4.2: Planning for dissertations and theses

When it comes to planning your dissertation or thesis, there are many approaches and models that you can apply to your subject. Your planning processes will include selecting a specific topic, deciding on the intellectual approach, and then using a particular structural model. This portion of the chapter will provide some tips on initial reading and planning for your dissertation or thesis as well as explores some additional structures to follow.

Before we delve into how to identify key these and explore a specific topic, it is important to understand what writing a dissertation or thesis can demonstrate about you:

  • Your knowledge of a particular topic;
  • Your ability to research and think critically; and
  • Your capacity to organise and write logically.

These academic writing projects are definitely extensive, which means that planning becomes a very critical component to a successful dissertation or a successful thesis. The next few sections help you get a handle on that planning process.

Chapter 4 part 2 contents:

4.2: Planning dissertations and theses

4.2.1: Identifying key themes and exploring the topic

To begin the planning process for your dissertation or thesis, you need to first identify key themes in your initial research and then further explore your research topic. Start by going back to your research proposal as well as discussing the main themes with your supervisor, if necessary. Your key themes must form the basis for a well-constructed argument that goes beyond just reproducing facts from other research but that instead illustrates that you understand a number of concepts and how to apply these to real world issues or problems.

To identify these key themes and accomplish this objective for your dissertation or thesis means that you must consult literature that you have read in class or as part of your reading list. You will need to consider many viewpoints and diverse arguments on the topic and see if you can also address all of these as part of building your list of key themes to be included in your research.

Once you have been able to create a well-argued set of themes for your research, then you need to put these key themes into the overall framework that you are creating for your dissertation or thesis. To help you do this, you can spend time exploring your topic through careful reflection and critical thinking. One of the best ways to do this is to develop a mind map where you can use a free-form diagram with bubbles that each contain some main idea or theme about your research pulled from the reading. You may have even already done this when you developed your research proposal. If so, then you technically already have your key themes and can apply these to what you are now going to do in terms of dissertation planning or thesis planning.

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4.2.2: Planning your time

And, speaking of planning, it is time to return to the subject of time and how time management helps you with successful planning. While you may have thought we covered everything there was to discuss about time management, there is more!

First, planning and time management go hand in hand. When you plan, you can balance your time and put effort into different components and leave enough time to cover everything you are required to do for your dissertation or thesis. Here is a plan for planning your time:

  • Look at submission dates on key milestones.
  • Work out how much time you have between each milestone and the final due date.
  • Decide how much time you have and can devote to each milestone.
  • Remember to work in other tasks that you still have in addition to the dissertation or thesis.
  • Divide the available time into workable sessions that you devote to that particular task or milestone.
  • Create a timetable or use the one from your research proposal. Things to include on the timetable (if you do not already have one) should be topic analysis, preliminary reading, topic analysis, supplementary reading, primary and/or secondary research, first draft, reviewing and editing, formatting and printing and additional time for the unexpected that always seems to pop up.

Now it is time to spend a time reviewing how to find and select the most relevant research material for your dissertation or thesis.

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4.2.3: Finding relevant material

To get you focused on planning for your dissertation or thesis, you will need to locate the most relevant research material for your topic. This includes putting together background information to put the topic into context, including issues and problems associated with the topic. You may find this information through your own research or you may be able to start with the reading list you have been provided for your course. If you are going to use this reading list, just be careful because the list may also include a number of general or extremely in-depth texts that do not necessarily relate to your topic, which could have you going off-course. And, when it comes to your dissertation or thesis, you are expected to move beyond your reading list and locate your own source material as part of the academic exercise.

Since you are on a limited time-frame, it is important to know how to plan your initial research hunt, including identifying the types of sources and materials as quickly as you can. Key sources of background information for this initial search of relevant information include the following types:

  • Course handouts and presentations: These often contain the key concepts, theories, and themes that may align with your research project.
  • Lecture notes: Again, these are also useful in finding background information and key topics that are in line with what you might be tackling in your dissertation or thesis.
  • Electronic and library encyclopaedias: While these are typically not approved as an academic source to use within your dissertation or thesis, these volumes are good for your own information to get background information.
  • On-line articles: The benefit of these sources are that they have some of the most current information on specific topics, issues, and problems that you might be covering in your research, providing context and relevance for your research.
  • Databases: These are good for statistical information or demographic information that you may need to shape your research.
  • Specialist materials at the library: The library at your University often contains specialist information, catalogues, documents and other sources that could help you find additional content that is relevant for your research.

In order to verify that the information you find in these locations is relevant, you can view the contents page of each source, article, or book and locate the key topics discussion therein to see if it fits with your topic. Also, consider looking at the list of references for that article or book to see if you can find other sources that way or to also verify that it will be a source that is helpful to what you are trying to achieve.

To further check if a source will work, you can take the approach a journalist would do with their research by asking yourself these questions as you consider each source:

  • Who is involved in the topic in terms of people or organisations?
  • What are the problems or issues covered?
  • When is the time-frame of the information in terms of current approach?
  • Where did the information occur?
  • Why is this research relevant or connected to your own topic?
  • How has the situation been approached or addressed in a way that aligns with your topic?

If you see connections this way when answering the questions, then it is a source that you should read through in greater detail and include in your initial relevant research. As you go through more sources, you will become more familiar with your topic and in narrowing down the sources more quickly.

From there, you need to ask yourself further questions that can help narrow the information and keep it aligned with your key themes so that you do not find yourself taking too broad of an approach with your research. These questions might include:

  • Who are the key people involved in the events or problems?
  • What is the criteria being used for a particular situation or problem identification?
  • What explanations are being offered to put forth a particular viewpoint on an event or problem?
  • Are there patterns in the short- and long-term factors that are involved?
  • Are there themes that carry across many different research studies that address the same issue as in your proposed research?

In getting answers to these questions, you may be directing yourself toward a specific structural model that you can use to organise the writing you will be doing for your dissertation or thesis. The next section will provide you with a number of traditional structure models that are used for this type of academic writing.

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4.2.4: Selecting a model

In this section, we will provide you with an overview of seven traditional structural models for writing. Later on in this book, we will cover the dissertation structure in greater detail, but this section about structural models is intended to help you with planning and getting organised from the start as well as recommend a certain structural model for certain types of subject areas.

Chronological Model

  • The chronological model involves a description of a process or describes relating a sequence.
  • The writing tends to be descriptive and focuses on some type of development process that has a time-line attached to it, such as the development of the European Union or the use of the Internet in business.

Classification Model

  • The classification model is used for topics that involve categorising ideas or objects.
  • The classification system tends to be subjective in terms of how the information is classified.
  • It is often found in scientific speciality areas and tends to move from the general to the specific.
  • A good example is to look at types of transport in terms of how they are powered or used effectively.

Common Denominator Model

  • The common denominator model is beneficial for identifying a common theme or characteristic in the material.
  • can be used for social and economic subject matter where there be a number of factors that result from a common denominator problem or issue in society.

Phased Model

  • The phased model is particularly beneficial for those areas that have short- or long-term factors involved in the problem.
  • This allows the research to look at different issues or potential solutions at different points in time, including the present and the future.

Analytical Model

  • The analytical model involves looking at an issue in an in-depth manner by covering the situation, problem, solution, evaluation and recommendation phases.
  • When an issue is particularly complex, this is a good model to use. Complex issues can cross all types of speciality and subject areas.

Thematic Model

  • The thematic model involves discussing a theme in each aspect of the research.
  • Themes become the primary focus in identifying certain characteristics involved in a situation or problem.
  • Examples could be themes tied to social, political, environmental or economic factors.

Comparative Model

  • The comparative model compares and contrasts areas within a theme or multiple themes.
  • This model is similar to the thematic model but it involves looking at what is similar and what is different in relation to a particular set of factors within a problem or situation. There are two methods that can be used within this model.
  • The first approach is to introduce the topic and then make a grid that shows the positive and negative aspects with each person or factor involved in that situation or problem.
  • The second approach is to introduce the topic and then discuss the perspective of each person or factor involved to understand where there is agreement and disagreement.

Once you select your structural model, you can begin to move forward with your dissertation or thesis, but before you do, we have some more practical planning tips for your dissertation or thesis to consider and apply.

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4.2.5: Practical planning tips

We have put together a number of practical planning tips for your dissertation or thesis that will continue to help you be productive, motivated, and efficient with your work. Here is a list of practical planning tips to add to your strategy:

  • Keep your research material: You may not use all of the research at the beginning stages or during the planning process, but it could be useful later on. Rather than give it up only to need it later, you can save time by just filing it in a way that you can find it if needed. It could be useful for helping you understand a point later on or even for future research projects.
  • Take the time to read: While you may feel you should rush through reading, you should make sure you take enough time without going overboard and losing track of your schedule. The reading will help you focus on your key themes and keep your mind actively involved in the process of planning and writing your dissertation or thesis.
  • Keep records of all sources: Make sure you know what type of referencing system you are using from the beginning of your research. This way, you can type up the reference list as you go. Even if you do not use all the sources you have made a reference for, this saves serious time later on when you are working on the dissertation or thesis presentation. Anything that saves time is a must!
  • Explain your research approach: Both you and your supervisor need to know and easily identify your research approach as they look over your work. In fact, it should be clear from the introduction which direction you are taking with your research.
  • Finalise your project plan: Take all that you have learned here and formalise it by putting it in writing so you can refer back to it as you undertake the various stages of your dissertation or thesis.

While these tips and recommendations can be applied to a research report as well as the dissertation and thesis format, the next section looks more carefully at specifically how to plan for a research, or experimental, project report. If this is not something you are doing, then you can skip ahead to our next chapter, which will focus on greater detail associated with acquiring your research material.

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4.3: Planning for research reports

If you are working toward a science degree, you will most likely have to construct a research report or something that is commonly referred to as an experimental project. You will have a limited amount of time - less so than what would be allotted to a thesis or a dissertation - and you will have to spend some of that time in the field or a lab to undertake the necessary amount of observation and experimentation that is required of scientific study.

With more to do in less time, research reports need some careful and thoughtful planning. This means you will need a:

  • Hypothesis and experiment design;
  • Flexible approach;
  • Complete focus;
  • Plan of action;
  • Efficient field or lab plan; and
  • Organised information and results for a quick write-up.

Each of these areas will be discussed further in the following sections to ensure you are prepared to undertake effective planning for your research report or experimental project.

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4.3.1: Flexible approach

Like with all research projects, you can reach your project topic any number of ways, including being allocated a topic, selecting a topic from a list, or deciding on a topic with the help of your supervisor or tutor. If you need to select your own, here is a good way to be flexible in your approach:

  • Pick a starting point for your research by looking at a set of observations, a test of a key technique, or a simple experiment.
  • Understand and be prepared for the fact that the direction of the research may change over time as you carry out your research so that you plan in flexibility if this happens. This may involve changing methods, experimental subjects, or certain conditions involved in the experiment.
  • Work with your supervisor who can guide you to the initial approach and help you understand how to interpret the results and determine what type of modifications may be needed.
  • Get comfortable with the idea that the evolutionary process within your research will become a critical aspect of your research report as it illustrates how you are applying the scientific method to a particular experiment or area of learning. Therefore, it is not a bad thing if you have to be flexible in your research approach and change it along the way. If you happen to end up with negative results, this is not a bad thing but something you can learn from and incorporate in your research report to illustrate how you used them to adapt your research.

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4.3.2: Complete focus

Your complete focus should be on the end product - a finished research report. This will help you get from the start with an idea of what you want to do and finish with a succinct report that can then lead to a thesis or dissertation. To help get a complete focus, there are a few things you can do:

  • Look at your University course handbook to understand the expectations about length, presentation, and referencing as well as the due date and marking criteria.
  • See if you can look at research reports produced by students in the past who received good marks as this will help you focus on the most appropriate style, presentation, content and synthesis of information.
  • Talk to other students or academic staff that have experience with these types of research reports as they can provide advice, tips, and some of the dos and don’ts associated with a research or experimental report.

By doing these things, you may be able to get a better idea of what you should focus on with your research, data collection and analysis, critical thinking, alternative approaches and presentation of the results. If you are still struggling, your supervisor may need to help you with creating the complete focus you need to succeed with your research report.

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4.3.3: Plan of action

As you typically only have one term or semester to complete this type of project, you need a tight plan of action to get all the work done. Even if it at first seems like a lot of time, it is anything but when you consider what you have to accomplish as well as keep up with your other coursework. Not to mention, lab and field work take a lot of time and things do not always go as planned, which means trying to incorporate another set of research when Plan A does not work. You do not want the research report to be rushed because it will show in the quality of your write-up, content, conclusions and format.

When creating this plan of action that will keep you on track with your research report, this is what you will need to take into account:

  • Prep work: Prep work includes reading, surveying, putting together equipment, getting chemicals and making up solutions as well as anything else that is necessary to begin experimentation.
  • Preliminary observations or experiments: This involves a quick experiment to see if you are on the right track as well as gathering any thoughts on what could be done better or more effectively when you do begin your research or experimentation.
  • A test for your central hypothesis: This is the central part of what will form your research report because it is your main research that is conducted through a set of experiments and observations that test your central hypothesis. This is where you may need to repeat your experiments or switch to that Plan B if the experiment or methods do not work.
  • Data analysis and presentation: Because this is also very time-consuming, it is good to work up your presentation and analyse the data as you go through the process. This is also helpful in case you have to alter your approach because it will help you illustrate why you had to change your approach.
  • Write-up and proofreading: As with any writing project, it always takes longer than you anticipate, so be sure to leave yourself plenty of time. If you can write as you go, this makes it easier and may provide you with more time to revise, edit, and proofread your research report.

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4.3.4: Efficient field or lab plan

If you are working in the field, in the lab, or a little bit of both, you will need to use your time wisely to get what you need for your research report or experimental project report. We have put together a quick list of tips for creating and implementing an efficient field or lab plan:

  • Develop a daily plan of action for each day you are in the field or in the lab. It should have a check-list of the tasks that you need to complete that day in the order of priority. We discussed how to make this type of list and how to prioritise earlier on in this book, so if you are not sure, flip back to our section on time management.
  • Get the background work out of the way so you have this as a context and as an aid to facilitate the work you need to do. For instance, read up on how to use the equipment you will need or on techniques that can help you be as efficient and accurate as possible. Also prepare tables on your computer or in your notebook so you can quickly enter results.
  • Review safety procedures for working in the lab to make sure you are safe as well as others who are working with or around you.
  • Be prepared with the right clothing and equipment. You may also want to have your notes and data on hand if you are taking the time to meet with your supervisor on the lab or field work.
  • Stay focused on what you need to do rather than become distracted by others who may be working in the lab or in the field alongside you.
  • Think ahead to the next day in the lab or in the field by cleaning up your lab work area, getting it in ordering, labelling your experiments or solutions and putting a daily plan together to start on.

Beyond these tasks, you will have to continue working toward organising your results and information so you can provide yourself with enough time to revise, edit, and proofread. To learn more about how to do this, read on to the next section.

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4.3.5: Organised information and results for quick write-up

There are many ways to organise your information for your research report that can save you precious time. Here are our recommendations on keeping results and data in a shape where you can quickly put it into a write-up:

  • Keep a lab notebook where you record all the details on what you are doing as well as the data and results that come from your experiments or your observations in the field.
  • Make copies of lab schedules and lab protocols so you can refer to this information later on when you do your write-up.
  • Get your introduction section drafted early on so you can have this out of the way. You can even write other sections of your research report as you go as well. These sections can be revised later if anything changes but you at least have the bulk of the writing already in draft format.
  • Use spare time to create graphs and tables for the observations and information you are gathering through your research or experiments. The more you can do as you go, the less you will have to try and reconstruct later.
  • Be familiar with your referencing format for citing and listing the references you use for your research report. Put this format into a file and start adding references as you go in this format so you do not have to put it together later on.
  • Always think ahead to make sure you do not miss anything along the way or you can combine tasks for more effective time management.
  • Maintain regular communications with your supervisor so you can discuss your results with them as they happen, including what the data means. This is also beneficial if anything goes wrong with your intended research methodology and you have to take some type of corrective action or change course.
  • Keep back-up files of all your work, including your writing, data, and graphical representations. You do not want to lose these and have to start all over again!
  • Ensure spare time for any unexpected events, such as a change in research direction or any equipment breakdown so you can still meet the submission date for your research report and not be penalised for being late.

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Chapter 4: In Summary

What's Next?

Now that you have a sense of how to plan for your research report, dissertation, and thesis, you will need to now move onto learning how to acquire all your necessary research for the work that lies ahead. Before you go onto what's next, just remember these last few tips on planning for your academic writing projects:

  • Confirm your report format for whatever project you are doing so that you can develop the right plan of action for attacking it and ensuring you get the appropriate content and referencing format for it.
  • Keep good files, including back-ups, on everything you do whether it is for hard-copy references or digital files of content, research, and results. You cannot afford to lose any of this information and then find yourself starting over after already devoting many hours to your dissertation, thesis, or research report planning.
  • Discuss your plans with your fellow students and supervisor. While it is somewhat of an independent project, this does not mean you need to work in isolation all the time. Other people can provide valuable advice that saves you time and hassle. These recommendations or tips can help you handle any type of unexpected situation or setback that, on your own, would feel impossible to overcome. Compare notes with your fellow students and discuss your plans. This will not only provide good assistance, but it will also keep you motivated to carry on.

Now, it is time to set the wheels in motion to acquire all the appropriate research for your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

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