So you’ve done it. You’ve agonised over your decision for many hours, changed your mind a hundred times, and bored your friends half to death asking for their opinions. Yes, you’ve finally chosen your dissertation topic or project.
With the amount of work and energy you’ve put into it so far, it may already feel like you’ve run an academic marathon, and you should certainly take a few days off to relax, recharge your batteries and allow the topic to settle in your mind.
Now is not, however, the time for resting on your laurels, and sooner or later you’ll have to begin the most basic but fundamental element of your work, the research.
Structuring your research
Depending on how you structure your time, and assuming you choose your topic wisely, this can be the most interesting part of the work, and many students admit to secretly enjoying their hours in the university library. It’s important that you plan the time you’re going to spend researching, so you avoid feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead.
The first thing you’ll want to create is a research schedule. Depending on how best you work, dedicate either a set amount of time each day, a regular series of research days, or a mixture of both. Approaching your research with a set structure in place will ensure you give each text the attention it deserves, and the more structured your time is, the more structured your final piece of work is likely to be.
Some people find working with friends a really productive way to research, and a ‘study buddy’ can help ensure you stick to deadlines. Ideally this will be somebody who won’t distract you too much!
Choosing your texts
Once you’ve got your schedule in place, it’s time to start choosing the texts you want to read. Have a think about the angle you’ll be approaching your topic from, but also any alternative and opposing arguments.
You’ll want to ensure the academic papers and books you choose give you a good understanding of the topic, and plenty of options to take your argument down different avenues. Here’s where planning your research early comes in handy, as you avoid the mad scramble for limited copies of texts as deadline day approaches.
Don’t worry if your university library doesn’t stock a particular book you need. As a member of IMechE you’re automatically entitled to use one of the best engineering libraries in the UK. The IMechE virtual library
is packed with a wealth of electronic texts that can be accessed via the IMechE website at anytime. If you’re stuck trying to find the right texts you need, you can always email us
with your query, and our dedicated team will assemble a selection of papers, journals and reviews to help you out.
If you’re able to get to London, the IMechE library
on Birdcage Walk is an excellent resource for students researching any piece of academic work.
It’s also worth noting that most universities in the UK participate in the Inter-Library Loan service (ILL), so texts not available at your university may be accessible from another for a small fee. If you desperately need a paper and can’t find it anywhere else, the Legal Deposit Privilege enjoyed by the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge Universities means they contain copies of almost everything published in the UK, so friends studying there may be able to get hold of it for you.
Your next port of call when you’ve pulled together your reading list should be your dissertation/project supervisor. It’s best to have prepared as much as you can for this meeting, as they’ll want to see you’re keen and prepared to put in the legwork yourself. They can advise you of texts and resources you may not have thought of, and provide a senior academic perspective on your work.
Using the internet for research
The internet is an incredible resource, and has changed the way students work forever. But whilst it doesn’t have the problems of limited availability that traditional texts do, it comes with its own set of pitfalls. Here are a few of the main things to consider when using the internet for research:
Can you identify the source of an article or piece of work on the internet? Are you able to confirm that any facts or figures stated are true?
Is the website generally considered a reliable source of information? Will the person marking your work recognise it?
Is the source a recent one? Unless you’re discussing something in the past, resources should be as up-to-date as possible.
There are a number of specific research tools out there that you can use. The ISI Web of Knowledge
is an excellent resource you may have access to through your university. It contains source information and articles dating back to 1900, and is highly recommended as a research tool.
Additionally, Google Scholar
lets you search a vast database of publicly accessible journals and papers, whilst Google Books
provides a more generic book search. Your university library will also have subscriptions to many relevant magazines, publications and online journal repositories, so check your library’s website or pop in and ask a member of staff for more details on the services available to you.
Finally, if there are any companies or experts who work extensively in the field you’re researching, then try contacting them. You’ll want to make sure you’re well-informed before you do, and remember they’d be giving up their free time to talk to you, but it’s often surprising how willing people are to help.
And finally, a warning
Don’t be tempted to use an online dissertation-writing service. Many students have turned over hundreds of pounds in return for a shoddy piece of work or nothing at all, whilst others have failed their degrees after being caught by plagiarism-detection software.
It sounds like a cliché, but getting somebody else to write your dissertation or report really is cheating yourself, and plagiarism is a very serious issue in the academic sphere. Don’t be fooled by claims of individually written, quality pieces of work produced by doctors and professors, as there is little to regulate the companies making these claims.
Remember, each year, thousands of students feel the pressures of final-year work will never end. Don’t lose heart, it always does!