How to start your dissertation 1


The dissertation or final year project requires organisational and time management skills in order to complete to a high standard. Due to competing demands on time, many students do not always devise and follow a work schedule, which can have implications for the quality of work that is produced and stress levels!

Watch Getting Started video (.wmv)

Before getting started – consider how you will manage your time
This video clip contains comments from the following academics:

How to start preparing a dissertation

The first stage is to decide on the topic that you wish to write about. You have an opportunity to explore and research in depth, using any previous study, a subject that is of personal interest to you and also helps you develop your interest even further. The topic can be related to a career aspiration. Although the dissertation is hard work, it should be rewarding, because it represents individual academic achievement of a kind that may makes a difference to your field of enquiry. Let your ideas and imagination flow!


During the first 2 years of the degree, I had often chosen topics related to female offending. Because of this, I felt I had useful background knowledge.

Reading journal articles over the summer to look at the type of research that was being done in the topic area.

Interest in the issues, personal experience of the issues, the desire to be able to make a difference. There have been areas of my degree which have looked at my chosen subject area, so my ability to tackle the subject has been heightened.

I have been working myself on subject areas, reading around my chosen subject areas and trying to work out how my dissertation can be put to good use, rather than being marked and filed away to be forgotten about.

(Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)

It's been a valuable experience for me it's so different from other stuff. With other essays you can rush them if you have to ... but this is so much work, you can't rush it. It demands more. (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p340)

 Some of the first stages are not unlike deciding where to go on holiday. There are many factors that may influence your choice; will you choose a trekking holiday in the Andes or a beach holiday in the Med?

Selecting a topic for your dissertation is not always easy. Some people are fortunate – an idea for a dissertation may pop into their mind immediately. For many, however, this is not the case, and you may need to be more systematic in your search for the dissertation question or topic that you wish to explore further. You may find that you have too few ideas, or too many.

You may have to do a great deal of thinking and background reading before you reach a decision about the topic in which you want to invest a lot of time and effort.

Our Top Tips

Finding a topic for the dissertation

Inspiration can come from many places when looking for a dissertation topic.
The topic you select needs to be one that can be addressed in an appropriately academic manner within the time constraints of the dissertation.

Case Study 2 Using personal networks to choose a dissertation topic or methodology

Avoid too broad a topic

Avoid too broad a topic or one that is overly ambitious: it is better to find a thoroughly researched and argued answer to a small question than to fail to find the answer to one which is too big or diffuse.
Your main interest in the topic may be:

Bringing all three of these together is a way of narrowing the focus of the dissertation into a manageable project.


My supervisor was very important in defining the topic. I'm not sure that I could have come up with the question on my own. I didn't know what I could answer; I didn't know what it would benefit me to do.

(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p343)

Start writing at the beginning of the project

Many people find it useful to keep a research notebook in which you can record:

Keep records of your reading at the preliminary stage

Keep an accurate record of the bibliographical details of all the material that you read - doing this as you progress will save an enormous amount of time at the end of the project.

Note: When you refer directly to the work of an author in your dissertation, it is especially important to record the details precisely, to ensure that it is accurately referenced and to avoid the risk of plagiarism (for more information see the section on plagiarism).

Do lots of reading

A final year project, like many other forms of assessments, needs to be located within the existing literature in that area. In order to do this you need to do lots of reading! Typically you will read:

The typical length of a bibliography for a dissertation would include anything between 25-50 references. For example, there are, to varying degrees, references to:

Be organised and keep notes

The process of thinking about the dissertation topic and methods is an evolving one. It may help to get some form of personal recording of the ideas, links and resources that you come across in the initial thinking and information-gathering stages. Do not simply rely on your memory to store all the strands of information you come across. A key part of success in dissertation-writing is being organised and systematic in your approach and the earlier you can adopt this, the better.
This type of note-taking may link into the writing of other learning logs or personal development planning you are doing already within your degree.
You might want to keep a record of:

You can use library resources and the Internet to discover primary and secondary material and to find out what critical and scholarly material is available to inform your study.

When should I begin to do this?

Usually dissertations are undertaken in the final year of a three-year degree. If this is the case for you then you should begin the process during your second year. If you have module options in Year 3 you may decide your dissertation topic before confirming these modules.


The first task is to establish your overall area of interest. It will be important that the topic you choose can interest you enough to sustain your commitment during the coming months. Write down the reasons for your interest. These may provide pointers to the sort of questions you want to ask within the study. As you go on, you may find that your interest begins to take shape, or changes a little, as you focus more closely on it.

Clarifying your Ideas

Narrowing down the Focus!

Case Study 3 Researching the voluntary sector

Time management and work planning

Dissertations usually have a long lead in time so it is essential that you think about the various stages of work that need to be undertaken and get into good habits early on in the process, for example with keeping records of searches undertaken, ideas that crop up and material to be sought after and incorporated.
You might want to devise a schedule of work from start to finish, perhaps in discussion with your supervisor or tutor, or monthly plans. Nearer the deadline you may wish to use weekly schedules to keep you on track.
If you are undertaking empirical work your planning will need to be even more detailed so that you are aware of slippage that may affect completion of the research.
Your will need to allow time for the following:


Experienced supervisors told us that students are often over-ambitious when planning their research. Organisation is extremely important, especially if you are going to collect your own data:
If you're doing empirical fieldwork, you've got to give yourself time to do it; you've got to appreciate that it takes time, doing things like designing a questionnaire or an interview schedule.
(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2006, p168)

This will require careful management of time, and keeping a check on progress. You may find it helpful to develop a chart indicating which stages of work will be undertaken when, and with what contingencies. We have made a checklist which could help you with this planning.

Doc 5 Checklist for completing dissertation or final project
Project management software is worth using. Devising your own tables for reference can be helpful.

Personal Development Planning

You will probably also be involved in Personal Development Planning (PDP) linked to Progress Files and you may want to link your dissertation work to your PDP as you will be using a diverse range of skills to complete the dissertation and you may be able to identify how you have progressed or acquired new skills or learning. For example you may use skills related to:

Watch a video on planning your dissertation (.wmv)

Time management and work planning
This video clip contains comments from the following academic:


Key Questions

Further Reading

MOORE, N.(2000). How to do research. The complete guide tp designing and managing research projects. 3rd ed., London, Facet Publishing, chapters 1&2 - objectives and planning
ROWNTREE, D.(1998). Learn how to study. 4th ed., London, Warner place, chapter 9 - writing notes
SEALE, C.(2006). Researching society and culture. London, Sage, chapter 7 - palnning

Web Resources

Here are some web resources that you might find useful:
Identifying a research topic:
Time management:
Making notes:

© 1. Julia Waldman and Dr Malcolm Todd (Leeds Metropolitan University), Ian Baker (Sheffield Hallam University), Dr Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)



Author biographies