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10 Top Tips for a Tip Top Undergraduate Dissertation: a Practical Guide

2

Choose a manageable topic

Specify a clear research question

In the dissertation you might have a bit more freedom to write about an area of your choice, but it's critical that you specify a clear research question. Don't forget that you have a non-negotiable number of words; it might be tempting to cover every aspect of your subject in detail, but you'll have to choose an areas of focus in order to stay within the word count. You can only do this by asking pertinent, specific questions and by fully answering those questions.

Establishing the scope of your research

TelescopeYou could start out with some scoping searches on your question to see how often it's written about in the research literature; they don't have to be anything detailed, but you'll find it useful to do some quick and dirty searches in a couple of different places. YorSearch and Google Scholar are good places to start. Aim to get a sense of how much literature you might be looking at. If there's a lot already written, consider choosing a narrower part of that question instead. If there's not much out there already, think about broadening the scope a little.

Narrowing your research question

Funnels

Have a think about the following question: Does adoption lead to positive outcomes for adoptees in later life?

This question seems very broad. What positive outcomes does it mean: employment prospects, qualifications, sporting prowess? If you tried to cover them all you’d quickly find yourself with a very long dissertation! The question also doesn’t have much context; are we talking about adoptees from any country, at any age, at any time?

Let’s try a different approach: What is the emotional impact of changing your birth name after adoption?

That’s better, as we’ve established a much clearer focus than the previous example. But think about the group that we’ve chosen; would we be able to identify such a specific group in the literature, and would they even be willing to discuss such a sensitive issue in the first place?

Consider your question in context

Brick wall

Ultimately there is no perfect formula to come up with a research question; you’ll only know how manageable it is when you start to carry out your research and draft your aims and objectives. At an early stage, try to come up with a reasonably narrow question in terms of the literature, and consider whether you have easy access to the groups of people who you might wish to include (either first hand or via the literature).

You should also think about the wider context of your question. You won’t be able to cover everything in detail, but you’ll need to provide a brief overview in your introduction. Think about the key things someone might need to know if they have never heard of the subject before, or simply what you need to cover as a suitable preface to the importance and relevance of your research question. See tip 7 for further advice about writing your introduction.

More advice

Explore the Library's E-resources Guide to find a range of reference resources to help establish the wider context of your topic; select 'Reference' from 'E-resources by Category' to get started.