If your postgraduate programme is at Masters level then you will not need to think about the project in detail until you are part way through the programme, although it is never too early to start to have some initial ideas – but you probably do not need to worry about your choice until the Christmas vacation.
If you are undertaking a Doctorate, however, your planning needs to start even before you submit your application for the programme, as you will be expected to have a clear idea of what your thesis will be about right from the start. Most Doctoral applications will need to include an outline research proposal (see Postgraduate programmes) unless you are applying for a scholarship or studentship to undertake a specified project. If you are applying for a specified project, you will need to be sure that it is a project you are excited about and interested in, and also that you have some ideas about the research methods you will need to use and the existing literature and research in the field.
Most Masters students and most self-funding students at Doctoral level will have an almost completely open choice about the topic for their research project. The only limitations will be whether your university can support you to do the project, i.e. whether it has the equipment, facilities and staff expertise to do the study. As a Doctoral student, of course, this will have been a factor in your choice of university, as there is no point applying to a university that cannot support your research topic.
So how do you choose what to do? The model below has been used successfully with large numbers of postgraduate students to help them choose their project topic. It works through a number of stages, which help you to narrow down your ideas from a broad field to a specific research question.
Stage 1 What are the broad themes that interest you?
Think broadly about what interests you in your subject. Write down a list of themes, by asking yourself the following questions:
• What themes particularly interested you in your undergraduate programme?
• If you are a Masters student or have completed a Masters degree, what themes interested you in your Masters degree?
• What are the current ‘hot’ topics in the field? In other words, what topics is there most discussion about either in the research papers or in the popular journals?
• If your field is a professional field (such as medicine, teaching, business, law), what are the current ‘hot’ professional issues that there is most discussion about?
• Are there any issues in the field which are particularly important to your own national setting?
• Are there any themes or topics that have interested you since you were young?
For each of these questions write down a list of the topics that come into your mind. This might be a long or short list, but it is helpful to have at least one topic under each heading.
Stage 2 What are the interesting topics within those themes?
Now narrow down this list to a smaller list of topics. You can do this, for example, by seeing if there are any themes that have come up in answer to more than one of your questions in Stage 1, or by trying to put the themes from Stage 1 into a rank order of interest for you. By doing this you should be able to narrow down your choice to a short list of two or three top topics of interest.
Stage 3 What questions might you ask about those topics?
Now think about the key questions that might be appropriate in relation to each of these topics. An important aspect of any research project is that it should be investigating a question, so try to think of all the questions of interest or importance in relation to each of the two or three topics you have considered.
Stage 4 Choose a question and check its viability
From the list of questions you now have it should be possible to identify two or three that are particularly interesting or exciting for you, and then to choose one that grabs your interest. This is a good starting point for checking whether it is a reasonable or sensible question. At this stage you need to check whether it is a viable topic. By viability we mean is it a question that needs answering and is it a question that can be answered in your size of project.
Stage 5 Make your final choice
The last stage is to make your final choice of project. This may only be possible when you have been through Stage 4 several times, since there may be several possible projects you need to investigate for viability before you come up with a suitable topic. The final check to make when you are ready to settle on a topic or title is to ask yourself one last, but very important question: Does this topic really interest me and excite me? The answer needs to be ‘yes’, for you will be living with the topic for a long time. If it is your Doctoral thesis then you may be living with it night and day for three years. Even as a Masters dissertation topic it will be your life for at least three months, so you have to feel excited about doing it.
In the process of choosing a topic there are a number of important issues to think about, which will be emphasised to you by your tutor. The key issues are:
• Do not choose a project that is too large. Most postgraduate students’ first ideas about a research project are too ambitious, involving large amounts of data collection and questions that are too general. Keep your project very focused on a very specific topic.
• Do not believe your research has to change the world. For a Doctoral thesis you do have to make a contribution to knowledge, but this is likely to be just a small advance in understanding. Masters and Doctoral theses are not large enough to contribute a new global theory to the sum of knowledge!
• Start your project with a research question. Having a single overall question that you are investigating provides a very clear focus for your work – and you can keep asking yourself throughout your research ‘Is my work going to help answer my research question?’ to check that what you are doing is relevant. Having a research question does not mean you have to use any particular methodology – it just keeps you on track.
International students are sometimes very interested in choosing a research project that is relevant to their own country. This may be because they want to make a real contribution to their own country or because it focuses on an issue they know about or are interested in. In many cases this may be an excellent idea, but there are a number of things to think about if this is what you would like to do.
First, will your chosen study require you to collect data in your own country? If so, this may be very attractive to you, but you need to be sure that:
• Your own government will allow you to return to do this.
• You can do the data collection in your own country without supervision, as your tutor will not be with you.
• The regulations for your postgraduate programme allow you to be away from the university for a lengthy period of time.
Secondly, will you be able to get hold of literature and research that is relevant to your topic? For example, will your university library be able to get government reports or journals from your own country and in your own language?
Thirdly, will the university have the expertise to support your research in or about your own country? It may be that your topic is a general one which you will study in the context of your own country. However, if it is too specific will the university be able to support you?
However, do not let these issues deter you, if there is a satisfactory answer to each of these problems. Undertaking a study related to your own country may be both rewarding and valuable to you, and many postgraduate students do their Masters or Doctoral thesis in this way.
If your research project is part of a Masters programme, or a taught Doctorate, then you will probably need to get the approval of your tutor or the programme leader for your proposal. This will happen part way through the programme, and you will be given details of the timescale for submitting your proposal. For an MPhil/PhD the proposal will be part of your application to the programme and will be considered carefully in the decision about whether to offer you a place on the course. Whatever the timing, though, the proposal will need to include the same sorts of information:
1 A title.
2 The main research question that you will be focusing on, with, perhaps, a number of sub-questions.
3 The background to the study – why it is an important and interesting topic to study.
4 A brief background literature review. This should show that you have read a number of relevant books and papers so that you understand how your topic relates to the current knowledge and issues in the field.
5 A proposed methodology, that is, how you intend to undertake the study, what methods you will use, what data you will collect and how you will analyse the data. If this includes any form of experimental work or the use of any data collection or analysis equipment you need to provide a detailed and precise list of what you will need. You also need to explain why this methodology and this equipment is the best way to study this topic.
6 A proposed time schedule for the project, with key dates and the timing of each phase of the project.
The detail and depth of the proposal will need to be rather greater for a Doctoral proposal than for a Masters project. Typically, a Masters proposal will be submitted on a standard pro-forma from your department and may be 500–1,000 words long. A Doctoral research proposal is likely to be an individualised document (that is, not on a form), and will probably be 1,000–2,500 words long.
In writing your proposal, remember that its purpose is to enable the academic staff to judge whether what you want to do is practicable and realistic, and will be suitable to enable you to write a dissertation or thesis of the right standard.
And what if your proposal is rejected? You should regard a rejection as saving you from big problems later on. Tutors have a very good idea of what will ‘work’ and what will not, what is achievable and what is not. If they suggest you think again it is because they believe you cannot produce a thesis or dissertation of the required standard from what you are proposing. So, take the advice they give, and submit another proposal.
Whether your research is for a Masters dissertation or a Doctoral thesis it needs careful planning and organisation – you will not be successful if you simply start work and then see where it leads. An important factor which makes it vital to plan is the time limit you will have. For your Masters dissertation the final date to hand it in will probably be the end of September, while for a Doctoral thesis there will be a maximum time you can spend on your work, probably four years. So you need to plan it carefully.
You need to start by thinking through what stages there are to your project. For most research projects we can identify ten stages:
Stage 1 – Choosing the project
We have already looked at this above.
Stage 2 – Initial literature review
The literature review is a critical early stage in your project. A literature review has many purposes. It enables you to find out what research has been undertaken in the field, what is ‘known’ and what the important questions are that others are investigating or have suggested for research. It helps you to understand the history of your field, to know how ideas have developed, changed, appeared and disappeared over time. You will become aware of the range of methodologies that have been used to research your field, both in the past and in the present, and you should start to develop a critical view of the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches. It will also enable you to discover who else is working in the field and what they are working on. Most importantly, though, it will help you to look at your initial ideas for your research and develop and refine them to produce the project that you will undertake. It is almost the most important stage of the project, for if you do this thoroughly and well you will be saved many potential problems later on.
Stage 3 – Finalising the research questions
Ideally your research questions will emerge from the literature review. The literature review will have shown you what is already known in the field and what important topics need to be researched.
Stage 4 – Choosing and developing the methodology
Whatever your subject and field, there will be a range of different research methods available to you. At this stage you need to choose the best approach to enable you to answer your research question. Many students though, unfortunately, start with an idea of the methods they want to use and then apply them to their research question whether or not they are the best way forward. The correct way forward, of course, is to read and reflect very broadly on possible research methods and then choose what is most appropriate, even if this involves you in learning new approaches or techniques.
Stage 5 – Piloting the methodology
Whatever method you use, you will need to pilot your methodology. Piloting is practising, checking that you can use the method correctly and that it will work in the circumstances in which you are using it to provide usable data. Piloting usually suggests changes and modifications to the methods you are using, sometimes large, sometimes small, and so is an essential process. Not piloting the methodology is a very common cause of failure for postgraduate students.
Stage 6 – Organising the data collection
Do not be put off by the word ‘data’. By data we are talking about the evidence you will use to arrive at your conclusions, and there are many types of data. Your data could be experimental results, field data or survey data or they could come from direct observations of social situations. The data could be quantitative, qualitative or a combination of both types. Stage 6 involves making the arrangements to collect that data.
Stage 7 – Data collection
Collecting the data can be a short or a long process – for example a project on the behaviour of apes may take many months of detailed observation and recording, while some experimental projects may take only a few weeks or even days to complete.
Stage 8 – Data analysis
Data analysis includes the systematic organising of the data and its presentation in a form that readers of your project can understand. It also includes the interpretation of the data to identify the important ideas or new bits of knowledge that they reveal. Each discipline will have descriptive and analytical techniques, ranging from statistical analysis to computer modelling to presentational methods to qualitative analysis. You will need to choose the methods best suited to the data you have collected, and will need to be able to justify your choice of methods.
Stage 9 – Drawing conclusions and interpretations
Stage 8 involved very detailed analysis and interpretation, working with the detail of the data and drawing out important ideas about every part of the topic that has been studied. Stage 9 is the ‘big picture’ stage of the research, where the detailed interpretations are drawn together to try to ‘answer’ the overall research question. It will certainly involve a critical reflection on the conclusions you have drawn and the methods you have used, and will probably make recommendations for future research in the field. In social science fields it may include recommendations for policy-makers and practitioners about future practice and policy.
Stage 10 – Preparing the final thesis
Writing of the thesis is covered in more detail in Writing a thesis. The final stage of the project, though, is assembling the final version of the thesis. You will have produced drafts of individual chapters throughout the project, and these can be assembled into the first draft of the overall thesis or dissertation. At this stage, though, the work needs to be prepared for submission – making sure the whole work is coherent; writing, re-writing and editing; assembling diagrams, tables or charts; completing and checking the bibliography and appendices; preparing the contents and the abstract; printing and binding the work. This all takes a significant amount of time, which needs to be built into the planning of the project.
You will see from reading through the stages of the project that there is much to plan and prepare for. While it is not possible to plan precisely how long each stage will take, and unforeseen things may arise, it is very helpful to plan as carefully as you can. There are two simple techniques you can use to plan your time and your project – a time line and a Gantt chart.
Points to remember
This looks a straightforward path to understand and follow, but there are a number of important points to remember with this model. First, your real project will not follow this path in a neat sequence:
• Some stages will overlap – for example, you will certainly start to develop interpretations and conclusions as soon as you start collecting data, and you may of course want to test some of your conclusions by collecting further data.
• You may need to return to earlier stages – for example, piloting may indicate you need to make changes to the methodology.
• Some stages will continue throughout the project – for example, you will need to keep reviewing the literature throughout the project to be sure that you have not missed anything important or that there have not been new publications on the topic. Even while you are preparing the final thesis you will need to do a last-minute literature check so that you do not miss the latest publications.
Secondly, you will need to be writing the thesis/dissertation from as early in the project as possible. Stage 10 is preparing the final version, not starting to write. We look in more detail at writing in Writing a thesis, but it is very important to recognise that you must start writing as soon as you can, otherwise it may become a major psychological barrier for you.
More information about these two techniques (and preparing the thesis) are given in Chapter 9 of Postgraduate Study in the UK by Nicholas and Rosalind Foskett.
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