It’s that time of year where second years get nervous. They will have been told long ago to start thinking about dissertations by some members of staff, but ideas are a scare commodity. The word dissertation is muttered by other students as you arrive for your seminar, and seems to echo down the corridors and libraries. Third year students stop attending sports socials because ‘dissertation’. There is a lecture scheduled in the not too-distant future that is exclusively devoted to the dissertation proposal, that document which you’re beholden to complete. That document that represents your potential contribution to knowledge. No pressure.

Everything about the dissertation is climactic. The dissertation is one first signs your university journey won’t last forever. Even after that, there is still the leviathan itself. The way the marks are weighted for dissertations often means you have no choice but to do well. Worse still, this final degree decider is something you have to do entirely on your own. It’s all your work. Employers might ask you about it in interviews! If you do badly, it’s not just your essay writing skills, ability to critically think or understand the issues that are substandard, but your entire research process.  

With all this is mind, it’s no surprise students worry about their dissertation proposal. In my time as a postgraduate teaching assistant I have spoken to a couple of students who were vexed about the dissertation proposal, and I think I can hone it down to four things recurring problems:

  • They have never written a proposal,
  • They cannot settle on an idea,
  • They cannot find a good research methodology
  • They simply can’t face the prospect of writing 6,000-15,000 words on their own research.

We will deal with the first two issue in this article: inexperience and choosing an idea. In some subjects, the dissertation topics might be decided for you, but this article assumes the problem of choosing an idea, researching it, and most importantly, being happy with it. As ever, the usual disclaimers apply. We can only speak to our experience as geographers. We hope some of these lessons will be transposable to other disciplines, but the best people to ask are always the staff.

Inexperience

Just like mark-schemes, some of the confusion around the dissertation proposal can be explained away by clarifying why we make you do it. Academics survive by winning money for research. Every 6 years, their ability to do this is measured bya government audit called the Research Excellence Framework. It is the big disciplining factor behind the side of their work you don’t see. If a member of staff is in a particularly good mood, chances are they just won a load of cash to research a project.

The dissertation proposal is intended to introduce you to this important skill you might not have: writing to persuade someone that an idea is good enough to be funded. Many jobs have this aspect, from theater to consultancy. Why should you, person X, deserve person/organisation Y’s money?

An essay won’t give you this skill. We’re not looking for differing viewpoints or critical accounts; we’re looking for naked persuasion. The difference between your dissertation proposal and a lecturer’s grant application is that you don't write to convince someone that your idea is good enough to be funded. But you both write to persuade an idea is good enough to be considered a contribution to scholarship.

This key factor is what academia rests on. Contrary to popular belief, knowledge does not usually advance from eureka moments. In the social sciences, it comes from the back-and-forth of idea exchange, or applying a new way of thinking about problems. Disagreement fosters progress, and so should your dissertation. Incremental advances in knowledge are the tank-tracks of progress. Fieldwork and research findings are the fuel.

But you can’t disagree with an idea, or apply a new approach to a problem if you don’t know what has gone before. This is the essence of a good dissertation. How much does it contribute to our understanding of an issue, based on what’s already been written about it? It’s the first criteria in the UCL Geography mark-scheme, and look what they want for 70%:  Originality in research aims.

 

So for your proposal, an idea doesn’t need to be grand. You don’t need to solve world hunger. What you need to do is offer an approach to a problem that is somehow novel, unique and importantly, tells us something new about the problem, or allows us to think about it differently. The idea should be interesting to you, but if it helps nobody but you think about a problem differently, itsno good.
This is why we have been banging on about reading for the last two years. If you want a new approach to a problem, you need to know what has already been tried. A deep understanding of the subject area is key. This leads us onto point number two.

Choosing an idea

So it’s no good just wanting to write about climate change, globalisation, inequality or rivers. Your dissertation HAS to fit in a broader field of literature, because it has to be be compared to what has gone before. It can’t be marked for a deep understanding of the subject area if we don’t know which subject area you are working in. This means chosing an area of your subject to work in as much as a topic. So really, your picking an idea, but also picking a set of literature to put the idea in. You can think of it as these two choices.

When I was doing my proposal, I was told to pick an area of interest, look at what has been written on these topics and then look for something that hasn’t been done in a sub-disciplinary contribution. This is how that approach is meant to go: first, you chose a topic you like, read a few articles, and then look at what people are suggesting for further research should look into. You basically start large and drill down to detail. Here is an example of that ideal journey applied to my undergraduate dissertation topic

 

 

I could lie to you and say this pyramid was a true reflection of my topic choice. I could say I started with a large idea upon which lot has been written (the state), did lots of reading broadly on this topic from key authors, before honing in on state power, then political geography's contributions to this idea. I could also say this led me to a specific policy area because it was an area other scholars had done some tentative work, and I could draw on other debates on in geography on nudge policy which led me to apply this new way of thinking to alcohol policy.

This would not be true. I actually inverted the pyramid and started well down at the second lowest tier. I worked from the middle going both downwards and upwards. My Dad had worked in alcohol policy and could hook me up with some great interviewees, I had read the excellent book Nudge (which is about influencing peoples choices) and found myself fascinated by it. Working from the middle often comes from reading a single paper, enjoying it and branching out from the references that paper makes. I had read one paper by one scholar (Joe Painter, Prosaic Geographies) that had given me a theoretical underpinning for my topic and helped me situated which branch of geography it would sit in (political geography).

Working from the middle only works if you are doing lots of reading and already have an idea of what topics already take your fancy. If your enjoying your course, this sort of understanding should be developing in second year. You’ve already had to pick one round of modules, and are probably doing another for third year. You should have an idea which areas of your subject interest you. The dissertation proposal is a similar process. I knew by second year I enjoyed Political Geography. As I was reading in this area, it only took a single paper to really help me pin down the theoretical contribution of my project. When I wanted to know more, I drew on the references in that paper, and many of those references ended up in my own project.

The advantage of choosing a topic from the middle is you eliminate the problem of choice from the top tier of the pyramid. In a subject like geography, choice can be paralysing, just like going to a supermarket and being faced with 50 different types of salad dressing. Chances are you have lots of interests. Thinking about a paper or book that took your fancy will provide you with a certain degree of specificity to work from.

It's also worth thinking about what/who you might already know. Pragmatically, the project made sense. I knew what empirical material would be (my Dad’s colleagues) and I would be able to draw upon for my interviews. This didn't decide my project for me, but it did mean I had saved myself a lot of work down the line. 

In the next article we will look at the last two problems of research methodology and substance.

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