Conducting Research

Choosing the best topic for your research paper

When you are asked to write a longer essay or dissertation you will tend to find that one of three situations apply:

  1. You have been given a list of questions, and the task is to pick one and answer it;
  2. You are given an idea of potential areas and asked to formulate your own question;
  3. You are asked to identify what you would like to do.

This paper does not really cover the first item (though some of the more general advice is relevant) and at the undergraduate and masters level it is unlikely you will have the full degree of choice implied by the third.

Usually the list of topics will also indicate who is likely to be the supervisor. So right at the start you have two variables that can be relevant: does the broad area sound interesting; and, quite importantly, do you get on with the supervisor? If it is someone who you find uninteresting in lectures and unsympathetic when you ask for advice then you might not enjoy being supervised by them. However, the issue of broad area is much more important.

At both undergraduate and masters level the dissertation will take a lot of time and you will end up reading an awful lot on the topic, so the best advice is to choose something that sounds interesting to you now - that will help deal with the inevitable grind of doing research.

Once you have an idea of the broad area you need to move onto formulating your question. This takes a degree of care as a good question will have an answer (sounds trivial but its important) and more importantly can be reasonably answered in the word count allocated.

So: "Can renewable energy reduce the impact of Global Warming", probably can be answered but not in 10,000 words.

However, a more focussed question such as "can renewable energy contribute to maintaining UK energy supplies" probably is. Inevitably in exploring the question the issue of global warming will come up but the question can be resolved by consideration of strategies to reduce demand, and how forms of renewable energy might allow a reduction in usage of coal or nuclear power. However, even this might be too broad and a formulation of "what contribution can solar power make to the meeting UK energy needs" might become your dissertation project.

This is a very iterative process, and, to help you, most universities will also ask you not just to indicate the question you wish to follow but also to sketch out a quick summary of the entire project.

This will help you to focus on other important parts of setting a research question, in particular how will you gather and interpret the information you need

Here you need to clarify whether you can satisfy the requirement for some original research by a literature review or do you need to conduct the research yourself. Options in the latter case will vary but could include archival research, experimental activity, case studies or surveys. In thinking about this you need to consider:

  • How long will it take? If you have 10 weeks to do the dissertation then a mailed out questionnaire will rarely be effective due to delays in receiving responses;
  • Why are you using this particular approach?

The second is often overlooked and many students make the mistake of assuming that more methods means better research. So they indicate they will do both interviews and use a questionnaire. However, not only might this mean you run out of time (do not forget you need to analyse it and write up your findings) you may find the information you have gathered is irrelevant.

In summary, a good research topic should:

  • Be of interest to you;
  • Be written in such a way that you can answer the question in the time/word count available;
  • Be capable of being answered - academics sometimes call this the hypothesis;
  • Be capable of being answered by you in the time available, in this case how will you gather the information needed to prove or disprove your question?

Finally, you should read your university guidelines on dissertations. These will not only help with the practical things such as layout, word count, referencing style etc but will also give you an idea how the marks will be awarded. In turn this should influence how much effort you put into the various elements and might lead you to revise your question so as to give a better fit to these criteria.

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