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Planning your dissertation timeline

Usually a master’s degree course consists of a taught course in the first academic year. Then you have another academic year to write your dissertation. However, by the end of the first year, you will have had to decide on the working title for your dissertation and agreed your study with your tutor. It may be a library-based study, or you might have chosen to collect you own data and conduct original research. Whichever you decide upon will be mostly dictated by your course of study.

If you do the following degree courses, you may have to do a library-based study.

and other Arts/Humanities subjects.

Science studies and sociology can be either primary research or theoretical or both, in other words mixed methods research.

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The sooner you have a working title for your proposed research study, the better. You need to discuss your ideas with the person who will be your supervisor and he or she must agree to supervise you and also agree on your research topic. You will need to reach an agreement before the summer vacation, as in the autumn term you must be ready to start on your research.

Make sure that your supervisor is not planning to have a sabbatical in the coming months. It can be very unsettling if he or she leaves the university for a term. You then have to find a suitable supervisor especially if you don’t get along with the new one. It’s very important to have a suitable supervisor that you are comfortable with.

Over the summer you can begin to plan your dissertation timeline. Don’t be over-ambitious.

Remember the Smart goals. Your goals must be: -

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable/Attainable
  • Relevant and
  • Timely.

By specific we mean that you should not be general. For example, a history of the British Isles would be far too general and not achievable in one year. You have to narrow the field down. So, for example, ‘The reasons why Britain’s Labour government failed to be re-elected in 1924: a discussion and analysis’ is a much more manageable topic.

Measurable goals are those that specify what you need to prove or achieve. Break down your goals into elements that are measurable. These can help you refine precisely what you want to do. You need to precisely define your goals so that your success can be measured.

Achievable: Is your goal actually achievable or have you set yourself a task that is way to vast to be covered? Be guided by your supervisor.

Relevant: Is your research relevant to your course of study? Don’t go off topic.

Timely: You have deadlines to need all through the year when you are writing your dissertation. Set yourself achievable deadlines and endeavour to meet all of them.

You will need to arrange to see your supervisor at least once a month. Schedule monthly meetings and add them to your dissertation timeline. Take all the work you have done that month to your supervisor for comments or email your work on a date you have agreed on. Ask when your supervisor estimates that you can collect those comments. Factor this meeting into your timeline too. Remember that your supervisor has other students as well as you, so be patient if he or she can’t manage to fit into your schedule/timeline. Be prepared to be flexible.

When you do original research involving such tools as questionnaires, it is always a good idea to conduct a small pilot study. You may have worked out your hypothesis, but you will need to conduct some interviews with the questions you have formulated to see how they work. A pilot study will help you hone the questions, so you get the information you need to further your study. You can re-work your initial questions if you don’t get the answers you were expecting. Perhaps they were too general, and respondents didn’t quite understand them. If you are using interviews as your data collection method, you can explain any misunderstandings to respondents, but you can’t do this with questionnaires. A pilot study will help you refine your questions, whether they are in writing or used in an oral interview. It is better to iron out any problems early on than to end up with data that is virtually unusable. You really don’t want your dissertation to fail because of your poor planning.

Coding can take up a lot of time, so if you start with a small pilot study, you can more or less work out how to code your data. You will need this to be verified and will need the help of other students if your research is to be deemed reliable by other academics.

Agree the codes you use with your fellow coders and discuss them when the need arises. This usually happens when codes are not specific enough, and so are open to interpretation.

Sometimes when there is an ‘other’ option, coders choose this and the after discussion realise that ‘other’ is actually a category which the questionnaire designer had not considered. An example of this is a real case. A questionnaire asked about what problems there were in a small residential area. It cited noise, parking problems and so on. However, most respondents ticked the ‘other’ box. The questionnaires were followed up by interviews with the residents, and it transpired that the ‘other’ problem that they were concerned about was that there was a house of ill-repute in the vicinity. The coders and had to go through the questionnaires again and factor this in so that the data was richer, specific and so more reliable. It was an accident that this was discovered, but what a lucky accident it turned out to be for the research team.

Following up questionnaires wit interviews is one of the best ways of collecting rich and reliable data, even though it can be time-consuming.

you need to give yourself some leeway when coding data as it can take up much more time than you had imagined when you planned the dissertation timeline.

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