A group of student friends and I were discussing some tools to help with a dissertation project over drinks one night recently. I decided that it would be a good idea to blog some lessons of experience from doing my dissertation, so that others may have an easier ride. While the university did provide some guidance specifically for the dissertation, a lot of it was basic and generic and not hugely actionable. Further than that, some of the practices and techniques that I had to learn and then employ in doing the dissertation were only lightly covered in classes.
It should be noted that this advice is aimed mostly at management science students doing social science dissertations.
The first thing to do is to read a book like Business Research by Collis and Hussey to get a good grounding in the undertaking of research in the social science arena. This book goes through the theory of research paradigms and methodologies but also includes advice on the more practical side like organizing surveys, conducting interviews, what software to get, etc.
I found it useful to access more learning materials pertaining to my chosen methodology. For example, because I was conducting exploratory research from interviews, I watched several lectures from the University of Huddersfield’s Graham Gibbs to gain a better understanding of Grounded Theory. I also read various texts on Grounded Theory and this helped me structure in my mind how the research was going to be conducted.
Once you start to make head or tail of how you might go about conducting the research, you can start reading the relevant literature on your topic. I found it very useful to create a spreadsheet listing the name of the paper, authors, rating out of 10 (how useful/relevant/interesting it was) and key takeaways. This is going to come in very handy later on when you’ve totally lost track of what concepts you’ve read where, and you have to trace certain ideas back to their source papers in order to substantiate your own observations in your dissertation writing. I used a Google Spreadsheet.
I also found it useful to use a software tool called Dropbox. Dropbox makes a folder on your computer sync with any other computers/mobiles/tablets on which you’ve also installed Dropbox. This is handy for searching for research papers and saving copies when on a computer, but leaving the reading of those papers for somewhere more comfortable like an iPad. Dropbox also stores copies of all your files in the cloud, so nothing is ever lost.
If you are doing qualitative research, you will probably find NVIVO to be your main tool of choice. This application lets you input a number of data sources (for example, interview transcripts) and lets you code them into categories and themes. Be sure to watch some of the numerous YouTube videos covering coding in NVIVO (and general NVIVO usage for that matter) if you intend to include this activity in your research. The latest version is NVIVO 9 and a student license is around £80, although you should have it available through the university as well. I ended up recording interviews using my iPhone, playing them back at halfspeed using Windows Media Player and transcribing-on-the-go straight into NVIVO.
When actually writing the dissertation, I found Google Documents more than sufficed. Again, stored in the cloud so it’s accessible anywhere and never lost, even if your computer dies or is stolen (avoiding that nightmare dissertation situation!). I know people use more sophisticated tools like LaTeX and MS Word, but I don’t understand why more people don’t use Google Docs – it’s simple and reliable, and all you need to use it is a browser.
One of the more important problems to solve in writing dissertations is creating a reference database. Zotero is an outstanding plugin for the Firefox browser which can automatically create reference items from popular websites supplying research papers, like Google Scholar or JSTOR. With a click of a button you can save a citation to your database, and when it comes time to create your dissertation’s referencing section, it is simply a matter of a select-all and copy & paste (with a little bit of tidying up) to get your references section automatically generated for you. No more manual reference-writing!
I hope that gives you some direction and a bit of a head-start in your dissertation preparation. If you have any questions about the tools or processes mentioned above, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or @markgibaud.