5 Tips To Prevent A Diss-aster When Choosing Your Dissertation Topic

Ah, the dissertation. Something you’ve always known awaited you at the end of your degree, but whose acknowledged existence, along with your DoS’s suggestion to keep a list of ideas from Michaelmas of first year and the notes taken from sitting at the back of an unknown college room listening to then-third years presenting their research before subject dinner, you’ve allowed to gather dust. Suddenly it’s Lent of second year, your dissertation proposal coursework is due next week, your DoS is putting you into contact with supervisors who are pencilling in dates for a dissertation supervision, and the deadlines for funding applications are two days away. Your dissertation is supposedly one of the most fulfilling things you’ll do in your degree, but how do you actually come up with an idea?

Inspiration can strike at any moment so if you’re interested in something, write it down.

Cliché, yes, but true nonetheless. Dissertation ideas come not only from searching recent publications and journals, but also from ideas explored in lectures, places you’ve been to, conversations with friends and trying to put a question worth researching to anything and everything you’re interested in, et cetera ad infinitum.

Adam Williams (King’s) struck inspiration at a pub in Cambridge whilst having a drink with his parents at the end of first year. We were having an intellectual discussion such as we all imagine having when talking about any sporting matter (Welsh rugby) when, suddenly and surprisingly, my dad changed the subject. For a Welshman to change the subject from Rugby is still considered a grievous offence in Wales, punishable by death since 1845. “What are you going to do for your dissertation, Adam?” At first I blanked. I honestly had no idea what I was going to do for my dissertation. I panicked. I thought. I internally cursed. Then, out of nowhere, genuinely, I thought up micronations. “Micronations!” I blurted out to my parents. I left them with their quizzical look and rushed to the bar to ask for a pen. Returning, I sat down and grabbed the nearest thing to scribble on: my napkin. I didn’t say much for a while apart from muttering a few incomprehensible place names that didn’t exist on a proper political atlas. By the end of the evening, the napkin was littered with random jottings of words and the most important part of my degree at Cambridge. Micronations are small self-proclaimed political entities, and I’ve decided to focus on the Principality of Seborga in Italy. Inspiration can turn up anywhere and the crazier the idea, the more enjoyable. Because you’ll be slaving over this dissertation for a long time, you might as well enjoy it.  

I just kept a list of ideas on my phone, later transferred to a word document on my laptop, but each to their own; napkins work just as well. Adam adds: for those curious, I still have the napkin. It’s stapled to my dissertation book. Alex Jeffrey even complimented the napkin – more than someone would say about my essays.

It doesn’t have to be strictly ‘geography’ to be geographical.

Volcanoes, rivers, migration: the usual tropes that spring to mind when someone pictures a geography dissertation. Not movies, the Holocaust and historical walking tours. “I thought you studied Geography?” is the first question people ask when they hear what my dissertation is focusing on. “How on earth does that link to Geography?” is the second. You’ll know by now (or as freshers will soon find out) that geography is, apparently, anything and everything. So why restrict the potential of your dissertation by a contrary mantra?

As long as you can justify the geographical basis and/or relevance of your research, it’s a feasible idea. Space, place, time, pattern: all geographical foundations upon which to build a proposal. My how-is-that-geography dissertation is considering the potential of film as a space, functioning as a site of memorial. Flirting with history, anthropology, and memory studies, it finds its geographical justification in the base reference to space and place. If you have an abstract idea, consider how it relates to a geographical framework and you’re (hopefully) good to go. Volcanoes, rivers and migration are also viable options, otherwise.

You don’t have to immerse yourself ethnographically with an Inuit tribe in Alaska, just as you don’t have to stay at home and immerse yourself ethnographically with kids from your old school on the daily bus journey. Both can be equally as exciting and valid.

Travel grants! Funding applications! Deadlines! It almost feels like an unspoken expectation that your dissertation will take you somewhere faraway from here, lending you tales of a substitute-gap-yah to tell envious dissertation-free friends from other courses when you return. And some people will travel to new and faraway places for their research. But it’s equally valid to, and people will, stay at home and conduct your research in an archive or the local community centre (etc.).

Catriona Parpworth (Murray Edwards) decided to stay at home and base her dissertation on discrimination in housing there. Whilst doing your dissertation at home can potentially sound dull and unadventurous in comparison to your friends who are travelling to all four corners of the globe, it can be just as rewarding and actually make the research process much easier. Staying in my hometown, Leicester, for my research always seemed a natural choice: where better to explore the everyday practise and perceptions of multiculturalism than one of the most diverse cities in the country? Whilst some of my friends struggled to acclimatise to a new country and set up interviews within a limited timeframe, I have been able to carry out my research over a prolonged period, allowing greater flexibility for my key informants. Granted, staying at home is not as much fun as exploring a new country, but I’ve been to places and spoken to people I would never usually encounter and in that respect it feels as though I’m (re)discovering the place I have always called home. Undertaking your research at home also has the added advantage of familiarity with the local area and its history; my knowledge of Leicester was invaluable when carrying out interviews and without this I might not have gained as much information from the interviews. Combined with the fact that I already had some useful contacts, this enabled the research process to run fairly smoothly and made it seem much less daunting than it could have been alone in a foreign country. The key thing to remember is that you need to pick your topic before you choose a location; whether that means travelling a few miles from your doorstep or jet-setting to the other side of the world becomes irrelevant as long as you are passionate about what you are studying.

It doesn’t have to be new to be original.

It often feels like everything has been done before. After all, didn’t Mark Twain pen the phrase that ‘there is no such thing as a new idea’? And who’s to argue with him? It’s important here to distinguish between, and not synonymise, ‘new’ and ‘original’. What is original is not necessarily new; the motorcar was certainly original in 1895, but it wasn’t a new idea, following years of horse-drawn carriages, wagons and carts as transportation for humans. Just because something you’re interested in has been explored before does not automatically exclude its viability as a dissertation idea; you simply have to look for a new angle, or a new location/context, or a temporal comparison basis for your research.

George Reynolds (Homerton) took inspiration from the work of Dr. Iris Möller in choosing his dissertation topic, based on coastal dune processes. Beyond originality, it’s obvious that you should pick an area you enjoy. Narrowing it down beyond that can be difficult, but this can come from something you’ve seen or read, or be based around something similar to another researcher’s work (as long as you take a unique frame on it!). Based on my own experience, the idea needs to be practical too. It’s all well and good having a ground-breaking idea, but it needs to be something you can actually research and, especially for physical geography, something that is physically accessible. I had to wait 2 months to do part of my research because of little terns breeding on sections of the beach I wanted to measure. So be aware of things like that when deciding.

But make sure it’s actually feasible. This isn’t a PhD and there is a time and word frame within which you have to work.

You’re not going to conclude the absolute answer to fossil fuels globally and you won’t discover the best way to manage sea level rise world-over. What you might do, however, is find out the feasibility of introducing an alternative fuel source based on political and economic support in Cardiff, Wales, or the most effective, based on ecosystem well-being, means of managing local sea level rise in Blue Bay beach, Mauritius. Consider the time that you have to complete your research (essentially the summer holiday bridging second and third year), the funding you have and are likely to receive for this research (calculate your estimated expenditure, including travel, equipment, accommodation, entry fees etc.), and the (actually quite limited) number of words you have to write up your findings in the final dissertation. And be realistic.

Good luck!

By Chloe Rixon

With contributions from Adam Williams, Catriona Parpworth and George Reynolds

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