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Dissertations and research projects: Getting started

A dissertation or research project will be one of the biggest pieces of independent work you’ll ever do. It’s therefore essential that you plan well and devote sufficient time to it. Read on to find out more…

Choosing a research topic

You are going to be spending a lot of time working on your project, so it’s a great opportunity to immerse yourself in your subject. If you’re allocated a project, you’ll need to make the research your own and learn to understand why it’s worthwhile. If you’re encouraged to choose your own topic, it makes sense to pick a topic you’re really enthusiastic about. What subjects have you enjoyed the most on your course? Has anything you’ve learned about really caught your attention or inspired you?

Investigating a topic that you genuinely enjoy will make your work go far smoother. Our Proposal Planner tool allows you to explore your topic on your own terms, focus on one do-able aspect of it, and help you develop clarity and ownership over it.

   Dissertation and Research Project Proposal Planner

Your dissertation tutor or supervisor will be able to give you guidance on choosing your research topic, refining your initial ideas, and suggesting key reading in your subject.

Literature reviews

Compared to essays and assignments, a dissertation or research project will be a real step-up in terms of scale and content. From choosing a topic and coming up with a title to finding information and writing up, you’ll need to commit a lot of time to it. So where do you start?

One of the most important parts of a dissertation or research project happens right at the start – the literature review! A literature review is a written summary of research on a subject or topic of interest. In it, you’ll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the information you’ve found, and describe why you think it’s important. You might also want to discuss gaps in the literature – gaps that your own research will attempt to fill.

  Check out our Literature reviews video for an overview of this topic...

Why is a literature review important?

When academics and industry professionals conduct research, they usually publish that work in books, journal articles, and conference proceedings. For the most part, this is the “literature” you need to find and review. A literature review sets the scene for your work. It places your research in context, and shows how it relates to and builds upon the work of others. It’s also your chance to tell people why your work matters, why it’s relevant, and how it contributes original research to your field.

Importantly, a literature review also helps you find out how to do research. It shows which research methods have worked in the past, and which ones have not. This can be a big help when planning your own research strategy.

Once you choose a research topic, be sure to read around the subject and make sure there’s plenty of literature out there to support your work.

Planning your search

When you’re planning your literature search, you need to take a closer look at your research question and try to identify important themes and concepts. Then, for each concept, you need to try to come up with a list of targeted keywords to search for. We’ve created a planner app to help you do just this, so be sure to check it out…

   Dissertation and Research Project Search Planner

Don’t forget think about the types of information you want to find. This is likely to include traditional academic material such as books and journal articles, but there are many other types of information out there too, depending on your topic, for example: newspaper articles, official publications, trade journals, market research reports, special collections, images, datasets, social media and television programmes. The possibilities are endless!

Finding information

Library Search is a great starting point for your research and one of the best places to find quality information from lots of different sources and subject areas. You can also use advanced search techniques to find phrases, include and exclude keywords, and limit your results by date, location and language. We’ve created a range of videos and online resources to help you do just this, so be sure to check them out.

   Finding Information Skills Guide

When you’re happy with the information you’ve found on Library Search, move on to your specialist subject databases and try your keyword searches again. In case you don’t know where to start, we’ve put together a list of the databases for your subject, and how best to search them. You’ll find this on your Library Subject Guide.

   Subject Guides

As you read around and research your subject, the structure and direction of your search plan will shift. You'll need to return to your search frequently. Your literature search will be made up of lots of mini searches, tweaks and refinements. Some searches will work well and return relevant results, whereas others will leave you stumped. What’s important is that you learn from the process and constantly adapt and refocus your search as you go. 

Evaluating information

The first person you need to impress with a literature review is your dissertation tutor or supervisor. He or she will want to see a thorough, well-structured review; one that introduces your topic, discusses important background information, and builds a solid case for your research. You’ll also have to show evidence that you’ve critically evaluated the information you’ve found and asked questions of its quality. 

Ask yourself – is the information relevant to your own work? Is it up-to-date? Is it authoritative, accurate, and reliable? Has it been peer-reviewed? What contribution does it make to your subject, and how will it inform your own work? 

These are skills that you’ll develop over time, but to give you a head start, we’ve created a range of online resources to help…

   Evaluating Information Skills Guide

Whatever your focus, remember that Google and Google Scholar are rarely the most effective search tools to use. A lot of scholarly articles and resources aren’t freely available online, and Google can’t index every specialist database. Fortunately, the library pays for access many specialist resources chosen by your school. All you need to search them is your Newcastle University log-in.

Managing information

A literature review is not just something you do at the start of a research project and then forget about. New research is published every day, and your work is likely to take you down paths you hadn’t thought about initially. You’ll need to frequently return to and adapt your search, and then update your literature review as you go.

Of course, once you find information, you’ll also need to cite and reference it correctly. Your school or supervisor will tell you how to do this, but we've also created a range of online resources to help. You’ll also find advice on reference management tools such as EndNote, which you can use to keep track of and automatically format your references.

   Managing Information Skills Guide


Next up: Search planner