It’s final year, it’s time to pick a dissertation topic. If you are anything like me, the first thought that will come to mind is probably a big fat HOW?!? How do you go about picking a topic, how do you format your question, how is it possible, in this day and age, with the mass expanse of literature and knowledge everywhere, that there is a gap in any literature, and if so, surely you – as an undergraduate- cannot possibly find it. Your dissertation is really the first time that you introduce yourself to the professional end of the research scale in university. It also plays a massive part in the degree classification you end up leaving university with. For me, I found the initial step of creating a dissertation topic to be extremely difficult. There were many nights of procrastinating (safe to say Henry the Hoover and I are now the best of friends), nights of hair pulling, and nights were the occasional tear was shed whilst lying in bed listening to the ‘Sad Songs for Crying’ playlist on Spotify – would highly recommend for this type of mood. The bad news is, picking a dissertation topic is no small feat, but the good news is, you will come out the other end and you now have the opportunity to pick a topic that you are completely interested in, and believe me, being interested in your research is crucial when you are dedicating your whole year to it. So, below are a few tips for picking a topic and for dealing with all the stress that comes with it.
Tip One – If you’ve made a mountain out of a molehill, then climb the mountain and enjoy the view.
Speaking from personal experience, I epitomise the phrase ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’, so I understand how difficult it can be to try and approach choosing a dissertation topic in a laissez faire manner. But a solid middle ground is what you should strive for. It is good to get worked up about any type of university work, because at least you know you care, but try not to spend all your time panicking and turn some of that anxious energy in to productive energy. If you have gotten this far in your degree, then you’ve done most of the hard work and this is the final push. You wouldn’t be here picking a dissertation topic if you weren’t capable of doing so.
So, have some faith in yourself! Let yourself feel anxious, worried and even a bit stressed, then throw all that energy in to your work. Spend time reading other dissertations, read all the existing literature, discover topics that you yourself find interesting to read and learn about, and an idea might just pop in to your head easier than you had ever thought.
Tip Two – Be Unique
Step one covers the initial stress of picking a topic, so for step two, we’re in to the practical approach. After you’ve got over the hoovering, crying and listening to sad songs phase of finding a topic you are interested in, then start doing more reading! Read all the articles you can find on every database available to you in the time you have. As I am writing this from an undergraduate perspective, it may not be possible for your research to be completely original, but try and find something unique that isn’t explicitly there in the existing literature and mould it in to a research question that you can fulfil within the time and scope of your research project deadline.
Ask yourself, are you repeating something that you have already read? Is your research topic something that you would have stopped to read when doing your own research on the existing topics out there? And finally, are you going to learn anything new from carrying out your research?
Tip Three – Change, Review and Change again
Be open to change. Inevitably, the first research question that you come up with is going to be completely different to the one you end up handing in for your final deadline. You may mould and change your question along the way to suit your research methods or just because you have come up with a new and improved adaptation of your original topic. Be open to making changes during the earlier stages of your dissertation. Your question is not set in stone and this is a blessing rather than a curse. Once you have completely familiarised yourself with the literature and analysed the different methods of research that you are going to use then confirm with yourself exactly what type of topic you are going to choose- and if you need to change the wording along the way, then change it!
Tip Four – If you need guidance, consult your supervisor
Your supervisor is there to guide you through your dissertation and at the early stage of picking a research question, you are definitely going to be looking for some guidance. Stay in contact with your supervisor, set up meetings and meet the deadlines they give you! Your dissertation supervisor is only going to guide you if they can see that you are putting in the hard graft and doing the work. Don’t expect to show up with no ideas and for your supervisor to hand you your research proposal on a shiny silver plate. Go to them with ideas and concepts that your interested in and think work for your study area and they’ll steer you in the right direction. It is your own dissertation and sadly no one else can do the work for you but having someone there who knows what they’re doing to help you along the way will be the reassurance you need.
So, all that’s left to say is be confident, do your reading, get interested and ask for help if you need it! And remember its ok to feel anxious, it’s the first step of a yearlong project – who wouldn’t feel a bit scared! And on those nights, were it all seems just a bit too much, just remember – in the famous words of Yazz – ‘The Only Way Is Up Baby!’
Claire Stinton is a final year BSc in Communication, Advertising & Marketing student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @clairestintonn / Instagram: @clairestinton