From start to finish: Reflecting on the dissertation process from designing, to doing, to delivering
I have a vivid memory of being sat in my first-year tutor group discussing how, in 2 years’ time, myself and my friends would be submitting our dissertations. Having just left school, the idea of successfully designing, doing and delivering a dissertation could not have seemed further from my reach. For myself, and many other undergraduates, the thought of being handed 10,000 words (or sometimes 12,000, depending on your institution) to freely explore a topic of interest was a daunting prospect. Yet it also had much potential in demonstrating what was possible — to future employers and most importantly to myself. Having now completed my own dissertation, after a year of perseverance and commitment, I have come to appreciate the skills and techniques I have learned from designing, doing and delivering a first-class human geography dissertation, which I’ll share with you.
Let me begin by saying designing a research project from scratch is complex for academics let alone undergraduates and is a process that does not happen overnight! This is something I learned during the designing stage. I assumed that after a day of thinking about the dissertation my approach and topic would fall into place, and from then on it would be action stations go!
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead I grappled with ideas varying from rural studies, to U.K development inequalities to humanly induced climate change behaviours. Although these ideas were of great importance and of interest to me; they did not resonate with me on a personal level. This would be my greatest piece of advice; find something that you have a personal interest in, that passes the walls of the lecture theatre.
For me, this interest was veganism. I had taken an interest in a module on social and cultural geographies, which had placed a strong focus on the spatialities of identity. It was also an identity that I always wanted to learn more about but never had the opportunity to do so in such depth. Now you might be thinking, how on earth is veganism linked to geography? This is a question I have (en)countered (many a time). My answer is that almost any idea, interest or passion of yours can be situated geographically and into a dissertation. If you crack this, then you almost certainly have a dissertation topic. I had an interest in veganism and knew that I wanted to collect my data over the summer of second year. I knew I would be home for the summer and therefore knew I had to design a project closely accessible to my home.
Only 15 miles from central London, I decided it would be wise to position the idea of veganism in the context of London. Not only did this geographically concentrate my topic and narrow my research area, but it enabled me to think about concepts and theories that also manifest in cities. When you have discovered a topic and situated it within a context, my advice would be to think about how you can apply ideas you have read about, to your topic. This helps you gain an element of originality: taking both well-versed and cutting-edge academic debates and reading them anew in respect of your project. For example, I began applying theories of urbanism, cosmopolitanism and encounter upon the context of London, whilst applying theories of animal geographies and identity upon veganism. Drawing these readings and theories together and applying them upon the context of London and identity of veganism; I decided to conduct research upon a vegan social group in the city of London.
Central to the designing stage of your human geography dissertation is ensuring the feasibility of your project. Ask yourself when and where you want to collect your data. You might be volunteering abroad or completing a summer internship over your summer break; could you design a research project around these commitments, or could you design your dissertation based on these experiences? When you have answered these questions regarding project feasibility you may now begin doing your dissertation.
The doing stage of your human geography dissertation is all about how you transform your research design into a reality through data collection. After designing your dissertation, you should have some idea of what methods will help you answer your research question or investigate your topic best.
For example, I wanted to explore a London based vegan social group; it became obvious that in order to do this effectively ethnographic methods would help me best carry out my research. Your research design should naturally allow you to choose suitable methods; for example, a geologist wouldn’t use a focus group to study a rock profile! It is also important to play to your strengths and interests. I find qualitative methods such as interviews, focus groups and participant observation sessions far more interesting and engaging to conduct than quantitative research because of my skill set. If you know you enjoy and are not phased by conducting participant observation sessions or focus groups with strangers, or know you are tech-savy or familiar with programs such as SPSS or QGIS then play to these strengths. At the end of the day, if you are confident in carrying out the data collection methods you have chosen, you are already ahead of the game!
Before starting my dissertation, I didn’t realise the enormity of research methods that were out there, so again I shall stress the importance of reading! Simply searching ‘qualitative research methods’ on Google Scholar will generate millions (yes millions!) of related articles for you to sort through. The number of methods you decide to utilise is totally dependent on the nature of your research project. You could design your whole dissertation around one method if that is what interested you. For example, you could undertake a comprehensive textual analysis of a book or a film if you relate it geographically. There really are no barriers or limits to your selection of methods if they help you successfully answer your research question. Personally, I decided to triangulate my methods as I believed the combination of interviews, a focus group and participant observation sessions would help me best conduct my research; however, if you think you can answer your research question using only one method then that too is great.
Once you have confirmed your methods of research, my next word of advice would be to create a research timetable to help you manage your time efficiently and visualise your ‘doing’ stage. Whether this be on a device, diary or planner; create a window of time in which you want to conduct your research and then accordingly fill in dates, times and locations of when specific methods will be conducted. For me, this technique instantly relieved my stresses about collecting a vast amount of data in a short period of time. Knowing that each fortnight I could tick off an interview or participant observation session made the task of data collection less overwhelming. No longer was I thinking that I had to carry out 20 interviews, a focus group and five participant observation sessions over the course of 12 weeks; but instead I switched my thinking to conducting one or two interviews in a week and conducting some participant observation every three weeks.
By focusing on completing smaller tasks rather than looking at the entire data collection, I stayed focused and this relieved my anxiety. The very idea of setting weekly goals and slowly reaching your goal over a select period makes the data collection period incredibly rewarding not only during data collection but also after its completion.
Once you have finished the ‘doing’ stage of your dissertation it’s time to deliver your research, in other words you must now write your dissertation! For many (including myself) this might seem like the most daunting part of the process. Whether you are concerned about having too much or too little data to analyse or having a word count that you think you will surpass or not attain; I can guarantee you that if you use your time wisely anyone can successfully complete the final stage.
After collecting your data, the first thing you should do is arrange a meeting with your supervisor; it is their job to guide you through your dissertation, so make sure you work alongside their recommendations. Before I began delivering my dissertation, myself and my supervisor met to discuss structuring my dissertation, data analysis and many technicalities involved with delivering a 10,000-research paper.
The quality of your data analysis is central to the success of your dissertation, it is essential that you select the most suitable methods of analysis for types of data you have collected. The variety of modes of analysis remains akin to the variety of data collection methods that are available. Whatever type of data you have collected, I can assure you that there will be an analytical method to synthesis it. The same approach can be taken to structuring your dissertation, my supervisor reminded me that there is not a ‘one-size-fits all’ structure for the dissertation; just the same as there is not one human geography dissertation that is the same. For this reason, think about what makes sense for you, are there any themes that run through your dissertation that you have identified in the data analysis stage that could be stand alone analysis chapters? For example, I had two thematic data analysis chapters based upon two themes that were central to my dissertation. Equally, it might make more sense to have a stand-alone discussion and data analysis chapter. There are so many options, and your supervisor will guide you to ensure you chose the best way to deliver your dissertation.
Ironically, the greatest piece of advice I can give you when delivering your dissertation is to change the way you think about your dissertation. I found that looking at my dissertation as a 10,000-word essay was not only overwhelming but made it seem harder than it actually was. Instead I started looking at my dissertation as a series of five essays or chapters each varying in length. What people forget is that your dissertation is not just about what you found, but rather a large proportion of the project is about how you found your answers in relation to existing literature and modes of collection and analysis. Instead of sitting down and writing my dissertation from beginning to end, I decided to focus on writing a chapter in whatever order made sense to me. Thinking back to the ‘doing’ stage, and how I said breaking up data collection gives you goals to work towards and focuses your work the same is true during the delivering stage.
For example, it made sense for me to begin by writing my literature review chapter, followed by my methodology chapter, analysis chapters, conclusion and finishing off with my introduction. By effectively splitting my dissertation into five chapters and thinking of my overall paper as based upon five 2,000-word essays made the task seem a lot more manageable. Set yourself deadlines as to how long you need to spend on each chapter; not only will this will keep you motivated but will ensure you are spending enough time on each section of your dissertation.
One of the hardest things I found when delivering my dissertation was letting go of it. Of course you have to proof read your dissertation (meticulously!) to ensure its written to the highest of standards, however, there comes to a point where there is only so much you can scan over the same words before submitting it. One of the most challenging parts of the delivering stage was submitting my dissertation, for I knew that there would be no going back to it after the deadline and I wouldn’t be able to make any edits or changes to my word. However, the feeling of pride and relief when you finally submit a research paper that is well and truly yours is what makes the dissertation such a rewarding module to undertake.
Olivia Birch studied BA Geography at Liverpool, where she took an interest specifically in social geographies and geographies of encounter and postcolonialism. She shared her passion for the subject as a Senior Open Day Ambassador, partaking in public lectures and demonstrations to show what you can learn from studying Geography. Upon graduating, Olivia plans to transfer her skills borne from her geography degree into a career in consulting.