One of the biggest advantages of taking a postgraduate programme in the UK is that it takes more or less one year to complete it if you are a full-time student. It definitely saves you time and money, but at the same time gives you a massive amount of work to do in such a limited time frame. During my student life at LSE, I have had some moments of feeling under pressure and one of them was to submit a dissertation plan already in the first term. Planning a 10,000 to 12,000 word long piece of academic writing seemed like I was glimpsing the tip of an iceberg, with no idea of its size underwater. So, this blog entry is to share my experiences with those of you in the same process, and hopefully to help prospective students get an idea of what planning a dissertation is like (though it may differ in each department and each year at LSE).
Choosing a topic is of course the first thing to do. I acknowledge that that’s easier said than done. If you have no idea where to begin, you can start with something related to your previous work experience or something you have found interesting in your undergraduate programme, or courses in the first term. In my case, I thought I would choose a topic that I have background knowledge of, or at least find personally inspiring. So, I started from my work experiences in the government sector, considering access to research resources and case studies of my own work. Then, I referred to the MSc dissertation course available through Moodle, the online learning platform. There you can find a dissertation handbook, a video with tips, and guidelines for writing a thesis. What I also found helpful was to go through the list of dissertations from previous years to see if any research has been conducted already in the area. Then, I literally brainstormed ideas that popped into my mind on a piece of paper. This process helped me think about what concepts are linked to one another and which one is academically stimulating to me. However, I still had a problem with theorising my ideas and putting them together nicely with academic terminology.
Prior to submitting a dissertation topic to a department, if you have difficulty finalising a topic, like I did, you might want to talk with professors whose research interests are in the area you’re considering. You could ask if your topic has been studied previously in the field or even whether it simply sounds interesting. The point is that you raise any questions you have, not worrying about whether it might sound rather stupid or not. In the past, I’ve often been unsure whether my question will be taken into consideration by professors, but once your question contributes to a talk or a seminar, you realize it is a part of the learning process. Likewise, I found a conversation with professors really helpful. I could pick up some concepts and terminologies that define my rough ideas. In the end, I also had some names and academic literature to look up for more research. When you reach the point of being allocated a supervisor who will help you through the daunting process, you submit a dissertation topic, described in some hundred words and your first and second preferences for supervisor. It is likely that your topic suits the supervisor’s research interests but it’s not guaranteed. If you are not allocated to a professor of your preference, it is not a problem. Most faculty members are accessible in their office hours, and if not, then you can get in touch through email.
Once you are allocated a supervisor, the Lent term is your time to explore your academic interests and start to think about a research question and literature review. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. As well as a group session with your supervisor, you get to join dissertation workshops with PhD researchers, methodology workshops of your choice and an academic writing course provided by the Language Centre. From creating a conceptual framework to finding the right methodology for your research question, you have a plenty of chances and ways to get advice from academic staff and PhD researchers. It is a long process and I have not reached the moment of knowing in exactly which direction my research will be steered. However, it is a great chance to expand your understanding of the field and your academic interests and I’m glad that I have these opportunities.