How to write a dissertation.

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This is a practical guide to help you develop, write and complete a successful MBA dissertation.

This guide assumes that you haven’t written a dissertation before and covers all of the basics.

Using research methods textbooks is still necessary but this guide will show you each step of the process.

The basic rule is to follow the guidelines, be systematic and understand that writing a dissertation is a particular way of producing an academic piece of work, which is very different to just writing an essay. The main difference is that a dissertation is a structured, thorough argument that shows your ability to do research.

It is really like constructing a large Lego building – you need an idea (a plan) of the whole thing, then a guide to how all the bits fit together and then make sure you have all the right pieces in the right order – and bingo you then have a nice neat temple ready to go.

A flow chart of your ideas can be useful as a way of planning the structure of your dissertation.

Start by finding the topic that really interests you. Then find a supervisor who will show you the ropes.

 

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The Cover – Titles and Titling

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You can do a great deal with a title – think of how a great title catches your eye:-

War and Peace – what do you think this book is about?

The title of your dissertation should be as clear as it is possible – if you get this right you are well on the way.

“An examination of the use of Facebook in marketing campaigns for teenage clothes”

This is a good title because it tells you exactly about how, when and where the topic will be developed.

A study of employee performance”

This is a bad title because it could be about almost anything.

How to write your title-

  1. Play around with several options
  2. Don’t just repeat your research question – where’s the point in that?
  3. Be adventurous, but try and find a very specific question!
  4. Key words may be useful – ‘a critical evaluation’, ‘a case study’, ‘a longitudinal study’

 

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Here are some good titles off the top of our heads:-

  •   Flying High? The evolution of British Airways corporate strategy 2000-2010
  •   Shopping Around: Credit Card Switching Behaviour in the UK 2000-2010
  •   Raising Our Sights – the Changing Business Model of Optician Service Provision in 
the UK
  •   Supply Chain Management in the UK Clothing Business: Next plc’s future 
strategy
  •   Charity Begins at Home – the Evolving Role of the Third Sector on UK High Streets 
Here are some that are not so good:-
  •   Corporate Social Responsibility at Tescos/BP/Shell etc.
  •   A Case Study of BP’s Oil Crisis in 2010
  •   The Causes of the Global Banking Crisis
  •   Delivering the 2012 Olympics on Time and in Budget
  •   What went wrong with the Millennium Dome? 
Can you see why these are not so good as titles? (Answer: They are vague, general and very hard to answer – if not impossible). 
Here is the world’s clearest research question- “An examination of the bio-mechanics of the human finger.” (This was a Ph.D) 
The world’s worst research question –“What were the causes of the global financial crisis and the sub-prime crisis and the after-effects?”

 

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A good research question is:

  1. Clear and simple
2. Has a defined scope.
3. Can be answered.
4. Is achievable in the space/time of the process.

Do not start on your dissertation until you have a good research question and you understand what research is about. Planning is vital.

So:
To begin your dissertation you will need-

  •   A topic.
  •   A research question. (Which is a question).
  •   A title.
  •   Some Keywords that define what your topic is (vital for the literature search)
  •   A general research approach (called methodology)
  •   A basic idea of how to conduct research (which you will be taught in research 
methodology).
  •   A plan of how to complete the research.
  •   Some information about the topic.
  •   A supervisor who will guide you through the process.

 

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Making the Research Question, Aims and Objectives, formulating Hypotheses

What is a ‘research interest’?
Here are some examples: – and notes on the difficulties.

Interest Comments
Investment Banking Deeply researched; difficult to get access to because people are rich and self-important
SME and Entrepreneurship Researched; difficult to get access to people because they are so busy; often country specific issues
Banking Crisis Deeply researched; access problems – see investment banking above; highly complex and often country specific
Low Carbon Futures Emerging research area; high degree of uncertainty
Corporate Finance Deeply researched; access problems because of confidentiality issues; needs fresh perspectives
Financial Literacy Very poorly understood; needs much cleverer research design; central area of public policy in most countries
Risk Management Access problems; danger of case study approach; saturation point e.g. B.P.
Privatisation Overlooked nowadays; good questions still to be answered around implementation and rationale; difficulties of access because politicised
ICT Vast area; widely studied, poorly evaluated; beware the Cloud
HRM Vast area, rightly widely researched; still interesting fringe areas such as pension provision and administration
CSR Much hot air; access difficulties because corporations only tell you what you want to know
Tesco’s Research at saturation point
FDI Growing and important area of research; needs fresh perspectives; central area of public policy
Airline Business Models Access problems leads toward quantitative research; why would you invest in an airline?
Hedge Funds Horrendous access problems – by definition they are private
Implementation of Accounting Standards Growing area, particularly with IFRS implementation
Supply Chain Management and Procurement Growing in importance as global rebalancing continues
Operations Management Means everything to everyone…

And so on…

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So transforming an interest in to a question

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A research interest is a wide, vaguely defined area, expressed in a paragraph;it may lead to a question.

A good research question is narrow, tightly defined, expressed in a sentence, must lead to an answer, and is essential to answer

Good, and not so good research questions:

Good Not So Good
What role does corporate social responsibility play in a small chain of organic food cooperatives?
(my best friend is a manager at one of the branches) What role does corporate social responsibility play at Tesco’s
(I have never worked there and know none of the senior directors)
How does a bank reward its staff without giving them bonuses?
(my best friend is the manager at one branch of Handelsbankken who pride themselves on a different model of staff remuneration) Did perverse incentives to senior staff at the UK’s 4 largest banks contribute to the banking crisis?
(I have no colleagues in senior positions at the big 4 banks)
How well do family farmers manage cereal price volatility over the long term in the UK? (my father is a longstanding family farmer in East Anglia – a region renowned for cereal growing) What trading positions do hedge funds adopt on soft commodities in an economic recession?
(I don’t know anyone who works for a hedge fund)
How effective is audit in uncovering fraud in public finances in Rikstein?
(My uncle is Auditor-General in Rikstein) What is the extent of bribery, money laundering and corruption in Rikstein?
(I don’t know any senior police or political figures in Rikstein)
How effective is bank lending to rapidly growing ICT start up firms?
(I started my ICT business three years ago – it is rapidly growing) Why are banks not lending enough to SME’s?
(I have few friends – none work in banks or SME’s)
How effective is an annual staff survey in enhancing stakeholder engagement?
(I am a senior HR manager with specialist experience in annual staff survey engagement) How does Tesco engage so well with its workforce?
(the only people I know at Tesco’s worked on the tills a couple of years ago)
To what extent and for what purpose does a major multinational use financial derivatives? (I work on the treasury desk at a major multinational and know the Corporate Treasurer well) What role do complex financial derivatives play in the smooth running of the banking system?
(I have just qualified with ACCA and am yet to meet a senior figure in the banking world. These derivative things are quite difficult to understand)
What attributes do runners look for when they buy new shoes?
(I am a middle manager of the sales force for New Balance – a company that makes its shoes in the UK and does not rely on celebrity endorsement) To what extent did accusations of child labour at Nike contribute to a fall in sales? (I do not know anyone who works for Nike)
How does this question relate to possible kinds of research Good and bad reasons for adopting it.

 

 

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You get the drift, we hope. Be specific, and reflect on how you will get access to meaningful sources.

To select a topic make sure it is something that you are really interested and that you know about and that you can realistically get information about.

If you are stuck get a copy of the FT and of City.am and look at all of the major currant topics- select 5 you are interested in and then think about how you would approach it. Three key things drive the decision of what your dissertation is about.

  1. Is it do-able? (can you actually answer the question and do the research)
  2. Will it be useful to you in the future? (in your career)
  3. Are you interested in it as a topic?

Look on the web, look at previous dissertations, look in the research methods books on the reading lists, they will all give you ideas.

Ok. I have got a topic, a title and a research question – what do I do next? Simples – you do the abstract.

Abstract
What is an abstract?

It is a 200-300 word summary of the whole dissertation

What’s it for?

It is to give the examiner a clear idea of what the dissertation is attempting to do. For example –

“This dissertation is an empirical study of the implementation of firewall systems in a clothing online company and its impact on customer sales and access etc.”

A good abstract is clear and simple and tells the examiner everything they need to know.

  1. And the whole approach of the dissertation?
  2. Yes, a quick overview of the approach and structure.

Keywords

At the end of the abstract you should put some keywords; these help you, and the examiner, see straightaway what the main topic is.They also are very useful for putting into search engines to find academic material on the research question.

Example – Research question is ‘Examining the Key indicators of employee motivation and performance in the financial sector in Britain, 200-2011’.
Keywords: key indicators, employee motivation, financial sector, performance, Britain.Once you’ve looked at a few academic articles you will get the hang of it, as they all have keywords attached to them. Look at the abstract databases and academic journals.

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Now for the introduction…

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This is my friend Nihal —is that what you mean?

Well that’s not completely wrong because what the introduction is there to do is to introduce the whole background and context of the research question to the examiner.

The introductory chapter of your dissertation should include

  1. An overview of the dissertation problem, and it’s background and context.
  2. Discussion of the industry background and context if necessary.
  3. A brief overview of the aims and objectives and approach of your topic.
  4. A discussion about why your dissertation is significant and what you want to achieve.
  5. A description of the various dissertation chapters.

You can think of the introduction as being an extended version of the abstract that fills in a lot of the detail about what is going to happen in the dissertation.

The introduction ‘signposts’ how the dissertation will be structured – this is what makes a dissertation different to an essay or short piece of writing – it is a long, organised argument that presents in-depth research to answer a question.

  1. So after the introduction what do I do?
  2. You follow the structure given in the introduction. So next is Literature Review.

 

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Doing the Literature review

(this section is far too often not done properly and leads to a weak dissertation) _________________________________________________________________________

  1. What’s this literature review, I don’t like literature I’m doing business studies.
  2. No it means something a bit different it’s the literature – what’s been written- about 
your topic.
  3. What does that mean?
  4. It means that you have to read all the academic journals and articles and books that 
deal with the same research question as the one you are doing.
  5. Oh, and how do I do that?
  6. Well you take the Keywords you developed with your question – the main terms that 
describe important elements of your topic – and search all the databases and 
libraries and journals for information on the topic. Easy.
  7. But I don’t know how to do it.
  8. You do a search, you look in databases, library catalogues, even on Google scholar 
to find articles that talk about your topic.
  9. Give me an example…

My title is ‘ An analysis of the Key Indicators of motivation that affects employee performance in the financial sector in Britain,2000- 2010

So my Keywords are ‘employee performance’ motivation’ and the ‘financial sector’ because these are the main ideas in my research. I put these in Google scholar or any other database and I try and find articles that directly discuss this problem.

 

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And what do you do then?

Well if you really smart you use a citation index.

What is one of them, and why would I use it?

Well it is a listing of all academic articles and then they are ranked in terms of the numbers of times they have been quoted by someone else – or the number of times they have been cited.

So what’s the point of that?

Well it reflects the general importance of the article you are quoting, which is a useful tool in thinking about your particular research problem.

Is it essential to use them?

Well it’s not essential but it’s a very good idea to find out what the most important topics of debate are.

Here’s a quote from a useful site on how to use citation indexes.

“Citation indexes track references that authors put in the bibliographies of published papers. They provide a way to search for and analyze the literature in a way not possible through simple keyword/topical searching. It also enables users to gather data on the “impact” of journals, as well as assessing particular areas of research activity and publication.” (University of Texas library website)

Where else do I find academic literature about my topic?

The other important place to look, besides the bibliographies of already published books on the subject, are abstract databases

And they are?

They are specialist academic databases that list all of the articles produced by writers that have been published in journals and conference proceedings. They give the abstract of what the article is about and links to the full thing.

So I use my keywords and find all the relevant articles, right?

When you have found the 20-30 most important articles/books about your topic in the literature review you just need tosummarize what everyone says.

  1. Critically evaluate it – this means to weigh up whether or not what is being argued is relevant to your research.
  2. Try and establish what the best research approach for your topic is, by analyzing what other academic writers on the topic have said.
  3. Establish if there are any ‘gaps’ in the literature – this means that they haven’t discussed the topic you are concerned with – probably not likely to happen.

The present estimate is that about 1.2 million academic articles are now written every year – so it is fairly unlikely that there is nothing written on your topic.
At the end of literature review you should have an idea of the appropriate way to approach your research question. Summarize what you have discovered in the literature review.

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Research methodology.

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This is the bit a lot of people have trouble with – but again it is straightforward if you think about what it is you are trying to do.

What am I trying to do?

You are trying to find the best method to approach your topic – sometimes called horses for courses.

I don’t like horses and I’ve never been riding.

It is an expression that means certain things are best in certain places, some horses run better at a course that is hilly than a flat one.

Ah, so sometimes one method of research is better than another one depending on the topic?
You are already out in front on this one.

For the Masters student of business research the aim of the RM chapter is to demonstrate:-

  1. You understand what a research approach, or ‘method’ is and why it is appropriate to your topic.
  2. That the chapter is not a quasi- philosophical exercise divorced from the rest of the work.
  3. A grasp of the dilemmas and challenges posed by business research in general and specifically the research question and objectives you wish to address
  4. The various approaches that may be taken to the research question via achieving aims and objectives set down in the introductory chapter and revisited at the end of the Review of Literature chapter
  5. Your justification for the approaches you have taken in the research design and strategy you are proposing

The most important thing about a research methodology is that it is APPROPRIATE to the research question that you working on

How do you define ‘appropriate’ in this context?

It’s like this if the dissertation is like a car then the engine is the idea and the methodology is the gearbox – it’s what drives the vehicle along – if it’s the wrong gearbox for the engine it won’t move.

 

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Drawing

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Why do some people use onions in research? Because they make you cry?

I think you are referring to the infamous ‘Research Onion’ beloved of Saunder et al.

 

Why it is bad?

It is overly complex.

Don’t forget you need to talk about the limitations of the study and the approaches –this shows you are aware of the problems.

What’s a research philosophy then?

It is the basic theoretical approach you take to understanding the world.

Meaning?

How you interpret the world and explain how it works, you might think that the world is fixed and unchanging or you might think that everything changes all the time, these views are completely opposite and represent a philosophical approach.

So why do I need a research philosophy?

To explain what sort of information and data you will collect, how you will collect it and why it is valid.

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For example?

Positivism is a theory that the world is knowable through observation and that facts can be demonstrated by deduction.

Deduction?

Testing things against known theories, building hypothesis and making measurements and showing facts. Generally being quantitative in approach.

Doesn’t everyone do that and agree with it?

Nope, there are people called Interpretivists who say that in effect reality is constructed in different ways by different people, so thereare multiple realities.

You are confusing me, what’s that got to do with business studies?

How you interpret what consumers think about a product may involve understanding their emotions rather than facts about how cars are built, so you are always interpreting how the world works.

So I guess that sort of philosophical approach tends to use qualitative methods because it is trying to analyze realities rather than just report on them?
I couldn’t have put that better myself.

And what’s a realist?
Realists take the view that things can be understood straightforwardly, just treated as existing without worrying about whether they obey fixed laws, like the positivists say, or are completely made up (relativistic) as the Interpretivistssay.

So my research philosophy is really my idea of how to understand how the world works?
Precisely.
And that dictates what methodology you use.

Your research approach, methodology and philosophy should all be inter-linked and be appropriate to your topic and area of study. A guide to this should come out of your literature review- because you will have looked at research that is doing similar things to your topic.

 

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You should now have a clear plan of action

 

I have a horse called Research Philosophy and I have a map of where I am going, so like Napoleon I will conquer Europe – or at least write a good dissertation.

Before you go you need some idea of where you are going to get data from for your research!

I knew there was something, where do I get data from?

What sort of data you need, and where you get it from, also depends on the sort of research approach you have adopted – sometimes it’s statistics and sometimes it’s in-depth interviews with particular people.

Important places to find information.

ONS.
ILO
Directory of Open access journals (DOAJ)
Abstract databases (like ERA etc)
RBA Information site.
Citation indexes.
Conference proceedings (often only published on the web) BL. (or any other library catalogue)
Government reports (almost always free access)

 

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Important places to find information cont.

Joseph Rowntree Trust
British Sociological Association.
Google Scholar.
More or Less (BBC statistics programme)

Have a research design as well – the plan of how you do all of the above

Research design is just like the diagram for assembling an IKEA wardrobe – it shows what you do, how you do it and where everything goes. Or to put it more technically it is the string of logic that links the data to be collected and the conclusions to be drawn to the initial research question.

Thereare basically four problems that research designs deal with:

  1. What questions to study
  2. What data are relevant
  3. What data to collect
  4. How to analyse that data.

This is really the plan of how the whole dissertation works and provides the structure that is central to the whole process.

A dissertation is a structured argument which deals both with how to research, what to research and the proper methodology for doing.

Where do I begin my research design?

This is often the fundamental dilemma for business research students. The simple answer is as early as possible on the whole programme, if not before. We say again, keep an ideas diary from day one of the programme. In there, repeatedly mull over what are my research interests, and how can I forge them into a sensible research question with SMART objectives. The sharper your question becomes the clearer the research tools, techniques and volumes of data to answer it become.

Example
Think about the types and volumes of data and other information you will need to resolve the following research

question and objectives:-

“Question: To what extent do remittances from the Cypriot diaspora in the UK contribute to economic progress

in the home country?

Objective 1: To quantify the frequency and size of remittances home from Cypriot diaspora in London

over the 10 years to 2010

Objective 2: To evaluate the state of the Cypriot economy over the same period and its funding sources
Objective 3: Via multi factor regression analysis to establish the strength of correlation between level and

frequency of remittance and economic progress in Cyprus”

 

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Thinking early, and along these lines may well lead you to the conclusion that the amount of data you need to collect is either not feasible, not available, or cannot be collected in the timeframe of a Masters dissertation. Finding this out early will avoid considerable amounts of grief on your part.

Will I do a questionnaire, a survey, in-depth interviews, a focus group, random sampling, complex sampling, Skype interviews, statistical analysis or simply secondary data?

So what sorts of data should you be looking for?

First of all –good data, that is information that is reliable, accurate and properly sourced – not just something off the net or out of a newspaper!

“Many people say that Mercedes are good cars” is not accurate data- it is hearsay.
In research you are trying to find out what is the actually the case in a given situation, so, like a detective, you have to be suspicious of first impressions.

So what is good data?

The best data is primary data.

What’s that?

It is first hand information collected by you in a manner that tries to be scientific – like a survey or an examination of statistical evidence produced by you. It is new, reliable data.

What if I can’t get any primary data?

Then you turn to secondary data which is already published information from other sources, like government statistics or company information- but you must explain why they are relevant and valid.

Why doesn’t everyone use primary data?

Because it can be difficult, expensive and very time consuming to collect, say you were investigating the effect of extreme cold on oil-drilling – you would need to go to the Antarctic for six months and make observations, which could be lethal and incredibly expensive. Remember Research articles that you looked at in your literature review about your topic will show you many places to get data from and suggest ways of using data.

You’ve collected the data so you go into the Main Discussion…

 

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This is the main chunk of the dissertation. Here you discuss your research question, how it worked, what the analysis looks like, what the implications of the research process are and what the problems with the data and the outcome are.

It is where you explore in detail the question that you have posed and show a chain of reasoning that will justify the conclusions that you come to.

So you might have a phrase like this ; Therefore the general argument of this dissertation has been ……and the data collected showed that … and therefore the original research question appears to have been correct in suggesting the hypothesis that … etc.

You should try and bring together the research philosophy, the methodology and the research design to show how they all function to produce a clear, logically structured argument.

Imagine that you have to explain each and every step of the process to someone who knows nothing about dissertations – so you explain and justify each step and each kind of proof and information.

Whatever you say try and substantiate it, a dissertation is more like a legal document than a letter home.

Analysis of findings.

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If I have clear findings why do I need to analyze them?

Mainly because you need to be able to show how you came to those conclusions – that’s what research is about – demonstrating not only the proof but how it was constructed.

I don’t follow that…

Well you may think that the conclusions are clear but unless you can explain how they came about then you haven’t completed the ‘explain and justify’ part of the process.

Give me an example, please?

Well if you had done a complicated survey that involved many different people from different age and income groups and they all said the same thing about using e-commerce then you would need to explain why such different people all came to the same conclusion.

Ok so I need to unpick the way the data is constructed and what it means?

Exactly, to show that you can argue for the validity of the findings you are presented.

Like the conclusion about Pigs flying- that would need some serious justifying and analysis of the findings.

Conclusion…(recommendations)

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This is where you state as clearly as you can exactly what it is you have discovered. Example: This dissertation has demonstrated the fact that pigs can fly, which was done by collecting primary data on instances of pigs flying and interviewing them. (see appendix a)

This may not rate as a very good conclusion because it may not be true so make sure your conclusion is based on your analysis and that it is a proper representation of the actual situation.

The conclusion should state what you have proven to be the case and why it is so. Don’t forget to refer back to your original research question – have you answered it?

Your conclusions may not be what you expected to discover so you may have to say that. Try and show why the conclusion is important and what the consequences of the findings are-these are called recommendations.

For example: Larger fences should be put around Pigs if we think they are going to fly. (Bad).
Here’s a better example.

This dissertation has shown that social media are a vital sales tool in clothes retailing and therefore that new brands must develop a marketing strategy that incorporates social media.

Referencing, presentation and other bits.

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You must make sure that everything that you directly quote, or refer to, in the dissertation is properly referenced. This must follow the Harvard Referencing system as specified in the LSBF guidelines.

There are plenty of guides on the net- just put in ‘Harvard Referencing.

Back up material needs to go into the appendix section.

Final hand in.

Leave yourself at least three days to complete the final version of your dissertation, proper presentation is import and binding takes time – do not leave it until the final day. Put the hand in date on your wall and aim to complete well before the deadline.
If you have followed all of the steps we have outlined and talked to your supervisor then it is highly likely you will have submitted a successful dissertation.

Recommended Reading
Jones, S. Van der Heijden, B. Wahba, K. How to Write Your MBA Thesis (Maastricht School of Management Series in Intercultural and Global Management)
Baxter, L., Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (1996) How To Research, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Bell, J. (1999) Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers in Education and Social Science, 3rdedition, Buckingham: Open University Press.

 

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