TIPS ON CHOOSING A DISSERTATION TOPIC. Article by MICK COOPER, UNIVERSITY OF STRATHCLYDE
1. Read through previous Masters dissertations
Invaluable! Essential! Probably the most useful thing you can do to get you started. This will give you a real sense of the shape of a dissertation, what is expected of you, and the kinds of questions that you might want to ask.
2. Think about what really interests you
What are those questions that have been really nagging away at you through your counselling training, and which youve always wanted to find answers to? What are the problems or dilemmas that youve really struggled with and are dying to find some answers to? For instance, Do community meetings really help trainees? Are counsellors really able to keep on giving unconditional positive regard? What do people coming into a GP surgery imagine counselling to be? Your dissertation may well be the biggest piece of work you ever write, so make sure the topic is something that will sustain your interest.
3. Make sure it's about counselling
Choose a topic which is clearly related to the field of counselling. This may include things like: the experiences of counsellors or clients, how counselling is perceived from those outside the field, the applied role of counselling in such fields as nursing or education, aspects of counselling practice or theory. Watch out that you dont slip into psychology, where youre asking questions about how people are (e.g., Do attachment problems in childhood lead to adult difficulties?) that isnt directly related to what happens or might happen in the therapeutic relationship, and requires an in depth review of the psychological literature.
4. Find yourself a clearly-defined question
Try to find a single, clearly defined question as the basis for your dissertation. This can then serve as your title. If you can't encapsulate your research project into a single question/sentence, the chances are, you're probably not clear about exactly what it is you are asking.
5. That's question, not questions
One of the biggest problems students face is that they ask too many inter-related questions, and end up getting very muddled about what it is they are trying to find out. Three of the main reasons for doing this are cited below - along with the things you may need to remind yourself if you find yourself in this mire.
'I won't have enough material otherwise.'
- 15,000 words may seem like a lot, but you'll be amazed at how quickly it goes. If you just focus on one question, you will be able to go into it in a great amount of depth - far more appropriate than trying to answer a number of questions and subsequently coming away with numerous superficial answers.
'There's lots of different aspects of this area that I'm interested in.'
- That's great, but you won't be able to cover it all in this MSc. You can always do further research after this one: a PhD, or writing papers for counselling journals. In limiting yourself to just one question, you may well experience feelings of loss or disappointment as you let go of areas you're really interested in, but it's better to feel that loss now than after you've put weeks of work into areas that are just too dispersed.
'I've already started to ask this other question, and I don't want to lose the reading that I've already done'.
- Again, it can be painful letting go of things, but there is no value in throwing good money after bad. Sometimes in research you need to be brutal, and cut out areas of inquiry that don't fit in - even if you've sweated blood over them. Authors say that the quality of their book is defined by what they leave out!
6. Thats question, not answer
Some of the worst dissertations come about when students try to show that a particular answer is the correct one, and consequently wont let anything including their own findings get in their way. So if you really believe something about counselling: like person-centred therapy is much more effective than cognitive-behavioural therapy, or women make much better counsellors than men then you may want to steer clear of this topic. That is, unless you can really get yourself into a frame of mind in which you are open to the possibility that you might find the absolute opposite of what you want and you can enthusiastically write about the implications of this finding. Good research is like good counselling practice: you put to one side your own assumptions as much as possible, so that the reality of whatever you are encountering can come through.
7. Read through the literature
Once youve got some idea of what youd like to look at, find out how other people have tried to answer that question. If no-one has tried to answer it before, thats great, but you need to be really sure about that before going on to furrow your own path after all, you dont want to get to the end of your research to find out that somebody discovered the same thing as you decades ago. So have a look on the internet, or on Amazon, and particularly on social science search engines like Web of Knowledge (ask a University library how to access this). Undertaking such searches also ensures that your research will be embedded within the wider counselling research field, and it may well give you ideas about the kinds of questions that are timely to ask.
8. But make sure theres not too much literature on it
If you ask a question on which much has already been written like the effectiveness of person-centred therapy then youre likely to be drowned in material before you even get to the end of the literature review. So narrow down your question e.g. the effectiveness of advanced empathy in person-centred therapy until youve got somewhere between around five to twenty references of direct relevance to your question. Dont worry if it seems too few, youll no doubt pick up more references as you go along.
Whats often ideal is if you can move one step on from some pre-existing literature: e.g. extending a study about depression in men to looking at depression in women, testing out a theory that youve found in a book, or using qualitative research to address a question that has previously only been addressed through quantitative research. In thinking of a research project, you dont have to be wholly original in fact, often if you try to be too original youll end up in a sea of confusion with no theoretical or methodological concepts to anchor yourself to. Having an original twist is often much more productive youre saying something new, but youre building on whats already been laid down.
9. Its much more manageable to find out how people perceive things, rather than how things really are
Suppose you are interested in whether person-centred counsellors are more effective when they incorporate some process-experiential two-chair work into their counselling practice. How can you test this? Its no good simply finding out whether the clients of a counsellor who uses chair work get better, because they might have done anyway without the chair-work. So you need a comparison, but what are you going to compare with what? You could try comparing the effectiveness of person-centred practitioners who use chair work with those who dont, but then there might be other differences between these two groups that account for the differential improvement rates. For instance, the practitioners who use chair-work might be more experienced. Alternatively, you could compare a person-centred counsellor before and after they start to use chair-work, but then any improvements might be due to general improvements over time. The only way to really test it is to conduct a controlled experiment: take a sample of person-centred practitioners (youll probably need at least thirty), randomly divide them into two groups, get one group to start using chair-work and the others to remain working in a non-directive way, then see whether there are any significant differences between the effectiveness of the two groups (using, of course, an array of well-established outcome measures) empirically rigorous, but youre talking about three PhDs there, not one MSc dissertation!
Alternatively, ask person-centred practitioners who use chair-work how useful they think it is. What you will get here is perceptions not truths, but many phenomenological and postmodern thinkers would argue that, at the end of the day, thats all you are going to get anyway.
10. Think methodology from the start
Its no good coming up with a brilliant question if there is no way of actually answering it, or if answering it is going to be such a headache that youll wish that you never started in the first place. So as you come up with ideas, think about how feasible it might actually be to put them into practice. This is something you may really want to discuss early on with members of the course team. In fact, some times it might actually be worth thinking up a feasible methodology, and then finding a specific question along those lines.
11. Respondents MUST be accessible
In terms of the feasibility of the study, probably the most important methodological concern is whether or not you are actually going to get anyone to respond to your interviews, questionnaires, etc. It is essential to the success of your study that you get a good response rate, so thinking about who you talk to is as important as thinking about what you ask them. A number of factors will determine how good your response is likely to be: how big the population is in total, their motivation to help you, how easy it will be for you to get in touch with them, how cautious you will need to be as a consequence of ethical safeguards. Local counsellors are often a good source of respondents, because there is a lot of them, they often want to help, and you can easily contact them through organisations like PCT Scotland. Student counsellors are also good because they tend to be easy to contact (assuming the course leaders will let you talk to the student group) and are usually highly motivated and interested. Clients, however, are a much more difficult group of respondents to access. For ethical reasons, you will need to work your way through a number of ethical safeguards (e.g. finding an organisation that will let you talk to their clients, ensuring confidentiality, dealing with the problem of clients using you as their counsellor, going through the various ethics committees), and, by the end of it, you may find that there is no-one left for you to carry out your research with.
12. Ethics come first
Within the research field, ethical issues are sometimes treated as an add-on or an obstacle that need to be overcome before the real work can be carried out. From a humanistic/person-centred perspective, however, the principles of non-maleficence doing no harm to your respondent and, ideally, beneficence promoting the respondents well-being should be an integral part of your research design. So, right from the very start of your project, think about ways in which your research might benefit those that are involved: for instance, helping counsellors in a voluntary agency to clarify their thoughts about their practice; and also make sure that you have read the BACP Ethical Guidelines for Monitoring, Evaluation and Research in Counselling.
Aside from doing the right thing, the issue of ethics will be an important one for you because, in any research study, you will need to submit your project to an ethics committee (see above), and the more sensitive your work, the more committees and the longer the time this is likely to take. For instance, if you wish to carry out research in the National Health Service, you will almost certainly need to go through an NHS ethics committee, which can take many months to consider and respond to proposals. So, as you start to develop your research ideas, be aware of the ethical issues and processes that it might raise, and try to find out about the ethical submissions that such a study is likely to entail. That way, you wont suddenly find yourself facing a long and uncertain wait before you can proceed with your work or, if you do, at least youll be prepared for it.
13. Dont stick too close to home
For reasons of accessibility, ease, and interest, you may want to do some research on an area in which you, yourself, are professionally or personally involved. For instance, if you are a nurse, you may want to look at how other nurses in your hospital view counselling; or if you are a group facilitator, you may want to look at how effective your training has been. In general, this isnt a great idea, because your personal involvement is likely to lead to considerable bias in how you relate to your respondents and your data as well as how your respondents are likely to relate to you. You can still do a study of this type, but move on to a different hospital or look at another trainers work somewhere where it will be easier for you to take a more balanced standpoint.
14. See what the supervisors are interested in
If youd really like to carry out some research, but dont have any clear ideas about what youd like to explore, you may want to have a look at the areas of interest that potential supervisors have indicated, and also the research questions that are emerging from the Counselling Units research forum.
© Copyright for this article belongs to MICK COOPER
This document was re-printed with the kind permission of MICK COOPER. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.strath.ac.uk/counsunit/downloads/tips%20on%20choosing%20a%20dissertation%20topic.doc
I’m often asked how to structure a qualitative dissertation and I find that seeing other dissertations can help to 1) recognise the structural similarities and writing conventions, and 2) recognise that all dissertations are slightly different and it’s perfectly ok to do your own thing too. So I recently went on the hunt for some examples of qualitative psychology Masters theses to help MSc Media Psychology students in writing up their qualitative research.
I found a few qualitative psychology Masters theses online (see below) but PhD theses and undergraduate dissertations seem more available electronically (I’ve also included some examples of each below). Perhaps there is gap for an online hub of Masters projects? If you know of one, I’d love to hear about it.
- Conroy, M. (2010) A Qualitative Study of the Psychological Impact of Unemployment on Individuals, Dublin Institute of Technology. Submitted for the award of Masters in Child, Family and Community Studies
- Heinze, I. (2011) Making Sense of the Social Aspects of Business Failure,The University of Edinburgh*, Submitted for the award of Master of Science in Psychological Research Methods
- Lyon, T. (2011) Beyond the future: Fortune telling as constituted in the media,The University of Edinburgh*, Submitted for the award of MSc in the History and Theory of Psychology
*Found via the University of Edinburgh’s search option for Psychology Masters thesis collection here.
- Brown, P. (2005) Life in dispersal: narratives of asylum, identity and community, Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield (Phil just happens to be my PhD supervisor!)
- Chernicoff, E. (2002) Becoming Visible : A Qualitative Analysis of Female to Male Transsexuals’ Coming Out Experiences, PhD thesis, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Clements, A. (2012) Commitment in students training for caring professions: a focus on student nurses’ experience of support, PhD thesis, University of Bedfordshire (a mixed methods example)
- Howarth, C. (2000) “So, you’re from Brixton?”: Towards a social psychology of community. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
LSE Theses Online and the Open University’s Open Research Online are both fab repositories. Registering for the British Library’s Electronic Thesis Service EThoS is also a must.
- Foskett, E. (2012) A discourse analysis using feminist strands of thought to analyse advertisements, Download from the MMU Psychology Dissertations Journal here.
- Walker, S. (2012) “Follow, follow?”: A thematic analysis of how geographical location, social intensity & masculinity are predictors for ‘casting’ nationality with football, Download from the MMU Psychology Dissertations Journal here
Whilst searching, I also found a Masters dissertation on social media’s role in branding which applies cultivation theory…might be of interest to our MSc Media Psych students.
Quite a few of the dissertations uploaded to the MMU Psychology Dissertations Journal are also media related. You can search the Journal here.
It’s great to see how others have conquered the challenges of writing up but there does come a point where you need to stop looking at other people’s work and focus on writing your own work in your own way. Good luck!
P.S. Don’t forget to adhere to your University’s specific guidance on writing up dissertations and theses too!
Thanks to @DrAClements, @ClareUytman, @ej_odwyer, @spatialsyndave, @drshroyer, @cyberandrew, @marcdonncadh, @paulbyrneuk, @DrSharronH, @GalvinMary, @VickiMcDermott for their retweets and suggestions which informed this post.
This post was originally published on the Media Psychology UK blog.
Posted in Learning, PhD, psychology, qualitative
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