So you made this far. Congratulations! Now it’s time for the holy grail of graduate work; the dissertation. It’s a big endeavour, and while in many ways a dissertation is not much more than a big research project, it must be comprehensive, and demonstrate a level of mastery over your domain. This comes from research, but there’s a smart way to do it. Here, we cover the fundamentals of dissertations and the first step: primary research.

Pick a starting point: Subject and Hypothesis

Now before you hit the scholarly databases you need to know one thing; your subject. And, once you have that, you want to have at least a beginning idea of what your hypothesis will be, which is a fancy way of saying, what is it about this subject that you wish to prove, disprove, or just debate. The primary research, as your first step in constructing a dissertation, is the key to helping you find out everything that is important about your topic, and all the important pieces of research that have already taken place in that area.

See, we may feel very passionate about something, say, organic food and its relationship to health, for example. What we personally may really want to argue is that organic food is much healthier for you than is non-organic food. In that case, our subject is ‘organic food and health’, while the hypothesis might be something like, ‘organic food is healthier for the human body than non-organic food’. Now, as dissertations go, that is a pretty general argument, but it is all that is needed in order to begin the primary research.

Primary Research: Go see all that is there

At this point your aim is to find out everything that has been, or is being researched and concluded about your topic. Take the time to read as much research as you can, particularly introductions, discussions, and conclusions, as here you will find the key statements and arguments that other researchers have produced. What are the major works that others cite? What controversies exist, or keep coming up? This will be the context of your own research, as part of this task is not just to make our own arguments, but to place those arguments within the web of the research topic as a whole.

Sharpen Your Point

Through your primary research for your dissertation you will find what you need to sharpen your arguments, or to alter them to fit with what is already known. For example, maybe you discover that while there are controversies, a lot of research has already proven your point, that organic food is healthy. However, maybe there are ways in which ‘health’ has been defined that you can improve on, or comment on; perhaps there is a more specific argument to be made about needing to pair organic food with exercise, for example, and now you have the research to know. Now you may change your hypothesis to something specific, and easier for you to argue, like, ‘the positive effects of organic food are most effective when combined with a regular exercise routine’.

Your task is to pick as specific a direction for your research as you can, then go discover. Be open to everything that is important in your field. Then take back what you have discovered to your original thoughts, and sharpen them into a killer point. Good luck!