LSE Government graduate Jack Winterton, former LSE UPR Editor, Winner of the 2016 Department of Government Dissertation Prize and LSE LIFE Student Adviser, shares his reflections on writing a third year undergraduate research paper.
The research process is hugely rewarding but writing a dissertation can be a rather daunting prospect as you try and take your first steps at the beginning of your final year. With this in mind, I hope that this advice will help you to make the most of the opportunity. This information is, of course, supplementary to any department specific advice and should be used to broadly frame your approach to getting started with your dissertation in Michaelmas term.
What does a dissertation look like?
You need to know what you are going to be working towards over the academic year. There are no secrets to writing a competent paper, but it is something you will have to learn. This is an important first step because you can hide a lot of very interesting research behind a poorly written research paper. What’s more, it is a massive confidence boost at the beginning of your project to know what is expected of you. Remember, a good structure is a predictable one. I found one resource in particular useful for honing a good structure. I recommend the LSE Impact Blog as a fantastic starting point for improving your research paper writing. The purpose of this step is to give you a mental picture of what you are working towards.
What next:check out this article on the LSE Impact Blog for a quick guide to structuring your academic writing. Next, read through your department specific style guidelines and glance over a few papers from previous years. The LSE Undergraduate Political Review will be publishing some of the best LSE undergraduate social science research in the coming months on the UPR Journal.
Formulating your research question
I’ll share a good piece of advice I was given when trying to formulate a research question. This came from one of my supervisor when he mentioned that a gap in the literature is sometimes the hardest thing to locate and is not the best place to start. A lot of reading will be necessary for you to get anywhere close to finding a gap. Instead, I was encouraged to investigate where my interests intersect and pursue synergies and dimensions to my ideas I felt were really cool.
I use an A3 sketchbook to plan my essays – I really didn’t like having to flick through pages of notes, this way I had everything in front of me. I began with a spider diagram of ideas and worked on exploring where my interests connected and mapped out the areas which I thought I could spend a year studying. You will be able to sustain yourself when the fatigue kicks in later (around Christmas) by having a project that you really want to understand more about. It is also easier to get support from others when they can see that you are very personally invested in the project.
What next: find your inspiration for your research question in your own ideas and interests over the last two years at LSE. Try and avoid the temptation to read your way to a research question.
At some point you will have to stop reading!
Beware of the trap. I found it very interesting to read widely throughout Michaelmas term. But I pushed this a little too far and read the literature for all of Michaelmas term. Put another way, this is 11/22 weeks of term time that I spent reading the literature. I subsequently struggled to get back on track with the writing of my paper. I eventually began to take notes with a sentence or two that summarised why this article was important (or unimportant) to my research question. Set yourself a reading list and make concise notes about each paper. The most important stage of your research project is not spent in front of a computer or in conversations with your advisor. The hardest part is just sitting, undistracted and thinking through your idea.
What next: close your laptop, find a quiet study space and think about your idea. (Possibly the hardest part of the project)
Talking to others
The dissertation is an independent research project. However, it is not a project you should hide away from everyone around you. You need friends who will be sympathetic to the challenges you have taken up with this research paper. Equally important are those friends who will need convincing of the merit of your work. Discussing your dissertation can be an immensely difficult first hurdle especially during the formative stage of your work. I strongly recommend skipping the question “what are you researching?” Begin by asking about the steps that you will both be undertaking such as choosing a methodology, developing a strong relationship with your academic advisor and compiling a bibliography and so on.
What next: Consider going to the LSE Undergraduate Political Review’s Tea, Cake and Dissertation event to discuss your work in a chilled out environment and attend the UPR Colloquium scheduled for later this term.
Use Cloud storage for your work
No excuses. My laptop died in January, just 4 months before I had to submit my completed dissertation. It is just embarrassing to make a rookie mistake in your third year. Use a Cloud service to back up your work. Do this straight away as your reading notes are important and difficult to replicate.
What next: Sign up to a Cloud storage service and sync all of your work so a copy is always saved online. Here are two good options; Google Drive and OneNote.
I hope that these tips help you to make a strong start with your research project. I’m currently working in the LSE’s new academic, personal and professional development centre; LSE LIFE (housed in the LSE Library), if you have questions about student-led research projects, this blog article or would just like to discuss your academic work, please drop in.
Jack Winterton is a recent BSc Government graduate and winner of the 2016 LSE Department of Government Dissertation Prize. He is the former editor of the LSE UPR and is currently a Student Adviser at LSE LIFE.
Follow Jack on Twitter – @Jack_Winterton
LSE UPR offers undergraduates the opportunity to publish research in a peer reviewed journal, and get involved in contemporary political debates by disseminating their work online.
Follow the LSE Undergraduate Political Review on Twitter – @lseupr
LSE LIFE is the LSE’s new centre for academic, personal, and professional development; providing support and guidance for all undergraduate and taught master’s students.
Visit the LSE LIFE website to find out more
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.
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How to structure your dissertation abstract
Abstracts written for undergraduate and master's level dissertations have a number of structural components [NOTE]. Even though every dissertation is different, these structural components are likely to be relevant for most dissertations. When writing the dissertation abstract, the most important thing to remember is why your research was significant. This should have been clearly explained in the introductory chapter of your dissertation (Chapter One: Introduction). Understanding the significance of your research is important because how much you write for each component of the abstract (in terms of word count or number of sentences) will depend on the relative importance of each of these components to your research.
There are four major structural components, which aim to let the reader know about the background to and significance of your study, the research strategy being followed, the findings of the research, and the conclusions that were made. You should write one or a number of sentences for each of these components, with each making up a part of the 150 to 350 words that are typically written in dissertation abstracts. This section sets out and explains these structural components. These four major components are:
Study background and significance
The first few sentences of the dissertation abstract highlight the background to your research, as well as the significance of the study. Hopefully, by the time you come to write the abstract, you will already know why your study is significant.
In explaining the significance of your study, you will also need to provide some context for your research. This includes the problem that you are addressing and your motivation for conducting the study. In building the background to the study, this part of the abstract should address questions such as:
What is the purpose of the research?
Why did you carry out the research?
How is the study significant? Why should anyone care or why do they care (is the study interesting)?
Remember, all of this needs to be encompassed within just a few sentences. Therefore, only outline those aspects of your study that you feel are the most important; those aspects that you think will catch the reader's attention.
Components of your research strategy
The relative importance of the methodological components discussed in the dissertation abstract will depend on whether any of these components made the study significant in some way. Ask yourself the question: Did any of the following components of research strategy help make my study significant?
The broad research design (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, mixed, etc.)
The type of research design (e.g., experimental research, case study approach, grounded theory, ethnography, etc.)
The research methods (e.g., survey, interviews, focus groups, observation, etc.)
The analytical techniques used (e.g., content analysis, statistical analyses, etc.)
If the answer is YES, greater focus (and word count) should probably be dedicated to explaining these components of research strategy in the dissertation abstract. If not, try and summarise the components used more succinctly (i.e., in fewer words). Since the way that you would write the research strategy part of your dissertation abstract will vary depending on the relative significance of these components to your study, we have produced examples to help.
In explaining the approach to research strategy that you adopted in this part of your dissertation abstract, addressing some of the following questions may help:
What research design guided your study?
What was the scope of your study?
What research methods did you use?
What were the main ideas, constructs and/or variables that you examined, measured, controlled and/or ignored?
What was your unit of analysis?
What was your sample (and population)?
What analysis techniques did you use to arrive at your findings?
Often, you will be able to combine the answer to a number of these questions in a single sentence, which will help make the abstract more concise and succinct.
Following a discussion of the components of your research strategy, the dissertation abstract should move on to present the main findings from your research. We use the word findings and not results to emphasise the fact that the abstract is not the section where you should include lots of data; and it should definitely not include any analysis. Leave this to the Results/Findings chapter of your dissertation (often Chapter Four: Results/Findings). Remember that the findings part of the dissertation abstract should focus on answering your research questions and/or hypotheses.
It may help to answer some of the following questions in order to write this part of the dissertation abstract:
Did the findings answer your research questions and/or hypotheses?
What did the findings show in terms of these research questions and/or hypotheses?
What are the most important findings?
What is the significance of your findings?
To what extent are your findings trustworthy (i.e., reliable, generalisable, consistent, dependable, etc.)?
You should avoid making comments that are vague or over-exaggerate your findings. You should also ensure that you explain the findings in a way that non-experts could understand without having to read additional parts of your dissertation.
The final part of your dissertation abstract should focus on the conclusions from your research and the resultant implications. Bearing in mind the findings that have just been discussed, you need to address questions such as:
What has been learned?
What are the implications of the findings?
Is there potential for generalisation of your findings?
What are the limitations of your research?
When writing the conclusion part of your abstract, remember that these conclusions should be precise and concise. There is no need to re-summarise what you have already discussed or the contents of your dissertation. This is an informative abstract, not a descriptive one. If you are unsure of the difference, you may find the section, Choosing between dissertation abstract styles: Descriptive and informative, helpful. Furthermore, be careful not to make claims that cannot be supported by your findings. There is always a danger to over-exaggerate and/or over-generalise in this part of the abstract, which should be avoided. It is unlikely that you will have changed the world through your study, but you may still have added something significant to the literature, so try and strike the right balance.
NOTE: This article is based on the use of the informative abstract style, not the descriptive style; the former being the typical style adopted in undergraduate and master's dissertations and theses. For a comparison of the two styles - descriptive and informative - see the article, Choosing between dissertation abstract styles: Descriptive or informative.
In the next section, Useful phrases when writing a dissertation abstract, we set out some phrases that you may find useful when writing up your dissertation abstract.