How to write a dissertation.
This is a practical guide to help you develop, write and complete a successful MBA dissertation.
This guide assumes that you haven’t written a dissertation before and covers all of the basics.
Using research methods textbooks is still necessary but this guide will show you each step of the process.
The basic rule is to follow the guidelines, be systematic and understand that writing a dissertation is a particular way of producing an academic piece of work, which is very different to just writing an essay. The main difference is that a dissertation is a structured, thorough argument that shows your ability to do research.
It is really like constructing a large Lego building – you need an idea (a plan) of the whole thing, then a guide to how all the bits fit together and then make sure you have all the right pieces in the right order – and bingo you then have a nice neat temple ready to go.
A flow chart of your ideas can be useful as a way of planning the structure of your dissertation.
Start by finding the topic that really interests you. Then find a supervisor who will show you the ropes.
The Cover – Titles and Titling
You can do a great deal with a title – think of how a great title catches your eye:-
War and Peace – what do you think this book is about?
The title of your dissertation should be as clear as it is possible – if you get this right you are well on the way.
“An examination of the use of Facebook in marketing campaigns for teenage clothes”
This is a good title because it tells you exactly about how, when and where the topic will be developed.
‘A study of employee performance”
This is a bad title because it could be about almost anything.
How to write your title-
Here are some good titles off the top of our heads:-
A good research question is:
Do not start on your dissertation until you have a good research question and you understand what research is about. Planning is vital.
So: To begin your dissertation you will need-
Making the Research Question, Aims and Objectives, formulating Hypotheses
What is a ‘research interest’? Here are some examples: – and notes on the difficulties.
And so on…
So transforming an interest in to a question
A research interest is a wide, vaguely defined area, expressed in a paragraph;it may lead to a question.
A good research question is narrow, tightly defined, expressed in a sentence, must lead to an answer, and is essential to answer
Good, and not so good research questions:
You get the drift, we hope. Be specific, and reflect on how you will get access to meaningful sources.
To select a topic make sure it is something that you are really interested and that you know about and that you can realistically get information about.
If you are stuck get a copy of the FT and of City.am and look at all of the major currant topics- select 5 you are interested in and then think about how you would approach it. Three key things drive the decision of what your dissertation is about.
Look on the web, look at previous dissertations, look in the research methods books on the reading lists, they will all give you ideas.
Ok. I have got a topic, a title and a research question – what do I do next? Simples – you do the abstract.
Abstract What is an abstract?
It is a 200-300 word summary of the whole dissertation
What’s it for?
It is to give the examiner a clear idea of what the dissertation is attempting to do. For example –
“This dissertation is an empirical study of the implementation of firewall systems in a clothing online company and its impact on customer sales and access etc.”
A good abstract is clear and simple and tells the examiner everything they need to know.
At the end of the abstract you should put some keywords; these help you, and the examiner, see straightaway what the main topic is.They also are very useful for putting into search engines to find academic material on the research question.
Example – Research question is ‘Examining the Key indicators of employee motivation and performance in the financial sector in Britain, 200-2011’. Keywords: key indicators, employee motivation, financial sector, performance, Britain.Once you’ve looked at a few academic articles you will get the hang of it, as they all have keywords attached to them. Look at the abstract databases and academic journals.
Now for the introduction…
This is my friend Nihal —is that what you mean?
Well that’s not completely wrong because what the introduction is there to do is to introduce the whole background and context of the research question to the examiner.
The introductory chapter of your dissertation should include
You can think of the introduction as being an extended version of the abstract that fills in a lot of the detail about what is going to happen in the dissertation.
The introduction ‘signposts’ how the dissertation will be structured – this is what makes a dissertation different to an essay or short piece of writing – it is a long, organised argument that presents in-depth research to answer a question.
Doing the Literature review
(this section is far too often not done properly and leads to a weak dissertation) _________________________________________________________________________
My title is ‘ An analysis of the Key Indicators of motivation that affects employee performance in the financial sector in Britain,2000- 2010
So my Keywords are ‘employee performance’ motivation’ and the ‘financial sector’ because these are the main ideas in my research. I put these in Google scholar or any other database and I try and find articles that directly discuss this problem.
And what do you do then?
Well if you really smart you use a citation index.
What is one of them, and why would I use it?
Well it is a listing of all academic articles and then they are ranked in terms of the numbers of times they have been quoted by someone else – or the number of times they have been cited.
So what’s the point of that?
Well it reflects the general importance of the article you are quoting, which is a useful tool in thinking about your particular research problem.
Is it essential to use them?
Well it’s not essential but it’s a very good idea to find out what the most important topics of debate are.
Here’s a quote from a useful site on how to use citation indexes.
“Citation indexes track references that authors put in the bibliographies of published papers. They provide a way to search for and analyze the literature in a way not possible through simple keyword/topical searching. It also enables users to gather data on the “impact” of journals, as well as assessing particular areas of research activity and publication.” (University of Texas library website)
Where else do I find academic literature about my topic?
The other important place to look, besides the bibliographies of already published books on the subject, are abstract databases
And they are?
They are specialist academic databases that list all of the articles produced by writers that have been published in journals and conference proceedings. They give the abstract of what the article is about and links to the full thing.
So I use my keywords and find all the relevant articles, right?
When you have found the 20-30 most important articles/books about your topic in the literature review you just need tosummarize what everyone says.
The present estimate is that about 1.2 million academic articles are now written every year – so it is fairly unlikely that there is nothing written on your topic. At the end of literature review you should have an idea of the appropriate way to approach your research question. Summarize what you have discovered in the literature review.
This is the bit a lot of people have trouble with – but again it is straightforward if you think about what it is you are trying to do.
What am I trying to do?
You are trying to find the best method to approach your topic – sometimes called horses for courses.
I don’t like horses and I’ve never been riding.
It is an expression that means certain things are best in certain places, some horses run better at a course that is hilly than a flat one.
Ah, so sometimes one method of research is better than another one depending on the topic? You are already out in front on this one.
For the Masters student of business research the aim of the RM chapter is to demonstrate:-
The most important thing about a research methodology is that it is APPROPRIATE to the research question that you working on
How do you define ‘appropriate’ in this context?
It’s like this if the dissertation is like a car then the engine is the idea and the methodology is the gearbox – it’s what drives the vehicle along – if it’s the wrong gearbox for the engine it won’t move.
Why do some people use onions in research? Because they make you cry?
I think you are referring to the infamous ‘Research Onion’ beloved of Saunder et al.
Why it is bad?
It is overly complex.
Don’t forget you need to talk about the limitations of the study and the approaches –this shows you are aware of the problems.
What’s a research philosophy then?
It is the basic theoretical approach you take to understanding the world.
How you interpret the world and explain how it works, you might think that the world is fixed and unchanging or you might think that everything changes all the time, these views are completely opposite and represent a philosophical approach.
So why do I need a research philosophy?
To explain what sort of information and data you will collect, how you will collect it and why it is valid.
Positivism is a theory that the world is knowable through observation and that facts can be demonstrated by deduction.
Testing things against known theories, building hypothesis and making measurements and showing facts. Generally being quantitative in approach.
Doesn’t everyone do that and agree with it?
Nope, there are people called Interpretivists who say that in effect reality is constructed in different ways by different people, so thereare multiple realities.
You are confusing me, what’s that got to do with business studies?
How you interpret what consumers think about a product may involve understanding their emotions rather than facts about how cars are built, so you are always interpreting how the world works.
So I guess that sort of philosophical approach tends to use qualitative methods because it is trying to analyze realities rather than just report on them? I couldn’t have put that better myself.
And what’s a realist? Realists take the view that things can be understood straightforwardly, just treated as existing without worrying about whether they obey fixed laws, like the positivists say, or are completely made up (relativistic) as the Interpretivistssay.
So my research philosophy is really my idea of how to understand how the world works? Precisely. And that dictates what methodology you use.
Your research approach, methodology and philosophy should all be inter-linked and be appropriate to your topic and area of study. A guide to this should come out of your literature review- because you will have looked at research that is doing similar things to your topic.
You should now have a clear plan of action
I have a horse called Research Philosophy and I have a map of where I am going, so like Napoleon I will conquer Europe – or at least write a good dissertation.
Before you go you need some idea of where you are going to get data from for your research!
I knew there was something, where do I get data from?
What sort of data you need, and where you get it from, also depends on the sort of research approach you have adopted – sometimes it’s statistics and sometimes it’s in-depth interviews with particular people.
Important places to find information.
ONS. ILO Directory of Open access journals (DOAJ) Abstract databases (like ERA etc) RBA Information site. Citation indexes. Conference proceedings (often only published on the web) BL. (or any other library catalogue) Government reports (almost always free access)
Important places to find information cont.
Joseph Rowntree Trust British Sociological Association. Google Scholar. More or Less (BBC statistics programme)
Have a research design as well – the plan of how you do all of the above
Research design is just like the diagram for assembling an IKEA wardrobe – it shows what you do, how you do it and where everything goes. Or to put it more technically it is the string of logic that links the data to be collected and the conclusions to be drawn to the initial research question.
Thereare basically four problems that research designs deal with:
This is really the plan of how the whole dissertation works and provides the structure that is central to the whole process.
A dissertation is a structured argument which deals both with how to research, what to research and the proper methodology for doing.
Where do I begin my research design?
This is often the fundamental dilemma for business research students. The simple answer is as early as possible on the whole programme, if not before. We say again, keep an ideas diary from day one of the programme. In there, repeatedly mull over what are my research interests, and how can I forge them into a sensible research question with SMART objectives. The sharper your question becomes the clearer the research tools, techniques and volumes of data to answer it become.
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