Since I started working towards my dissertation I have spoken to lots of people who have asked about how I chose my topic, and, more often, how they should choose theirs.
Everyone in academia will have to contend with a dissertation or similar long project at some point. With this in mind, I’ve written down some tips that I picked up along the way.
1. Start early.
Even before I applied to my MA I had an idea about where my dissertation might take me – I’d chosen the course with gender and media in mind. Once I had a place, I checked out the research interests of the staff in my school to see who might be best placed to help me (these can usually be found on the University website or in course handbooks). I emailed Professor Karen Ross, who specialises in gender and media, who helped me along with some reading recommendations. This meant that when I got to speak to her at induction, she invited me to attend her 3rd-year Gender and Media lectures to get some background knowledge. I loved these and they really helped me to get to grips with where my interests lay. Karen offered to be my supervisor, and I was immensely grateful to her for encouraging me to pursue the topic I had in mind. A little bit of research really paid off.
2. Get a whiteboard, and fight the fear
A regular feature of our houses in Liverpool were two large whiteboards. These were used for everything from planning writing schedules to playing Pictionary, but when it came to dissertation season they were the perfect place to write all of our ideas down. I really do mean all of them. Even the most foolish things that popped into my head were written down. Every week I would rub off the things that were ridiculous and keep the ideas that still seemed good. This left me with several ideas that I loved, from which I eventually chose one.
3. Take some advice
About a week before my proposal was due, I had a wobble about my chosen topic and nearly threw it all out to start again. Luckily, I had this wobble in the middle of a seminar to discuss our topics, and my tutor was on hand to reassure me that my idea had legs. I took this advice, along with that of my supervisors, and reached a research design that I was incredibly excited to start work on.
4. Keep it narrow
The biggest challenge in picking a topic was keeping it narrow – I started with a vague idea about women in the media, then protests, and eventually reached a question focusing on representations of women in the 2010 tuition fee protests found in six online newspapers. It’s very specific but I still went 3,000 words over my word count before cutting it back, so anything less narrow would have been unwieldy.
5. Find a niche
Whilst it’s difficult to come up with something completely new and original in a dissertation, there’s nothing worse than finding an article that replicates what you want to talk about. I picked two distinct ideas that were of interest to me, and then found a little pocket of research where no-one had written about these two theories together. Putting this in the context of a fairly recent case study which had not been the subject of a huge amount of research all helped to make it an area where there was enough literature to write about, but room for my little contribution. On the flip side, there does need to be some literature to write about, or you won’t be able to put your research into context.
It can be daunting starting out on the road to a dissertation, but once you find a topic that you are happy with it will be a breeze. Hopefully, these tips will help if you’re starting to think about your project!