort to tidy things up. Start with your room and
study environment, and, if necessary, invest in files and boxes to
help you organise things. Keep out only that which is relevant to
current activities and carefully store the rest. Decide how you
can better arrange your affairs to keep on top of routine tasks.
Now you should be in a better mental and physical position to 
get on with your dissertation or project work.

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40 Planning your research


5 Planning for dissertations

How to begin your research and evolve 
a model for your writing
At all stages in the production of a dissertation, the author 
must exert control over both the content and the way in which 
it is organised. Different approaches are possible to the same
subject, and you will therefore need to choose a specific topic,
decide on an intellectual approach to this, and select a structural
model which suits your intended approach. This chapter outlines
the initial reading and planning that is required for this, then
explores some of the options available for structuring and
planning your writing.

Key topics

● Identifying the key themes in your text
● Realistic time planning
● Exploring the topic
● Finding and selecting relevant source material
● Selecting a structural model

Key terms

Writing a dissertation is an opportunity to demonstrate:

● your knowledge and understanding of the topic area;

● your ability to research a specific aspect within that area;

● your capacity to think critically about the information, views and
conclusions reached by others; and

● your ability to organise supporting information and evidence within
a well-structured text that follows relevant academic conventions.

In these extensive pieces of writing you need to plan your work
carefully and ensure that you select a way of explaining your
viewpoint that demonstrates your analytical abilities.

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People and their thought processes are different and so individual
approaches to planning an outline for a piece of writing will vary. 
For some people, this can be a highly detailed process; for others, 
it may be a minimal exercise. Too much detail in a plan can be
restricting, while too little can fail to provide enough direction.
Therefore, a reasonably detailed plan should give some guidance 
while leaving you the flexibility to alter the finer elements as 
you write.

● Identifying the key themes in your text

Starting points for your planning will include your initial research
proposal (Ch 2), discussions with your supervisor, and any initial
thoughts of your own.

In thinking about potential structures for your writing, it is important
to recognise that university work needs more than simple reproduction
of facts (Ch 14). You need to be able to construct an argument and to
support this with evidence. This means that you need to draw on the
data you have produced or the literature that you have read in order to
support your position. In some instances, dependent on the topic and
discipline, it may be appropriate to present differing viewpoints and
evaluate arguments one over the others, and, if appropriate, address
counter-arguments to these. What is important is to present a tight,
well-argued case for the view you present or conclusion you have

Once you have evolved your own response to the task you have been
set, you then need to place this within a framework that presents 
your response in a way that is well structured. Writing that follows 
a sequence of sound logic and argument will improve your final

Lower- or higher-order thinking?

Dissertations are opportunities to demonstrate advanced thought
processes (Ch 14). Often, written assignments require some initial
description of context or process to outline the background to the
topic. This is then followed by in-depth consideration of the topic,
using more analytical or critical approaches.


Planning for dissertations 41


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42 Planning your research


● Realistic time planning

Good planning ensures that you can realistically complete the work
before the submission date. It also allows you to balance the time
spent on different components and devote sufficient time to aspects
such as editing and proof-reading.

Consult the course handbook for the assignment submission date.
Work out how long you have between the starting point and due date,
and then work out how much of that time you can devote to completion
of the work. Remember to take into account other unrelated things
you may need to do, for example, to attend lectures, tutorials or
practicals, and any part-time work commitments (see Ch 4).

Next, divide the available time into convenient working periods and decide
how much time you wish to allocate to each aspect of the task (Table 5.1).
Map these time allowances onto the available time.

Table 5.1 Stages in producing a large writing task with their estimated
timing. A possible method of organising your time for a lengthy assignment.

Aspect of task Time required When I plan to do this

Exploring and analysing the topic

Doing preliminary reading

Planning your analysis of the topic

Doing supplementary reading

Writing the first draft

Reviewing the first draft

Editing/proof-reading the final copy

Printing/writing out the final copy

Time margin for the unexpected

Value of planning

Time spent deconstructing the task and planning your response will
enable you to save time in the long run and, as with most jobs, the
quality of the preparation will be reflected in the quality of the end
product. The time you spend breaking down the task into its different
elements will pay dividends in the long term.


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Planning for dissertations 43


● Exploring the topic

You can start the process of exploring your topic by creating a
brainstorm ‘map’ (Ch 2). At this stage, include as many related
aspects as you can within a free-flowing diagram (see Figure 10.5 
as an example). If you have already produced a proposal (Ch 3), 
your map will be strongly influenced by this, but your aim at this early
stage should be to lay down some initial personal thoughts before you
are influenced by any reading material. If you already have a title, 
try to consider all aspects of the subject as suggested; if not, take 
as wide a view as possible of the broad area you intend to work on. 
It is important to exercise your critical thinking skills (Ch 14) as you
analyse the topic and think about potential content and approaches –
you need to decide for yourself what you think is important about the
topic, and why. Your initial ‘map’ will develop as you move into the
reading and research phase which follows.

● Finding and selecting relevant source material 

You will find it useful to obtain some general background information
about the topic and you may or may not be given a reading list to
direct your initial research. Generally, reading lists are extensive to
give some choice; they often list basic texts and then sources that go
into greater depth. It is not usually expected that you read everything
on these lists. In some subjects, you may only be expected to look at
one or two recommended texts. In some other subjects, book lists are
lengthy and the volume of reading may seem daunting, but the task
will be more manageable if you approach it systematically. However,
for advanced academic tasks such as dissertation writing you do not
need to stick to a prescribed list alone; in fact, you will be expected 
to locate other sources (Ch 7).

Brainstorming techniques

To create an effective brainstorm ‘map’, use a single sheet of A4 
in the landscape position. This gives more space for lateral thinking
and creativity. It also leaves more space for additions to be made at
later stages. 


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44 Planning your research


Time is precious when you are researching, so it is sensible to be 
as efficient as possible in identifying the material you need (Ch 8). 
Use the contents page and the index in partnership to identify which
sections are relevant to your topic. Some authors put key pages in
bold type in the index and this will help you to focus your reading
rather than cover every mention. At this stage also, preliminary
encyclopaedia reading will help you to identify sections in a book
resource that are more relevant to the present task.

Begin by doing the necessary reading and note-making. This has to be
focussed and you need to be reading with purpose (Ch 10). As you
move from basic texts to more specialist books or journal articles 
that give more detailed analysis, your understanding of the topic will
deepen. This may mean, for example that you begin to build up a more
informed picture of events, implications of a procedure or the possible
solutions to a problem. What are you looking for? This could be, for
instance, facts, examples, information to support a particular viewpoint,
or counter-arguments to provide balance to your analysis of the topic.

Sources of background information

Handouts/PowerPoint slides: should outline key issues and ideas, 
pose problems and provide solutions related to your topic.

Lecture notes: easy to locate in your file if you’ve noted lecturer, topic
and date.

Your own notes from personal reading: in preparing for other
coursework or previous exams you may have accumulated notes
relevant to the topic.

General or subject encyclopaedias: provide a thumb-nail sketch of
useful background information; give key points to direct your reading
in more detailed texts. Electronic versions may be available through
your university library.

ebrary: readily accessible, and reliable in its validity.

E-journals: specialist material that is reliable in its provenance.

Library resources: the electronic catalogue will enable you to locate
many resources in addition to those listed above. For specific help,
consult the readers’ adviser or liaison librarian who can advise you on
specialist material and sources. However, you may also find things
serendipitously by browsing in the relevant zone of shelving in the
library, where it is possible to find books and journals that may not
necessarily come up from the search headings you have selected 
when consulting the catalogue.


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Planning for dissertations 45


As you become more familiar with the issues, the easier it will be to
think critically about what you are reading and consequently build
your response to the task you have been set. Continue to add to your
initial brainstorm.

● Selecting a structural model

Knowing what information to put aside and what to retain requires a
more disciplined appraisal than the more wide-ranging approach you
will have followed in your initial reading. Certain questions may help
you to focus on what is important to your topic. For example:

● Who are the key actors in a sequence of events or the important
researchers in a subject area?

● What are the necessary criteria that explain particular situations?

● What facts support a particular explanation or viewpoint?

● What patterns can be identified, for example short-, medium- and
long-term factors?

● What themes can be identified in different treatments of the 
same issue?

Having thought about these matters, you should start to decide which
structural models you would like to use to organise your writing. 
Table 5.2 lists seven classic structural types you can consider.

The reporter’s questions

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the important from the
unimportant, the relevant from the irrelevant. A well-tried strategy, 
for many subjects, is to ask yourself the questions that trainee
journalists are advised to use:

● Who? Who is involved in relation to this topic, for example,

● What? What are the problems/issues involved?

● When? What is the time-frame to be considered?

● Where? Where did it occur?

● Why? What reasons are relevant to this issue/topic?

● How? How has this situation been reached?


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46 Planning your research


The basic structure of a dissertation is discussed in Ch 20, but within
this format your detailed intellectual analysis may need to follow a
range of approaches suited to the specifics of the subject material. By
adopting one of the models described in Table 5.2, you will be creating
a structure within which your thinking and writing will be organised,
logical and coherent. Moreover, approaching a topic in this way may
help you to balance your discussion of relevant issues. These qualities
in your writing will become apparent to the reader and should result in
higher marks for your work. You may need to adapt your approach 
in different sections, or ‘nest’ models, by incorporating one within
another. For example, within the common denominator approach it
may be necessary to include some chronological dimension to the
discussion. Examples of the different approaches are provided below.

1. Chronological

An example of the chronological approach would be describing a
developmental process, such as outlining the historical development 
of the European Union. This kind of writing is most likely to be entirely

2. Classification

An example of this approach could be to discuss transport by
subdividing your text into land, sea and air modes of travel. Each of
these could be further divided into commercial, military and personal
modes of transport. These categories could be further subdivided 
on the basis of how they are powered. Such classifications are, to
some extent, subjective, but the approach provides a means of

Table 5.2 The seven most common structural models for academic writing

1 Chronological Description of a process or sequence

2 Classification Categorising objects or ideas

3 Common denominator Identifying a common characteristic or theme

4 Phased Identifying short-/medium-/long-term aspects

5 Analytical Examining an issue in depth (situation – problem – 
solution – evaluation – recommendation)

6 Thematic Commenting on a theme in each aspect

7 Comparative/contrastive Comparing and contrasting (often within a theme 
or themes)

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Planning for dissertations 47


describing each category at each level in a way that allows some
contrast. This approach is particularly useful in scientific disciplines.
The rationale also is sympathetic to the approach of starting from
broad generalisation to the more specific.

3. Common denominator

This approach is useful in contexts where a single element can be
identified as a common factor in the analysis of a situation. For example,
in considering levels of high infant mortality in developing countries
the common denominator is lack or deficiency. Thus, the topic could
be approached by considering each of the following elements in turn:

● Lack of primary health care

● Lack of health education

● Lack of literacy.

4. Phased

An example of adopting a phased approach to a topic might be
research into the impact of water shortage on flora and fauna along
river banks.

● Short-term factors might be that drying out of the river bed
occurs and annual plants fail to thrive.

● Medium-term factors might include damage to oxygenating plant
life and reduction in wildlife numbers.

● Long-term factors might include the effect on the water table and
falling numbers of certain amphibious species.

5. Analytical

This conventional approach might be used for complex issues. 
An example of a research topic that you could tackle in this way 
might be potential solutions to the problem of ‘identity theft’. 
You could perhaps adopt the following plan:

● Define identity theft, and perhaps give an example.

● Explain why identity theft is difficult to control.

● Outline legal and practical solutions to identity theft.

● Weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of each.

● State which solution(s) you would favour and why.

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48 Planning your research


6. Thematic

This approach is similar to the phased approach, but in this case themes
are the identifying characteristics. Precise details would depend on the
nature of the topic, but possible examples could be:

● social, economic or political factors;

● age, income and health considerations;

● gas, electricity, oil, water and wind power.

7. Comparative/contrastive

This is a derivative of the themed approach. For example, consider 
a task that instructs: ‘Discuss the arguments for and against the
introduction of car-free city centres’. You might approach this by
creating a ‘grid’, as in Table 5.3, which notes positive and negative
aspects for the major stakeholders.

There are two potential methods of constructing text in this
comparative/contrastive approach:

● Method 1. Introduce the topic, then follow Column A in a vertical
fashion, then similarly follow Column B and conclude by making 
a concluding statement about the merits and demerits of one 
over the other. In relation to the grid, this would result in the
structure: introductory statement, then A1 + A2 + A3 + A4 + A5,
then B1 + B2 + B3 + B4 + B5, followed by concluding statement.

A useful strategy for analysis

The ‘SPSER method’ is particularly helpful in the construction of
dissertations, projects and case studies. It is also useful whenever you
feel that you cannot identify themes or trends. This approach helps
you to ‘deconstruct’ or ‘unpack’ the topic. There are five elements:

● Situation: describe the context and brief history.

● Problem: describe or define the problem.

● Solution: describe and explain the possible solution(s).

● Evaluation: identify the positive and negative features for each
solution by giving evidence/reasons to support your viewpoint.

● Recommendation: identify the best option in your opinion, giving
the basis of your reasoning for this. This element is optional, as it
may not always be a requirement of your task.


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Planning for dissertations 49


● Method 2. Introduce the topic and then discuss the perspective of
pedestrians from firstly the positive and then the negative aspects;
now do the same for the viewpoints of the other stakeholders in
sequence. This would result in the structure: introductory statement,
then A1 + B1; A2 + B2; A3 + B3; A4 + B4; A5 + B5, followed by
concluding statement.

Table 5.3 Model grid for planning comparison-type answers










Local authority


Column A

Positive aspects

Greater safety, clean

Less stress; park and
ride facilities

Quicker access for

Reduces emissions

Easier to police

Column B

Negative aspects

Lengthy walk, poor parking

High parking fees; expensive public

Loss of trade to more accessible
out-of–town shopping centres

Cost of park and ride

Reliance on foot patrols

Practical tips for planning dissertations 
and projects

Conserve material. In the process of marshalling information for a
writing task you will probably obtain some material that proves to be
irrelevant to the current writing task. It is well worth keeping this in
your filing system because this topic may come up again at a later date
in a subtle way. In exam revision, this personal cache of information
could be useful in revitalising your knowledge and understanding of
this topic.

Comparative/contrastive structures

Each method of structuring the points has advantages and
disadvantages, according to the content and the context of the
assignment. For example, in an exam it might be risky to embark 
on method 1 in case you run out of time and never reach the
discussion of column B. In this instance, method 2 would enable a
balanced answer.


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50 Planning your research


Spend an appropriate amount of time reading. This is a vital part 
of the planning and writing process, but recognise the dangers of
prolonging the reading phase beyond your scheduled deadline. This is
an avoidance strategy that is quite common. Students may delay
getting down to planning the structure and moving on to the writing
phase because they are uncomfortable with writing. Facing up to these
next phases and getting on with them is usually much less formidable
once you get started, so it’s best to stick to your time plan for this
assignment and move on to the next phase in the planned sequence.

Keep records of sources. Identify the requirements of the referencing
system favoured in your discipline and ensure that you get into the
habit of noting all the necessary detail required by that system 
(Ch 18). This will make citation and referencing much easier and less

Explain your approach. Although the models outlined in this chapter
are fairly standard approaches to tackling academic issues, it is still
necessary to identify for your reader which approach you intend to
adopt in the piece of text. Your reader should learn at an early point 
in your writing of the route you intend to follow. In most cases this
would be included in your introduction.

5.1 Compare textual patterns. Look at a chapter in a basic
textbook and analyse the structural approach the author 
has taken. Identify the proportion of space allocated to 
‘scene-setting’ using description, and to the analysis/argument/
evaluation components of the text.

5.2 Identify structural models. Look at some past dissertations
or other types of extensive writing and try to work out what
structural approach has been taken, either overall or in each
component part.

5.3 Create your own project plan. Go back to Ch 4 (Time
management) and consider how, with reference to Table 5.2, 
you will plan out the process of conducting the research and
writing up of your dissertation or project report.

And now . . .GO

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Planning for experimental projects 51


6 Planning for experimentalprojects
How to organise your efforts effectively
Experimental project work is an important component of many
science degrees. With limited time and resources, it is essential
to make the most of your time and effort in the lab or field. This
chapter outlines aspects to consider in a plan of action, ways in
which you can work productively, and how to prepare for writing
up your thesis or report.

Key topics

● Adopting a flexible approach
● Focussing on the end product from the start
● Creating a plan of action
● Working efficiently in the lab or field
● Organising information and results ready for writing up

Key terms