I get more correspondence on this topic than any other. (I don’t flatter myself: a simple Google search throws up my previous Dissertation problem page.) Here’s a recent example: ‘NEED HELP. I am just starting an MA program in Communication Studies. I am faced with choosing a topic. I am so confused and I need help. I just read the PR blog and I find it very interesting, but I still need help… Hoping to hear from you soon.’
Let me turn this on its head and list the most obvious mistakes students can make with their dissertations:
- Google is truly the wonder of our age, but not everything that can be known can be found by a Google search (yet). Your best starting point for your dissertation is still the library. Start by reading some books and see what questions interest you. Then keep on reading.
- You fail to choose a clearly defined subject area (eg internal communications). If you are struggling to write a concise title, it may be that you don’t have a clear subject in mind.
- You don’t ask a specific question about your subject area (eg Is internal communications the most important PR channel for FTSE 100 chief executives?).
- Your literature review is descriptive rather than critical. By this we mean that you list the books you’ve read and describe their contents, but you don’t show that you’ve read them with the intention of helping you to answer your question.
- Your primary research is too little, too late. How does a student focus group help you to answer the question we posed about internal communications? You don’t say because you don’t know.
- You don’t connect your literature review to your research findings. If the two things are consistent, what does this suggest? If they are very different, what can explain this?
- You don’t reach any valuable conclusions because of the reasons given above. Nor do you redeem yourself by proposing any recommendations (eg about further research).
- There are more online sources cited in your references than books (see point 1 above). References are inaccurate (that’s silly: this is one thing you’re allowed to copy without us calling it plagiarism. But you need to read some academic texts to see how they do it.)
- You don’t develop a working relationship with your supervisor. This is also silly: they will be marking your work. They may frustratingly believe that questions are more interesting than answers, but they are there to help you, so co-opt them in your project.
- Last, but not least: you leave it too late.