Research Proposal and Dissertation

In addition to the information research skills which you develop as you progress through your programme, UG honours students and PG students are required to develop and carry out a small-scale piece of research as part of their degree programme. For undergraduate students, the research process starts either in Semester B of L3 or in semester A of L4, depending on how your programme is structured. For post-graduate students, this process starts in Semester B of your post-graduate programme.

The research process during your degree has 2 stages:

  • A research methods module, which is assessed through a research proposal (referred to as dissertation proposal in UG Social Sciences programmes)
  • The dissertation module, which is assessed through the dissertation

Unlike an essay or report, which evaluates, draws conclusions and makes judgements on the basis of published evidence (ie the literature), a research proposal does not answer a question, but identifies/develops a question for research and explains

  • why it's important to explore the problem
  • how the researcher will explore the problem : what research strategy will be used, what type of data will be collected; how data will be analysed.

Once the research proposal has been approved by a supervisor, the researcher gathers primary or secondary data, analyses it and presents the results in the dissertation.

  • What topics / issues in your field interest you? Don’t limit yourself to one topic – you may need to consider several issue/ topics before you find one that you can do.
  • What specific problems around this issue have been identified by researchers or practitioners in the sector/industry?
  • Is an under-researched issue identified in the literature?

A research question is not the same as a topic. A research question should be specific and narrowly-focussed to a context eg a type of organisation (SME, third sector organisation, supermarket, national park, etc); a sector (telecommunications, voluntary sector, retail ; a social group that meet specific criteria eg demographic, gender or experience; a geographical area). Because a research question is focussed on a specific context, the answer to the question is not in the published research literature: the research question you develop will be answered in your dissertation by analysing data that you collect. The type of data that you collect depends on what you want to find out

  • Primary data is information that you gather from your informants (through, for example, survey questionnaires, interviews or focus groups) Most students doing research for a business or social sciences research
  • Secondary data is information that has already been published (eg financial information, information in a database, reports) that has been collected/compiled for a different purpose. Researchers analyse secondary data for a different purpose than it was originally intended.

The type of data you need depends on your research question. Most students doing research for a business or marketing topic are encouraged not to analyse only secondary data, but also to gather and analyse primary data. By contrast, it is quite common for students in finance and finance-related disciplines to develop a research question that requires only secondary analysis (eg of published financial or numerical data). Students studying history often analyse documentary sources (secondary data), while criminology, politics or sociology students may gather primary data from informants, or may analyse secondary data sources. Media research often involves analysis of media content.

In identifying a research question, access is possibly the most important consideration. In order to answer your research question, you must have access to the primary or secondary data sources that can provide the information you need. You also need to bear in mind that information may be confidential, either for commercial reasons or because of its sensitive nature and so it may not be available to you.

  • If you need to conduct primary research to gather your data, who can you contact to find
    • People in your previous/current jobs?
    • Can friends/family help you get access to the people you want to talk to
    • Organisations may be willing to give you access to employees, but they are unlikely to help you if the research does not benefit them in some way.
  • If you need secondary data, is the data publicly available?

All research proposals for dissertations have a similar structure, although the terminology relating to sections within the proposal may vary. The word count also varies – check your module handbook for a detailed description of what is required and the wordcount for each section.

  • Research Background – why is this research question important?
    • What research or events demonstrate that this question is important?
    • Have recent developments made this question important?
    • How is this question important in the research context that you have identified?
    • What is the value of doing this research?
  • Aim and Objectives
    • The aim is a clear statement of what you want to find out
    • The objectives can be compared to a process – what do you need to find out in order to achieve your aim
  • How does previous research help us understand the issues around this research question?
    • What are the key perspectives/ theories/models in the literature that are relevant to your study?
    • What gap or underresearched area does your literature review highlight?
  • How will the research be carried out and why have you made these choices?
    • Are you going to analyse primary or secondary data? Why?
    • Are you collecting quantitative or qualitative data? Or both? Why?
    • How are you going to collect this data?
    • If you’re going to collect primary data, what is your sampling strategy?
    • How are you going to analyse the data?
    • What potential problems or challenges do you anticipate in doing this study?
  • Projected time scale (Visually represented – Gannt chart or Excel spreadsheet)
  • Limitations and potential problems
    • What has limited the scope of this study?
    • What might make it difficult for you to achieve your aim?
    • What might go wrong?

The aim of the literature is to identify key theories, models and/or research studies that shape our understanding of the issue. The research proposal is only a preliminary overview of the literature – the word count at this stage is not sufficient for a comprehensive literature review. You will explore the literature in greater depth in your dissertation.

Your review of the literature should be guided by these questions:

  • Are the definitions really different or just expressed in different words?
  • What are the shared elements across definitions?
  • Where/ How are definitions different – in scope/focus?
  • How have definitions changed over time - why?
  • Which definition is being used for this study?
  • What are the points of agreement and difference?
  • How strong is the weight of research evidence for a particular perspective?
  • How are these perspectives relevant to your research?
  • What does past research say about research issue in relation to
    • best practice/strategies
    • challenges to good practice
    • difficulties and barriers to addressing this issue?
  • Does the research show a gap/mismatch between organisational/sector policy and practice?
  • Is there enough research?
  • Are the research findings generalizable to your proposed study?
  • Are there differences in the research setting that limit the relevance of the findings to your proposed study?
    • culture
    • geographical location
    • industry/sector
    • demographic
  • How does the model help us understand how to address issue?
  • What are the criticisms and/or limitations of this theory, model or framework?

A dissertation is an extended piece of work (around 10-12,000 words) on a subject related to your degree programme. You will normally choose the subject yourself which may develop from a research proposal you have completed earlier.

The dissertation is typically based on original research and demonstrates your expertise on the subject area. Dissertation comes from the Latin word ‘dissertare’ = ‘to debate’. Therefore your dissertation should include an examination of the subject from a number of different viewpoints.

Typically your dissertation should:

  • Be a logically organised, critical analysis of a specific topic
  • Show critical analysis of current literature on the specific topic
  • Include a small-scale investigation to investigate a gap, key issues, themes or questions raised in the literature review
  • Critically compare findings/data from primary research with that of existing evidence
  • Draw conclusions and make recommendations
    • This web site contains general information and guidance on dissertation writing. However, always CHECK YOUR MODULE HANDBOOK AND WITH YOUR SUPERVISOR FOR SPECIFIC DETAILS!

A dissertation is a detailed report on your research investigation. It focuses on exploration of the particular issue or problem that your initial research proposal identifies as requiring further research. The key differences between the proposal and dissertation are that you will now be putting your proposed research design into practice to collect and then analyse your data.

Typically a dissertation has the following key features:

  • LENGTH AND STRUCTURE: 10 – 12,000 words that are logically organised in clearly linked chapters; chapters are arranged thematically in sections [See sample table of contents];
  • A CLEAR RESEARCH AIM: The dissertation is developed from, and closely directed by a specific research question and/or aim. The aim should be presented as a clear, straightforward statement of what you want to achieve [See: How do I write a clear research aim and /or question and objectives for my dissertation?]
  • A LITERATURE REVIEW:A critical review of literature on issues relevant to the research topic. This key stage and chapter should develop a clear discussion of what is known about the research topic in more detail. It includes: critical comparison and questioning of key points of view, current thinking, definitions, relevant theories, models and previous research as found in the wider literature. From this literature review you identify a gap in knowledge, key issues, themes and/or raise questions about your topic which requires collection of new data to provide answers to these questions and/or fill the research gap;
  • ANALYSIS OF DATA COLLECTED:You analyse the data you have collected through critical comparison of it with existing data you have reviewed in the literature review that explored definitions, relevant theories, models, major themes/debates and other previous research;
  • CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS: You provide conclusions to your research aim and/or question, key research objectives or hypotheses and make recommendations for future research and practice


As for the proposal, the dissertation is developed from, and closely directed by a specific research question and/or aim [A CLEAR STATEMENT OF WHAT YOU WANT TO FIND OUT OR ACHIEVE]. These may change from your initially proposed aim and/or question. Your research aim and/ or question should clearly and simply express the focus of your inquiry and the key variables you explore. The research question is not the same as a topic. A research question should be specific and narrowly-focussed to a context e.g. a type of organisation (SME, third sector organisation, supermarket, national park, etc); a sector (telecommunications, voluntary sector, retail); a social group that meet specific criteria e.g. demographic, gender or experience and/or a particular geographical area).

Because a research question is focussed on a specific context, the answer to the question is not in the published research literature: the research question you develop will be answered by analysing data that you collect.

A research aim and/or question can be built around the following key phrases:

  • AIM: To critically explore the extent to which …
    QUESTION: To what extent do/does... ...?
  • AIM: To critically explore how X impacts on Y in the context of organisation Z
    QUESTION: In what ways/How does/What is the impact of X on organisation/population Y in the context of Z?
  • AIM: To critically analyse the factors that have contributed to the development of X in organisation/population Y
    QUESTION: What factors have contributed to the development of X in organisation/population Y?
  • AIM: To critically evaluate the role and impact of X on Y in Z
    QUESTION: What is the role and impact of X on Y in Z?

A dissertation is further directed by having research objectives. These are clear statements that explain how you will meet your research aim and/or address the research question you have established. Objectives can be built using the following wording:

  • To critically review X in order to
  • To measure X by...
  • To evaluate X by...
  • To gain insight into X through
  • To examine X by...
  • To calculate X through the use of...
  • To compare X with Y by...
  • To assess the impact of X on Y by...
  • To interpret X through application of Y...
    • For many dissertations the objectives correspond to each main chapter or key stage of the research process:

      LITERATURE REVIEW: To critically review relevant theoretical and research based literature in order to evaluate how ...

      METHODOLOGY: To adopt a mixed methods research design and undertake interviews with X in order to gain insight into how/why…

      DATA ANALYSIS: To analyse the data collection through application of X’s theory… through comparison with previous research

      CONCLUSIONS & RECOMMENDATIONS: To provide recommendations on how X could improve...

The introduction chapter provides the background/bigger picture and rationale to your dissertation. This can be developed in a range of ways:

  • It outlines the relevant historical, legal, policy, sectoral and organisational context(s) in which the study is located;
  • It explains what the study is about and why the study is important (the rationale): what factors are driving the study – key changes? What is the research problem to be explored?
  • Key terms /variables are broadly defined;
  • Links can be made to key debates/perspectives that are relevant to study
  • Introduce ‘where’ study is conducted, with whom and why: specific sector and organisation, key respondents?
  • Narrows down to a clear statement of research aim, objectives and/or research questions that direct your study;
  • Provides a summary of the content of the main chapters

The following two samples illustrate how 2 writers clearly meet these purposes.

What is a literature review?

The literature review chapter critically reviews key themes/issues relevant to your research topic and study’s aim, drawing on references to academic literature as appropriate. It presents a logical, detailed and coherent picture of what literature tells us about your selected research topic. Specifically it weaves together analysis of some or all of the following, funnelling down from a broad to specific analysis of the issues relevant to your dissertation:

  • Compares debates/key perspectives relevant to your study that can assist in analysis of points of view expressed in the data you collect
  • Compares definitions of key terms to assist in analysis of how definitions are expressed in your data
  • Compares and evaluates models, frameworks and /or theories that may assist in analysing the data you collect
  • Builds a picture of previous research through comparison of studies in journal publications: what does this research tell us about:
    • Key challenges/problems faced and how other organisations have addressed these?
    • The development of innovative approaches/strategies/’best’ practices used successfully in other organisations/sectors?
    • The application of a model or framework to guide practice in other organisations/sectors?

Structure of the literature review

The literature review chapter critically reviews key themes/issues relevant to your research topic and study’s aim, drawing on references to academic literature as appropriate. It presents a logical, detailed and coherent picture of what literature tells us about your selected research topic. Specifically it weaves together analysis of some or all of the following, funnelling down from a broad to specific analysis of the issues relevant to your dissertation:

  • Ensuring clear structure in individual chapters: where and how
    • Include an introductory section to the whole chapter: states what the literature review aims to do, and identifies the key themes it explores;
    • The chapter is divided up in individual sections that focus on one key theme/issue. Each key theme/issues is identified with clear headings and where necessary subheadings may be used to identify subthemes;
    • The theme in each section is clearly introduced: you can briefly comment on relevance of the theme for your study’s aim
    • In each section, the review of the literature on the key theme/issue is built up paragraph by paragraph [Please see the downloadable PDF: GUIDANCE NOTES: STRUCTURING YOUR LITERATURE REVIEW CHAPTER]

Writing critically in the literature review

Critical writing can be developed by considering these questions:

  • ... What are the key points of view on my dissertation topic?
  • How do these views compare, diverge or conflict? Why?
  • Why and/or how are these views relevant to my dissertation?

Critical writing can be developed by considering these questions:

  • What key terms do I need to define?
  • How have definitions changed, developed or evolved?
  • Why have definitions changed?
  • How do definitions conflict?
  • What key points do definitions share?
  • Are definitions viewed as too narrow; too broad; out of date and/or limited in some other way for my dissertation?
  • Why have definitions changed?
  • Which definition is being used for my dissertation – why? Is it the most comprehensive? Most widely applicable?

Critical writing can be developed by considering these questions:

  • Who is/are the main proponents of this model?
  • What is/are the purpose(s) of this model? How has it developed over time? What are the key stages and structure of the model? How does the model work? What does it seek to explain?
  • Why this model is potentially relevant to my dissertation?
  • How can the model be used to help understand particular marketing, management, organisational, financial, HR, operational, social, cultural, psychological, economic and political issues? What processes or practices can this model guide/inform – what are its advantages?/ What insights does it provide?
  • What are the criticisms and/or limitations /weaknesses of this model? Why?
  • What are the possibilities of applying another model which is better? Why is this other model better – more holistic, comprehensive, up-to-date or can be used in combination with another model?
  • What are the major findings of several research papers about this particular theme/issue?
  • How have findings about this theme/issue developed from earlier to more recent research studies?
  • How do findings compare, contrast or conflict on specific theme/issue?
  • What issue is under-researched?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the research methods used?
  • What challenges/ problems are identified in studies?
  • What examples of best practice/solutions do these studies highlight?
  • What lessons could my research, case study organisation learn from these examples of best practice?

What is a methodology chapter?

In the methodology chapter you are expected to draw on a range of textbooks on research methods to explain and justify all aspects of your chosen research design. The explanations and justifications in each of the following typical sections should continually link to your investigation and generally follow this structure:

  • Research philosophy: explain briefly what e.g. interpretive philosophy of research is about and justify why it is most appropriate for meeting your study’s aim
  • Research approach: explain briefly what e.g. an abductive approach involves; why was this most appropriate for your study?
  • Sample and sampling approach: explain briefly what e.g. purposive sampling is; why is this approach best for your study?
  • Choice of methods: explain e.g. what forms of data are collected through qualitative methods; why did a qualitative method provided you with appropriate data to meet your research aim?
  • Data collection methods: explain briefly what e.g. a focus group involves; why did a focus group offer the most advantages for your study?
  • Data analysis methods: explain what e.g. thematic analysis involves; why was analysing your data in this way the most appropriate choice?
  • Ethical considerations: explain main ethical issues your study raised and how you addressed these
  • Limitations: explain main limitations of your research design e.g. in relation to sample size and the implications of this for your findings

Please check your dissertation module handbook and with your supervisor for specific guidelines on the content and structure expected for the methodology chapter.

What is included in a findings chapter?

For some dissertations you will be asked to have a stand-alone findings chapter. This chapter focuses on the presentation of your data. This is typically presented in tables, charts and graphs etc., with accompanying concise commentary that describes, compares and contrasts e.g. patterns, trends and statistical results. It is in the next chapter where you use previous research and theory as explored in the literature review, to analyse and interpret these data as presented in the findings chapter.

  • To present your data: describe, compare and contrast your data, organised/grouped in relation to key themes. Your data may be presented in the form of e.g.:
    • extracts/quotations from interviews and focus groups;
    • comparative/descriptive statistics from questionnaires that are described and displayed in graphs, pie charts, tables etc.;
    • results of different statistical tests or mathematical models/formulae;
    • documentary information e.g. extracts of information from companies’ policies, financial reports, audit reports and annual reports; government policy in particular areas;
    • extracts from series of newspaper articles reporting on a specific issue.

You do this through comparing your data with previous debates, definitions, theories, models and/or research as reviewed in your literature review chapter

  • Which theory or model(s)/frameworks explored in the literature review provides an explanation for my data/ findings? How do my findings for this theme match up or align with the theory’s or model’s explanations? Do my findings point to a limitation of this model or theory?
  • For this theme, are my data supported/confirmed by the research studies I discuss in the literature review? In what way?
  • What are the similarities between my data/findings and past research findings in relation to this theme?
  • Do my data/findings contradict, challenge or conflict with previous research findings? If so in what way? Why?
  • Taken together what do my findings contribute to knowledge about/understanding of the research topic?
  • What could my findings mean for practice?

(See GUIDANCE NOTES: Using the literature review to analyse your data for further key questions to prompt comparison of your data with previous research)

  • Overview of the chapter
    As with every chapter in a dissertation, provide a brief overview that clearly explains/signposts the focus, content and structure of the chapter. For the analysis chapter in particular, you should identify clearly the main themes that will be addressed, emphasising that you will draw upon previous literature to analyse these themes.

  • Profile of case study organisation
    If your study has been conducted in an organisation you can provide a profile, presented in a table that identifies e.g. its size, geographical location(s), number of employees, market share etc. – you should include profile information that is most relevant to your dissertation topic.

  • Profile of interview and/or focus group participants
    Present in table form key information about your interview participants: age, gender, individual’s position in organisation, make-up of focus group participants etc. - you should include profile information that is most relevant to your dissertation topic.

  • Profile of respondents to questionnaire
    Present in table form key information about who responded to your questionnaire e.g.: how many questionnaires were distributed and to whom; number of returned questionnaires; demographic details relevant to your study,

  • First major theme /key point for analysis

    • Introduce the theme - refer back to literature review, draw on authors to outline the significance of this theme
    • Present/report data: compare and contrast your data in relation to this theme e.g. compare questionnaire respondents’ choices with those of views of interviewees
    • Provide analysis of this theme through comparison with previous debates, definitions, theories, models and/or research as reviewed in your literature review chapter.
  • Next major theme….

The conclusion chapter is not just a simple summary of all you have covered in the dissertation e.g. “I have looked at literature, then I designed an investigation and I analysed results…” Instead, you should restate, and offer answers to your research aim and/or question, key research objectives or hypotheses e.g. Key issues to emerge from the literature were… From comparing the data interviews with previous research it can be concluded that… Based on your conclusions you should be able to make recommendations for:

  • Further research issues that a future investigation could explore
  • Enhancement/improvement/development of particular practice as explored in a case study organisation
  • How particular policy could change
  • How effectiveness of theory or model could be further developed

You may also be asked to identify the limitations of your study. Some supervisors prefer that this section is included in the methodology chapter. It is important to consult her/him on this.

Provide an overview of the chapter in which you:

  • Restate what your dissertation set out to do: research aim and/or question, key research objectives and/or research questions or hypotheses
  • Briefly remind reader of the context, background and/or importance of the topic or indicate the problem, controversy or a gap in the field of study.
  • Clearly outline the purposes and structure of the chapter [See sample]

You can then conclude on each research objective in turn:

  • What are you able to reasonably conclude from your review of the literature – key themes, debates, issues and or/gap in research you found?
  • How suitable was your research design overall for meeting your aim and investigating these key issues raised by the literature review?
  • How suitable was your research design overall for testing/upholding your hypotheses?
  • What reasonable conclusions/insights can you offer from your analysis of your data through comparison with and support from previous research?
  • What key contributions/new insights does your study offer to knowledge about the research issue?
  • What further questions do your study raise that future research could address? [See sample]

Make recommendations based on key conclusions:

  • Depending on your research topic, what can you suggest for future research, organisational practice and policy and/or development of a conceptual model or theory? [See sample]

In assessing your dissertation the marker expects to see that:

  • you have developed a research project that has a realistic, well defined aim and/or question with related objectives;
  • you meet the research aim and objectives through
    • a logically structured and critical literature review that:
      • analyses key themes/issues that are relevant to your study;
      • critically questions, compares and evaluates conflicting views, theoretical claims and previous research findings relevant to your topic;
      • provides a detailed picture of current knowledge with which you can then analyse the data you collect;
    • you have a methodology chapter that is informed and shaped by the literature review;
    • you have carefully selected data collection and analysis methods that are clearly explained and justified as fit for purpose and which provide relevant data to meet your research aim;
    • you have a logically structured analysis chapter in which you apply a range of literature to interpret and make sense of the data you have collected
    • you have a conclusion chapter that makes concise and reasonable conclusions on the extent to which you have met your research objectives and based on your analysis of findings;
    • from your conclusions you make reasonable recommendations for
      • how future research could be developed to address any questions your study raises;
      • how an organisation could build upon and enhance its current practices

          Please your dissertation module handbook for the specific marking criteria that will be used to assess your work.