Monday, 30 September 2013

Finding Information for your Dissertation

It’s that time of year again when final year students flood into the library asking questions about finding information for their dissertations. Actually the same concerns tend to crop up every year, so here’s a few answers to some of the most common enquiries:
  • Do try to read as much as possible, as soon as possible, in relation to the topic you have in mind. Many students worry that until they’ve got a fixed title, they might waste time reading the ‘wrong’ material. It is true that you might not end up directly using everything that you read in the early stages, but it all increases your knowledge of the topic you’re looking at.
  •  One of the most common comments heard at this time of year is, "I'd like to research this topic, but I'm not sure that there's enough information available." While your tutor will be the person to speak to with regards to selecting your final title, I can assure you that it's incredibly rare for anyone to pick a topic which cannot be studied due to a lack of relevant information or research.
  • That said, consider what you already know from your course before selecting a topic. Some students will say “I know that this topic hasn’t really been researched so I’m going to look at it.” You may well be able to write your dissertation on your chosen area, but if it really is a brand new area for study then it’s going to make your literature review harder.
  • Be wary of writing a dissertation about the latest piece of technology being used in schools or nurseries. While you might see the item being mentioned a lot in magazines or newspapers, the length of time required to carry out detailed research and get it published means that you’re unlikely to find much in the way of relevant ‘academic’ research.
  •  Don't have access to a particular article which sounds really useful? Have a look to see if the author has written other pieces on the same topic – often you will find that they have published similar items in different journals, some of which you may have access to. Or you can always ask your library to order an item in for you, for a small fee.
  • Don't automatically discount articles published outside of the UK. If you are writing (for example) a dissertation about the National Curriculum or legislation, then naturally you’ll need something ‘local’. But if you’re writing more widely about (for example) child development, the fact that the articles you’ve found are from the USA is not necessarily a problem – two year olds in America are not so different from two year olds in England.
  • Do get in the habit of writing down all your references as you go along – it’s amazing how many students use several quotes from the same source, then find that a few months later, when they’re getting ready to submit their work, they don’t have the details to hand. Spending 30 seconds on getting the referencing details down can save you so much trouble later on.
  •  And finally… Use the library! This should be an obvious one, but however good you are at finding information on Google, your library will contain both print and online information that won’t be freely available on the Web. And it has staff who can help you access that information quickly and easily.
There are of course many other aspects of writing a dissertation, which your tutor will be able to advise you on. But you may also find the following articles useful:

Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started my Dissertation

Dissertation Dos and Don'ts 
(A series of articles on different aspects of writing your dissertation)

Good luck!

Students at Work

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