Look before You Leap: Giving Consideration to your Dissertation Topic

From The Desk Of The Dissertation Doctor

In my second article on dissertation writing I intend to continue on my quest to attempt to navigate through the murky world of dissertation writing for those out there of an academic persuasion. Firstly, thanks to those fine people who emailed and facebooked me (yes, that word has made it into the lexicon) with comments on my first article in this series.

So, back to Dissertation and Theses. You might wonder why these titles are used interchangeably by some Colleges and individuals. Really, there isn’t a definitive answer. There tends to be a preference in the UK and in Ireland for ‘Thesis’ and in the US for ‘Dissertation’ but one tends to find variances on this, particularly when moves from Diploma to Degree to Postgraduate Diploma or Degree. Knock yourself out. If you feel you are undertaking a Dissertation then tell the world. And, if you feel it’s a thesis, that’s fine too. Whatever floats your boat…


Think before you Leap

Five per cent of the people think; ten per cent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five per cent would rather die than think” – Edison

It seems timely being February and just into a new academic session to write an article about the start of a process, the very core of research.  What should I research and why? What might be an important or interesting contribution to knowledge?

Did you know there are over 140 different varieties of Irish apples? When I was a child, a favourite pursuit of Ray, my best friend and I, was to, ahm, purloin such apples from various generous local amateur horticulturists in and around Salthill and its environs. Some of their ‘Golden Wonder’ and ‘Granny Smith’ filled gardens were located over high walls, others behind locked gates and others still hidden away in greenhouses and glasshouses. But, we always managed to find our way. This was because we planned each mission like the little and large Bond agents we imagined ourselves to be. Nothing was left to chance. Entrance and exit strategies were devised, considered and finely tuned. We looked at various contingencies. We were smart. We had hand drawn maps.

Having stated the above, I suppose it depends on the level of postgraduate studies one is engaged in, but I do have one word of advice based on our pre-University apple stealing days (and, yes, I know Oscar Wilde famously said “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself”) and that is think long and hard about the topic you are considering researching.

This might seem entirely obvious, but my experience lecturing, supervising and examining postgraduate students in several Colleges over fifteen years is it does not work out this way in practice. I continually find myself working with clients here in the Clinic these days who are “sick to their back teeth”, “fed up beyond belief”, “tired beyond life itself” (you get the picture) with their topic and this might only be at literature review stage!

Now, this used to shock me but not anymore. I have deduced there are generally two reasons for this. The first is that the student has been successful in some form of grant application process or Departmental study but had no real interest in the specific area of research. Quite simply, it came the way of the prospective postgrad.

And, many students are excellent writers and can win grants through submission of excellent applications ticking all the boxes. But, there is no feeling in the topic, no emotion, no heart and this eventually percolates through in the finished product. Ouch! I hear some readers saying. “Research has to be dispassionate, objective and clinical”. I know only too well from experience that the academic community just loves these words but I am going to devote a full article here to objectivity in postgraduate research as it is such a misunderstood and thorny issue and pull apart some of the ‘methodologically scientific’ claims that are so replete in papers and theses but so empty in actuality.

The second reason tends to be where the genuinely interested student simply does not sit down and take a preliminary look at the literature on a topic finding out too early or too late in the research process that there is a complete absence of peer-reviewed scholarly articles or, indeed, a complete over-abundance of it. What to do then? Wade through literally acres of boring material whilst looking for the one little sub-question that interests one? No, no, no. Just avoid this route by taking some time to read around your proposed topic and familiarise yourself with it. Know who the leading authorities are, what their theories are, how these have been constructed and, crucially, what their detractors or opposing theorists have to say. Then, and only then, should you submit an application. Because, you will have identified where you think you might like your research to go even if the actual process ultimately takes you somewhere else.

So, at the start of the academic hunting season that is 2013, so to speak, check your equipment, clean your guns, test your rifle sites, ensure there are no holes in your fine Wellington boots and go forth into the marshes and forests confident that you have thought through the process and will, more likely, have a successful outcome.

Oh, and if you come across any hidden apple tree groves, please be sure to email me! I’d like a little apple time again…

Dr. Niall MacGiolla Bhuí is the author/co-author of several academic books in addition to many peer-reviewed papers for various academic journals around the world. He was founding editor of the Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies for ten years.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.