1.1 Developing Dissertation Ideas

Developing your ideas in order to build a research question and objectives can be made easier by using a few basic tools. It is helpful to run through these even if you have a very strong picture of the area or question you wish to research, remember that building a strong research case and defining your objectives well will have a big impact on the quality of your final work, irrespective of your chosen subject.

Developing initial ideas

In the early stages of brainstorming or thinking of dissertation ideas, it may be useful to keep three key points in mind, (1) a reasonably narrow focus, (2) data quality/availability and (3) key themes.

An example of this process is shown below:

General Topic: Looking at the Arab Spring.

This is obviously far too vague and broad to be of much use as anything but a starting point, but an easy way to narrow the focus a little would be to simply identify an individual country. Similarly, most general ideas can be sharpened very quickly by specifying a geographical location or component. It is generally not a good idea to an ill-defined or vague geographical location and/or time-period unless you have discussed the idea with your supervisor.

We now have:

General Topic: Looking at the Arab Spring, in particular Tunisia.

This is still a little too broad, so we can narrow the focus further by trying to identify an aspect of the topic that is particularly interesting and/or original.

Options for our example include examining the relative lack of violence compared to Libya or Syria - this could lead into a comparative study perhaps. Another aspect could be understanding the political dynamics that lead to the, relatively rare, popular revolution. However, we can go with the below, looking at the transition to a fledgling democracy:

General Topic: Looking at the Arab Spring, in particular Tunisia, with an interest in the post-revolution political dynamics

After we've got a reasonably focused topic, we need to pause to check that there is sufficient literature and data. Since the revolution in Tunisia was fairly recent, there is some - but not much - academic material. However, there is plenty of academic literature on democratic transitions, particularly dating from post-Soviet Eastern Europe, that can prove very useful.

Remember that checking to find literature and data on your potential topic does not involve simply doing seeing if information is available - you should discuss your ideas with your supervisor to make sure there is academic literature available that can be used for your topic as well as, if needed, non-academic data from newspapers, books, websites, etc.

It is likely that you will have several different ideas for your dissertation during the initial brainstorming period. Several things can help you decide on a single topic, preliminary reading, searching through academic databases and discussions with your supervisor are all very important.

The checklist below will also help you think through which particular topic is the most suitable for yourself personally.

Topic Checklist

Topic 1 Topic 2 Topic 3
Is it relevant to the course?
Is it consistent with the Unit requirements?
Would it likely sustain my interest?
Is it substantial (i.e. not too simple) and with some original dimensions?
Is it clear and distinct? (i.e. not too complex or convoluted)
It is manageable in terms of time and research data/methods?

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