When you first choose a dissertation topic that you are interested in, it can be very difficult to know whether it is going to be achievable to carry out. This is particularly the case if you are an undergraduate student, attempting a dissertation for the first time, but it is also common amongst postgraduate students. However, there are a number of factors that influence whether your dissertation topic is likely to be achievable in the 9-months (give or take a few months) that you have to complete your dissertation. This article sets out some of the questions you should ask yourself before settling on a particular topic.
Your ability to complete your proposed dissertation will depend on the specific topic. However, there are a number of common factors that will determine whether your dissertation topic will be achievable. These include issues of access (to people, organisations, data, facilities, and information), what skills you have and what you can learn, what intellectual support you can get, the nature of your dissertation topic (broad versus narrow), and how interested you are in your dissertation topic. Whilst not all of the issues of access will necessarily apply to you, the other factors mentioned certainly will. As such, when thinking about your own dissertation topic, ask yourself: (1) Can I get the access I need? (2) Do I have the right skills? (3) Will I be able to get the intellectual help I need? (4) Is my dissertation topic too broad or too narrow? (5) Am I interested in this topic? Each of these questions is discussed in turn:
If the people you are trying to get access to are employees in an organisation, jump to the next major bullet point (Organisation). However, if these people are members of the public or some particular section of society (i.e., some specific social group), you need to think about two main issues: sampling and ethics.
Sampling is a critical component of the Research Strategy chapter of your dissertation. A poorly designed sampling strategy will inevitably lead to significant weaknesses in your findings, as well as your ability to answer the research questions and/or hypotheses that you have set. The question arises: How do I know whether sampling is going to be a problem that affects the achievability of my dissertation?
If you have not yet completed your dissertation proposal, and only have a dissertation topic idea, you may not yet know what research design you will use, or the appropriate sampling strategy that goes with it. Assuming that you now know what research design you are using (i.e., either a quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods research design), and the broad sampling strategy you will adopt (i.e., either probability or non-probability sampling strategy), we can come back to the question: How do I know whether sampling is going to be a problem that affects the achievability of my dissertation?
If you intend to use a probability sampling technique, the main factor that could make this part of your dissertation unachievable is the inability to get hold of a complete list of the population you want to study [see the article, Sampling: The basics]. For example, imagine you were interested in the career choices of all students at your university (i.e., your population is the 20,000 students at your university). If Student Records or whatever department that is responsible for maintaining the list of all students at the university will not give you access to this list, you cannot use a probability sampling technique. In many cases, the list of the population you need will not be available. If using a probability sampling technique is critical to your choice of dissertation topic, clearly you may have to rethink or tweak the topic (or at least, the methodological components of your dissertation). Even if a list exists, try and get a sense early on how long it will take to get permission to access such a list. If possible, get written permission that you will be granted access to the list. After all, when it comes to releasing the list to you, the person who gave you verbal permission may not have the authority to give you access.
If you plan to use a non-probability sampling technique, you need to think carefully about the population you are targeting. For example, if you are using purposive sampling, can you get access to the specific individuals that are important to the phenomenon you are researching? If you are using snowball sampling, do you think that enough people will come forward in time for you sample to be large enough? Think about the type of non-probability sampling technique you may need to use for your dissertation topic to see what potential challenges you may face [see the section on Non-probability sampling].
Ethics should be taken into account in dissertation research, but ethics is only something that affects the achievability of your dissertation in a small number of cases. Ask yourself: Does my proposed dissertation topic involve?
Participants that are under 18 years of age.
Access to sensitive research environments.
Situations where participants may be caused stress, discomfort or harm.
Findings that identify individuals, groups or organisations.
If the answer to any of these questions is YES, you may need to complete an ethics proposal for your supervisor or perhaps even the Ethics Committee of your Academic Department or School. You may also have to gain additional forms of approval, such as the formal approval of parents (or a legal guardian) if participants are under 18 years of age. There are two potential factors to consider here:
How much time will it take to complete your ethics proposal and get permission from any of these groups (e.g., supervisors, Ethics Committees, parents, legal guardians, etc.)?
What if my supervisor or the Ethics Committee rejects my ethics proposal? How long will it take to re-submit? Will I have to come up with a completely new dissertation topic?
If you are keen on the dissertation topic that you have selected, it is worth jumping through these hurdles. However, bear in mind that they can slow down the dissertation process. Therefore, tweaking your dissertation topic idea to avoid obvious ethical issues (and barriers) may be worth considering.
If your dissertation involves gaining access to a particular organisation, we would strongly advise contacting that organisation before deciding to go ahead with your dissertation topic. Even if there is more than one organisation that you could use, it is strongly advised to find out whether such access is going to be likely before finalising your dissertation topic. Unfortunately, many organisations are not open to student research, which can make primary data collection very difficult.
There are a number of common hurdles that students face when trying to gain access to organisations to conduct research:
It is not uncommon for organisations to grant access and then take it away at the last minute. Whilst this is a worst case scenario, we have seen this happen first hand. Often, access has been promised, but not guaranteed. It is important to get written confirmation from organisations as early as possible. Without written permission, there are really no guarantees that access will not be withdrawn.
The level of access granted can also become a problem. Without support from more senior people in the organisation(s) you are interested in, it may be very difficult to get the depth of access you need. Furthermore, some dissertations run into difficulties because key contacts leave or the internal projects associated with the dissertation are cancelled, so managers lose interest. This can result in two potentially significant problems down the line: First, you may be unable to employ the sampling strategy that you want. Second, it may be very difficult to get the sample size that you need, which can seriously undermine the quality of your findings, as well as your ability to answer your research questions and/or hypotheses [see the article, Sampling: The basics]. This will inevitably lead to a lower mark.
To see if these potential problems can be overcome, we suggest that you:
Make a simple call to the main number of a small organisation or the Press Department if you are contacting a large organisation. This will give you a sense of whether an organisation is open to student research. Since some organisations have a policy of not working with students in this way, it can be a quick way to find out if you need to change or tweak your dissertation topic to accommodate what access is and is not going to be possible.
Follow up the initial call (either by phone or letter) to see if you can get support for your research by a senior person within the organisation. If this individual will act as a champion internally for the research, you will have a much better chance of gaining the level of access required to gather the data you need.
If your dissertation topic requires a lot of secondary data, it is important to check whether you can get access to this before you settle on your idea. There are many advantages of using secondary data, but there are a number of potential disadvantages that can impede your ability to carry out your research, or at the very least, reduce its quality. Ask yourself?
Is there sufficient data?
Is the data publicly accessible?
Can I get permission to use the data?
Does the data include all the variables/information I need?
Sometimes, collecting secondary data can be even harder than conducting primary research, especially if the data you need is difficult to access or spread over many locations. If you can identify the data you need early on, try and get written permission to access the data before you decide on your dissertation topic.
Since journal articles, books, and other such resources are so critical to a good literature review, which forms the platform for your dissertation research, it is worth checking that you have access to such information. It is best not to assume that your university has access to the research materials that you need. Your university may subscribe to literally hundreds, if not thousands of journals, but sometimes the odd journal, even major ones, is missed out. If your dissertation topic is all about international business, for example, you don't want to find out that you have not access to the Journal of International Business Studies; unless you are prepare to pay for access yourself! Therefore, when choosing a topic, ask yourself:
Does my university have access to the journals I need?
If not, can I get access to these journals from another source (e.g., Questia or BNET)?
How much will inter-library loans cost me for journals or books that I need?
Purchasing access to a single journal article can range between $10-30 (give or take), so if you need to purchase a lot of them yourself, the price can soon stack up.
Access to facilities is only likely to become an achievability issue if:
such facilities are critical to your dissertation topic success in a given field (e.g., access to science equipment, engineering tools, pharmacy labs, etc.);
such facilities are difficult to book in advance, making it impossible to ensure you will get the amount of access time you need;
such facilities pose health and safety issues that you will have to first address.
Therefore, ask yourself:
How critical is access to certain facilities to my dissertation topic?
Are there any health and safety hoops to jump through?
Are the facilities open when I will be performing my research?
Can I book these facilities in advance if access time is precious?
If any of these issues affect you, we would recommend that you check that you can get the access you need before deciding on your dissertation topic.