Choosing a dissertation topic

I have recently completed an MA in Academic Practice degree run by the Learning Enhancement and Development Team at City, University London. The Academic Practice course is a mixture of theory, practice and reflection aimed at internal and external academic staff, professional staff, library staff and some research students who teach.

My particular highlight of the course was the Master’s level module Educational Research Project & Publication. This module provides the opportunity to conduct an original piece of educational research or a small scale research project and either produce a dissertation or conference paper based on this.

specs-on-bookChoosing an appropriate research question is really important and shapes the whole of your research. All that you do is focussed on exploring and trying to answer that question and it affects the research you conduct and the methodology you choose to employ.  I work as a Research Librarian at City, University of London. I work with doctoral students and one thing that I really like to do is to speak to the students individually or in small groups about their research. Some of these conversations have been around electronic resources and the use of digital tools and skills to support the research process. Talking to others and your supervisor is a good idea.  I found it a challenge to find a precise research question so I spoke to an academic colleague who had recently completed a PhD.  We then had a discussion and I decided to focus my research on exploring factors which may influence the digital literacy skills of research students.

It is useful to have an overview of literature searching, different approaches to research and research methods as these all help to address your research question. I found the book Doing your research project: a guide for first-time researchers (Bell, 2014) really useful so much so that I even wanted my own copy. The author is no relation but I found it helpful in terms of the literature review section, ethics, different research methods and writing up and evaluating results. Sometimes an overview of the process can be invaluable.

When choosing your research topic I would suggest choosing something that interests you and that you feel excited enough to research for a year,  a question that intrigues you and that you want to answer.  Also, do some preliminary literature searching to see if your topic is viable and if it has been researched in the same way before. This might also help with how your frame your topic.

Think of the future as well: if you would like to work in open access, consider researching open access, if you’re interested in public libraries maybe research digital inclusion or community partnerships etc. This is then something that you can talk about if you attend a job interview in a particular sector. However, sometimes you have to go with your heart or what you are genuinely passionate about researching as this will also drive your choices.

Read other peoples’ dissertations and theses on similar and different topics might also give you inspiration. Many universities have open access institutional repositories or digital archives such as City Research Online where you can read articles and publications by staff and researchers and also electronic theses. This is also a good way of refining your ideas on what you would like to research.

To summarise, I would take various factors into account and try and find something  a little challenging that interest you and that gives you sufficient motivation to answer questions and complete your research.

Bell, J (2014) Doing your research project: a guide for first-time researchers. 6th edn. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill.