Dissertation Handbook – Defining your research objectives and research questions
A dissertation is not a simple descriptive account of an area of study. Writing a successful dissertation requires identifying a clear objective and set of research questions. This stage is one of the hardest parts of the task and you should spend time on it.
A social issue is not the same as an academic problem. Your dissertation, whether in social or public policy, disability studies, media studies or sociology may take a social problem or current controversy (e.g. the consequences of austerity, inclusion in higher education, racism in the media) as its area of study, but you will still need to find a main objective. This might is usually phrased in terms of ‘understanding’ a particular issue, or ‘investigating’ a particular issue. Research questions flow from this and are usually phrased in terms of ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. How and Why questions are particularly important. Your dissertation should not consist of a prescription for solving a social problem; if it could be solved in 30 pages, you have probably not taken full account of the issues concerned. Though your search for a topic may well begin with an ‘area of study’ it must not end there.
In refining your research focus, ask yourself: can your question be approached from a known body of literature, or could you shed light upon it through empirical research? If the latter, do you have the time and expertise? Interrogating yourself in this way should improve the questions with which you start.
We suggest that you begin by deciding what kind of topic you are interested in, and what kind of studying or enquiring you most enjoy. Below are some possible starting points (although they overlap):
iii. Methodological Topics: Topics in this category would be concerned with how phenomena are best studied or measured (e.g. the measurement of mobility, opportunity, discrimination, harassment, media impact).
Having decided what kind of work you would like to do, you must then choose a more specific focus and question (or questions).
Remember that ‘data’ may range from a small group of (online) interviews; to a series of parliamentary debates reported in Hansard; to ‘found’ data on social media. Bear in mind, also, that a dissertation may well combine your interest in a theoretical concern and your interest in practical issues or a data source.
You need to bring both your own particular perspective and a coherent argument to your dissertation. You may find opportunities for making comparisons, for using theoretical perspectives, or for adopting a particular standpoint, which will allow you to probe and identify problems and issues. Having a standpoint makes the initial questioning process easier but can become a barrier if you adopt your position uncritically. Do not forget, too, that there are traditional lines of approach which may act as inspiration. See what other writers have done on the topics that interest you: this may assist you in formulating and shaping questions. Remember that this can be a continuous process, not one that is done just at the beginning.
A dissertation depends upon sources. It is never a pure product of the mind of the writer. The examiners will evaluate the way you use the sources available. Before you commit yourself to a title, make sure that adequate and appropriate sources are available. If you are thinking of undertaking empirical research, consider carefully whether you have the resources to make an adequate job of it (and whether it can be feasibly completed online).
Some dissertations depend mainly upon primary sources (surveys, case reports, interviews, official statistics, etc.). Most depend more upon secondary sources (e.g. books and articles). Examiners will look for evidence that you have covered the relevant sources, and evaluated them critically. It is, therefore, very important that you acknowledge all sources.
Failure to cite sources is to pass off other people’s words and ideas as one’s own. This will be penalised for its dishonesty. (See the section on plagiarism at the end of this handbook.) More positively, references indicate how well you have covered and used the sources available, and you can expect to be credited for a comprehensive set.
You must cite your sources properly. Direct quotations must be shown as such and paraphrases of a quotation should also be acknowledged. Remember that you will need page references for these quotations and paraphrases, and therefore you will need to keep very good records of your reading from the beginning. Remember too that the list of references will be the first page many examiners will turn to after reading the title. They do so for two reasons:
Your sources, taken together, provide an overview of what one can expect to find in the text.
The comprehensiveness, or otherwise, of the references gives an impression of how thoroughly the topic has been covered. A list of references is assumed to be assembled out of works actually cited in the text; relevant volumes consulted but not cited could be listed separately as ‘Additional References Consulted’. You may include references to sources from the World Wide Web: please cite them fully if so. For help with referencing go to – http://skills.library.leeds.ac.uk/topic_referencing_plagiarism.php
The School of Sociology and Social Policy uses the Harvard referencing system as standard. To learn more, please visit this online tutorial:
You should not begin data collection or fieldwork without your supervisor’s knowledge or before you have completed the ethics form and have received approval in writing from the module convenor. Online research will not involve a formal risk assessment process, but you will be expected to address any risks to yourself or others in your ethics form. You must not put yourself or others at risk, nor risk causing any kind of emotional or other harm. Please see the guidance document, Risk Assessment for Online Research: Issues to Consider, in the Learning Resources for further advice on protecting yourself from the risks of online research. You must discuss all potential ethical and safety issues with your supervisor.
Ethical review is required for all research involving human participants, including research undertaken by students within a taught module. Even desk-based dissertations without empirical elements pose ethical issues, and for this reason, all students are required to submit an ethics form, regardless of topic as every dissertation student needs to be aware of ethical issues arising from their research. If you are undertaking empirical research with human participants, including user-generated online data such as social media content or reader comments, then you must have ethical approval before proceeding.
You also need to be familiar with the University of Leeds protocols for ethical research. Details of the University of Leeds ethical review requirements are provided in the Research Ethics Policy available at: http://ris.leeds.ac.uk/ris/info/70/ethics
Also familiarise yourself with the professional guidance:
The British Sociological Association’s Statement for Ethical Practice, available at:
the Social Policy Association Guidelines on Research Ethics, available at:
There are three different, but related, ethical approval processes.
Regardless of your chosen topic, you must complete the MA Dissertation Ethical Approval Form and review issues of ethics and personal safety with your supervisor prior to its submission. You must familiarise yourself with the University of Leeds Research Ethics Policy, and associated protocols. This is not a ‘paper exercise’. There is important information about ethical and effective conduct of research which you are required to observe in undertaking fieldwork. The form, to be signed by yourself and your supervisor, must be submitted, along with any explanatory documentation, by midday on Friday 25th February, 2022.
The learning unit in Week 7 will focus on the completion of the ethics form. Each year, almost 50% of the forms have to be returned because they have information missing or require further elaboration. This is both time-consuming for staff and causes delays to your projects, so it is important that you attend to this task carefully. Incomplete forms will be returned.
Ethical responsibilities lie with you and your supervisor. The Dissertation module convenor is responsible for reviewing all of the forms and can approve many project under ‘block approval’. However, they may refer complex cases for Faculty-level light touch or full ethical review. For all ethical approval forms submitted on time, you will be advised if you may proceed with fieldwork, or if further ethical review is required by Friday 18th March, 2022. You may also be asked to provide further information before a decision can be made.
Please keep a copy of all forms you submit in case further amendments are required or other queries arise.
Any projects involving potentially vulnerable participants or sensitive topics may need to be referred to the Faculty Research Ethics Committee (FREC) for ethical approval. Details of how to do this can be found at the Research and Innovation Services website (http://ris.leeds.ac.uk/UoLethicsapplication ). You may need to be on a campus-networked computer to access this content; off-campus, you can access these pages using the Virtual Windows Desktop. This form is much more detailed and you need to complete it in as much detail as possible to enable the committee to make an informed decision. It can take 6-8 weeks for the committee to reach a decision on your application, so you need to build this into your research plans and discuss this with your supervisor before proceeding. If you are applying to FREC, please also submit the MA Dissertation Ethics Approval Form to the School, noting your planned FREC submission. This is so that we can keep a record of all applications.
Any research involving NHS facilities, staff or patients requires researchers to apply through the NHS systems for ethical review (rather than the University). This can be very time-consuming and is not advisable for MA dissertation research because of the limited time available.
Early ethics approval
If you know that your research will require review by FREC, or if the nature of your project means that you need block ethics approval earlier than the timetable allows for (for example, if data collection needs to be completed earlier because of access limitations or you are focusing on a time-limited event), then you are free to submit in advance of the deadlines. Particularly in the case of applications for FREC, this should be discussed in detail with your supervisor / module convenor in advance.
If you have questions about the ethics of your proposed research, please raise these at the weekly drop-in sessions.
Note that ethical approval will only apply to the project you have outlined in your application. If you are doing a fieldwork based dissertation, you will need to re-apply should your plans change substantially.
Substantial changes include:
A quick way of assessing whether you need to reapply is to revisit your ethics application form. If you would answer any of the questions differently, you may need to reapply.
Please speak to your supervisor or the module convenor if you are unsure.
The last opportunity to revise your ethics form is – . After this, resubmissions will not be considered other than in exceptional circumstances. This is to avoid late changes that don’t leave students enough time to conduct the fieldwork. Beyond this deadline, you must either continue with the project for which you have approval, or switch to a desk-based project that does not involve any human participants (including any user-generated online data).
A note on COVID-19-related research
We have prepared a guidance document addressing a number of issues relating to research addressing topics about, or related to, COVID-19. This is available in the “Learning Resources” section of the module’s Minerva pages. Please read this carefully before pursuing research in this area.
Data storage is governed by the Data Protection Act (2018) and you must ensure that your research complies with both the law and with university guidance. You can learn more about this here: Your research data is highly confidential and must be stored on the University of Leeds OneDrive system. It must be encrypted and it must not be synced to a local computer (your home computer or laptop). To encrypt data you need to password protect each document. How you do this will depend on the software you are using to store the data (e.g. Word, Excel, SPSS). You are not permitted to store personal data on a laptop or personal device and you should only use the online version of OneDrive.
For reasons of data protection, if you want to conduct an online survey or questionnaire, you must use the university-supported platform, Online Surveys (formerly Bristol Surveys Online (BOS)). You can find details on how to access the service here.
To register with the service, follow the instructions on the page for registering via the university subscription. Please note that once you have registered for a user name, it can take a few days to receive a confirmation.
For advice about designing questionnaire, please download this useful document.
By using Bristol Online Surveys, we can be confident that any data generated by your survey is held securely and in line with the legal requirements of the UK General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).
There are, however, some concerns among international students about the practical compatibility of this tool in their home countries and a number of students have therefore expressed a preference for survey tools based in their home country. In SSP, this has been raised in particular as an issue among Chinese students for whom the Online Surveys tool does not always transfer well to the Chinese context. This is a problem because data from surveys conducted using non-UK survey tools will be held outside of the UK; this means that there is no guarantee that data will be stored by the host organisation according to GDPR requirements.
Using the case of China as an example, there are a number of possible scenarios to consider:
However, we have identified some measures that can be taken that will reduce risk while still allowing survey research using tools hosted outside of the UK. With this in mind, our guidance is as follows:
If you have any questions about this, please discuss with your supervisor or with the module convenor.
The MA dissertation has a word count of 8,000 (+/- 10%) and is intended to reflect the length / structure of an academic journal article. The precise form that this takes varies between journals and you should choose a format that matches your project. For example, a theoretical paper would be structured differently to an empirical paper, and you should draw on journal articles you have read to think about different structural options. There are some short videos on Minerva discussing different kinds of dissertation and how they might be structured.
In short, dissertation chapters would typically then follow this structure: 1. Introduction, 2. Literature Review, 3. Research Methods, 4 – 6. Findings/Analysis (typically 3 sections), 7. Conclusion. The precise structure of your dissertation should be discussed with your supervisor. We are also making a diverse selection of highly-graded dissertations available for reference. These are not intended as models for your dissertations, but are good examples of the multiple ways the different elements of a dissertation can be structured.
Clear writing makes an excellent impression. Poor grammar, spelling mistakes and cumbersome sentences may distract the reader’s attention from what is being said, and therefore impair your ability to communicate. Therefore, we strongly recommend that you write using the spelling / grammar check functions of Word and that you leave plenty of time for proof-reading and final editing.
Your dissertation should be double-spaced with standard borders and use a readable 12 point font.
If your progress is held up by computer related problems, please bear in mind that the School does not normally accept this as a justification for late submission. (Keep back-up copies of your work on another computer, a disc, memory stick, the OneDrive or some other form of cloud storage at least once a week and ensure that you have a reliable anti-virus programme on your PC.). As you are writing and revising drafts, you should also keep a folder of previous drafts, carefully labelled so that you can return to them if you need them.
All textual data should be included in the word count, and textual data should not be pasted in as a screen shot in order to circumvent the word count. The exception to this is when the text needs to be viewed in context as part of the analysis (for example, as part of an advertisement, or a Tweet).
You should ensure that the Dissertation is a distinct piece of work and it should not reproduce work submitted for assessment on other modules. Your research proposal for Research Strategy and Design will most likely be on the same topic as your dissertation, and while we would expect some overlap in focus, structure and the citation of key texts etc, verbatim copying of sections of the proposal into the final dissertation would constitute plagiarism. Good scholarship is a process of constant revision and development, so we expect you to continue developing and revising the material in your proposal over the subsequent months. This will help you to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism, and have the added benefit of developing and improving your work as the module progresses.
Module assignments are marked in relation to four key indicators. Evidence of skills and competencies in these key areas may be given different emphasis by examiners depending on the specific demands of a particular module assignment (for example, in the emphasis given to the use of sources in essay writing, compared to the value of reflexive analysis in a more task-oriented research assignment). Students are advised to seek guidance from the module manager on the expectations for specific assignments.
In marking assignments against the indicators, examiners may also consider evidence of ambition and diligence in meeting the requirements of a particular assignment task. For example, where students have undertaken substantial research or analysis, but this has not produced conclusive results, there may still be considerable evidence of methodological rigour in relation to the stated indicators.
Knowledge and understanding
The degree to which the work demonstrates a candidate’s knowledge and understanding of the module themes and the topic chosen for the assignment. This might include knowledge and understanding of significant and specific events, ideas, relationships, experiences, situations, trends or information relevant to the particular tasks in hand. In many cases this will be evidenced by effective use of, or engagement with, suitable sources (see also below) but might also include the appropriate application of tools, processes, methods or concepts.
Analysis and evaluation
The degree to which the work demonstrates a candidate’s ability to engage intellectual skills and techniques of synthesis, analysis or evaluation relevant to the set assignment task. Examiners will generally look for evidence of: ability to analyse materials, readings or data; skill in selection, synthesis, planning or classification; the development and maintenance of arguments; a degree of independence from the analyses available within key texts; and an awareness of the strengths and limitations other standpoints, claims, research strategies or views.
The degree to which the work demonstrates a candidate’s ability to present academic work in a manner appropriate to postgraduate study and in accordance with the requirements of the specific assignment task. This may mean considering accuracy, care and clarity of writing, as well as competence in terms of grammar and expression, but may also include competence in conveying non textual information if required (for example, in illustrations or the presentation of quantitative data). The organisation and arrangement of the text will be a relevant issue, along with the presentation of any supporting material, appendices, etc. Inadequate or inaccurate referencing to the sources used by a candidate may be a factor taken into account. Presentational style should normally be consistent with the norms and expectations of academic work within the relevant discipline.
Use of sources
The degree to which the work demonstrates a candidate’s ability to select and employ appropriate sources in meeting the requirements of the assignment task. This may be evident in the range and appropriateness of referencing to primary and/or secondary sources, and through the depth and precision of engagement with that material. Where appropriate for a particular module, account may be taken of source material collected by the candidate through investigations beyond the existing literature (for example, in the use of data collected for a research assignment). It is important that candidates demonstrate some awareness of the strengths and limitations of the sources they use and, where appropriate, the methods employed to obtain them
TPG Dissertation Marking Criteria
|Demonstrates critical understanding of relevant concepts and wider theoretical context to address the assignment. Work draws on a wide and diverse range of relevant sources critically.
Develops outstanding lines of argument to address the assignment critically. Develops persuasive and critical argument via interpreting, analysing, evaluating and applying relevant source material, data and evidence as required.
Exhibits skilful use of language with originality with entirely complete, accurate and consistent citation and referencing practices.
If required the assignment demonstrates excellent delivery of visual/audio aids to address the task with originality in one or more areas.
The assignment is coherent and well structured.
The requirements of the assignment have been met well with some individuality and criticality.
|Demonstrates deep understanding of relevant concepts and wider theoretical context to address the assignment. Work shows excellent understanding of relevant readings with a wide and diverse range of relevant literature beyond the core readings.
Develops excellent lines of argument to address the assignment with each developed in a cogent and persuasive manner. Shows excellent engagement in interpreting, analysing and evaluating source material, data and evidence.as required. Demonstrates judicious use of source material, data and other types of evidence to support arguments with some individuality.
The assignment is comprehensible with accurate and skilful use of language. Word-choice and grammar are appropriate, effective and skilful. In-text citation and referencing are entirely complete and accurate and consistent.
If required the assignment demonstrates excellent delivery of visual/audio aids to address the task with individuality.
The assignment is coherent and well structured.
The requirements of the assignment have been met well with some individuality.
|Demonstrates very good understanding of relevant concepts and wider theoretical context to address the assignment. Work shows very good understanding of relevant readings with a wide and diverse range of relevant literature.
Develops very good lines of argument to address the assignment with each fully developed. Shows very good engagement in interpreting, analysing and evaluating source material, data and evidence.as required. Demonstrates effective use of source material, data and other types of evidence to support arguments.
The assignment is comprehensible with accurate use of language. Word-choice and grammar are appropriate and effective. In-text citation and referencing are complete and accurate and consistent.
If required the assignment demonstrates very good delivery of visual/audio aids to address the task.
The assignment is very well structured.
The requirements of the assignment have been met well.
|Demonstrates satisfactory understanding of relevant concepts and wider theoretical context to address the assignment. Work shows satisfactory understanding of relevant readings/literature.
Develops satisfactory lines of argument to address the assignment. Shows satisfactory engagement in interpreting, analysing and evaluating source material, data and evidence.as required. Demonstrates satisfactory use of source material, data and other types of evidence to support arguments.
The assignment is understandable but with some difficulty. Word-choice and grammar are satisfactory. In-text citation and referencing are accurate with occasional incompletion and inconsistencies.
If required the assignment demonstrates satisfactory delivery of visual/audio aids to address the task with further development required.
The assignment is structured inappropriately.
The requirements of the assignment have been partially met.
|Demonstrates little or no understanding of relevant concepts and wider theoretical context to address the assignment. Work shows little evidence of relevant reading.
Develops few if any lines of argument. Shows little evidence of engagement in interpreting, analysing and evaluating source material, data and evidence.as required. Demonstrates little or no use of source material, data and other types of evidence.
The assignment is difficult to understandable. Word-choice and grammar are unsatisfactory. In-text citation and referencing are inaccurate, incomplete and inconsistent.
If required the assignment demonstrates unsatisfactory delivery of visual/audio aids to address the task.
The assignment is unstructured or structured inappropriately.
The requirements of the assignment have not been met.