Planning a dissertation/thesis

Writing a dissertation (undergrad) or thesis (postgrad) is an important component of many degrees. Around this time of year, most people will be planning and writing as their due date nears. In this blog post, I'll be giving a brief run-down of how I'm currently planning and writing my thesis and what I've learned so far.

A full e-book on scientific writing will be launching around the start of the 2022 academic year!

What's the difference between a dissertation and a thesis?

The main difference between a thesis and a dissertation is when they are completed. A thesis tends to be a project that marks the end of a Master's or PhD, whilst a dissertation is done at the end of your undergraduate degree (this is for the UK, apparently in the US it's the other way round). A thesis tends to be longer than a dissertation and your project is expected to contribute new results to the field. The structures are pretty much the same.

Planning your dissertation or thesis is not a linear journey. Your research question is likely to change, you may not collect enough results in time and you will probably have to adapt your project a lot before you write. Therefore, the planning stage can take a few months and you should definitely be liaising with your supervisor on the best way to approach your topic. These are the key steps to planning your work:

1. Find a topic

Finding a good topic is the hard bit. You can't start planning without one. This is a time to do a preliminary literature search and gather information from a variety of sources. One of your best sources will be your supervisor. They are there to provide their expertise and will know what gaps / research questions still need to be answered in their field. They can help you narrow down your topic so that you can produce a good project about it.

2. Literature search

You then need to start your literature search. I often get into rabbit holes of reading lots of papers that branch off into related but IRRELEVANT topics to my main research question. To avoid this, below are some tips that have helped me:

  • Make a list of keywords related to your research question.

  • Search for your keywords. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include: Your university’s library catalogue, Medline or PubMed (life sciences and biomedicine), Google Scholar, JSTOR... I first do a Google Search but to cut out some of the irrelevant results that come up, you can use the databases above.

  • CITE AS YOU GO ALONG: I use Mendeley as it has a Microsoft Word add-in tool that let's you 'cite as you write', but EndNote is also very popular. You need to make sure you're keeping a record of the papers that stood out to you and support your research because you are going to need to cite them throughout. You should NOT need to buy these. You should be able to download them for free through your institution using your student email! (King's students, this is where you should be able to download software from).

  • Select and evaluate papers carefully. Select based on whether: the question/problem the author is addressing is similar to yours; the key theories, models, and methods are relevant to your research; the results and conclusions of the study already give you an idea of what your results might show and will be the evidence-base for how they fit into the current research (discussion); make a note of the strengths and limitations of the research you're reading (where relevant, it is important to highlight this. I.e. for my thesis, lots of research already shows that parent and child mental health are linked HOWEVER, most papers have only conducted research on mothers)... Mentioning limitations demonstrates critical thinking - no result is perfect or representative and should be taken in the context of the study that was conducted.

3. Outline your topic

Next, you need to outline your topic using what you've read. A research outline gives you a clear overview of what your work is going to cover including what each section or chapter will focus on. It will frame your main ideas and supporting arguments which will serve as a writing guide!

Outlining your topic can look something like this:

  • Write down your primary research question (+ secondary research q's you may need to touch on in order to answer your main one).

My thesis example: Primary research q: Is there a bi-directional association between poor parental mental health and the likelihood of a child being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder?

Secondary research q: What are the moderating, mediating, and confounding effects of child and parent characteristics on this relationship?

  • Write down the current trends and patterns (in theory, methods, or results) that you found in your literature search

What is already known about your topic? What types of investigations do most studies do? What are the common theoretical concepts underlying the reason for the results seen?

My thesis example: There is already strong research to suggest a bi-directional association between poor parental mental health and child psychiatric disorder. There is more research focused on parent mental health and the risk of transmission to children. The effects that a child with a psychiatric disorder can have on their parent and the factors that can contribute to this are less often studies. Low socioeconomic status, female gender, genetics, and psychological stress are some key risk factors for mental health disorders in both children and parents. Most studies conduct surveys but they use different tools to 'measure' mental health in the parent or child (in addition, as you can imagine, mental health is very hard to measure anyway).

  • Debates, conflicts, and contradictions: where do sources disagree?

My thesis example: Many papers I read suggest there is only a top-down parent effect (i.e. parents with poor mental health cause children to have poor mental health but it is insignificant the other way round). Other studies have found bidirectionality. Furthermore, some papers suggest that it doesn't matter whether the mother or father has mental health problems, they both have the same effect on the child. Other papers claim that it differs depending on the parent.

You will find LOTS of conflicting evidence online, but draw out the ones that have particular relevance to your project and even better - if your project will help contribute to the evidence.

  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential papers that changed the landscape of research in your field?

My thesis example: My research fits into the realm psychiatry so Lancet Psychiatry papers tend to be the most pivotal publications in my field. I also cited quite a few papers by my supervisor because she is spearheading this type of research!

  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed? How is your project going to address them (really good to state this if you can - don't overpromise of course)?

My thesis example:

  • What are the child or parent factors that mediate, moderate or confound the relationship between child and parent mental health? > How MUCH do they influence the relationship?

  • Do mothers and fathers have the same impact?

  • Do children with mental health disorders affect their parents more than, equally or less so than parents with poor mental health do to their children?

4. Design a methodology for gathering and analysing your data / information

You may need to use interviews, surveys, observations, go into the lab to conduct experiments... whatever methodology you use to gather your data, you MUST make sure it is relevant and you have a reason for doing it - make a note of everything.

Important considerations

Ethics approval:

Ethics approval is generally needed for ANY research that involves human participants; their tissue and /or data to ensure that the dignity, rights, safety, and well-being of all participants are the primary consideration of the research project. For most animal studies, you may not require full approval. However, even if you are going to be working with animal subjects, I would explicitly check with your supervisor if there is an ethics application you specifcally need to make for your project and they can direct you to the right source. Many supervisors will already have ethics approvals for a range of projects under their name but if you are setting up your own entirely, you are likely to have to submit a new one. You want to get this done AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE because they can often take a while (they move through lots of different people who have to approve at each stage). If you think you'll need ethics approval, this should be at the top of your priority list.

Data storage and analysis:

Ultimately, you, as the researcher, are responsible for the appropriate use and storage of the data you are using (even if it was collected on your behalf as in my case). Again, this is something to check with your supervisor and your institution. My supervisor recommended I take a course and assessment to become an Accredited Researcher for the Office for National Statistics in order to access secure data they had collected with NHS Digital. This taught me how to store and manage data safely. Then, I also had to undertake extra e-learning that was Cambridge-specific as they store data in their own secure hub which is the only way I can access it as a student here. A lot of training and rules surround data collection, storage and sharing but it is really important you adhere to them. It can be hard to get your head around but find out what you need to do and get it done AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. These types of things will hold you up in the long-run.

It is then really important you write an analysis plan. Once you've got your data, how exactly are you going to make sense of it? This will form the bulk of your methods and is what the examiner is most interested in in this section. This great training document by the CDC outlines what you should be thinking about when deciding how to analyse (mainly scientific) data.

Overall, writing methods is the most boring but EASY part! It was the first thing I wrote and it took me less than an hour (bare in mind, my thesis is based on a secondary analysis of a dataset already collected for me so the methods were pretty much DONE for me)!

5. Structure your paper

There is a standard structure for pretty much any long-form piece of work (and you can always get a specific dissertation outline example from your supervisor - I asked for successful thesis examples and literally have 5 to model off of, it helps so much)! The standard structure can be found below (I would input it as a table of Contents into your Word Document before you even start writing: in Word, click References > Table of Contents)

  • Title page, declaration (your university will give you statements to include in these sections), acknowledgements (should be reserved for anyone who supported you with the work i.e. your supervisor and research team)

  • Abstract

  • Abbreviations (if any)

  • Introduction - what is currently known from your literature review (see your topic outline above), your current study and its aims & hypotheses

  • Methods - design, participants, outcome measures, analysis plan (statistical tests you used, etc.)

  • Results

  • Discussion

  • Limitations

  • Conclusion

  • References, appendices, supplementary material

This is a great way to visualise your progress and begin writing in the right sections. Things will move around and you can make it original with your own subheadings to help the reader navigate your work. Get feedback from your supervisor as you go along with your writing!

Recommending reading (sites that really helped me get started):

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