When I supervise dissertation students, I try to get them to do things in a specific order:
- get the research question right
- write an abstract to see if you can answer it (and explain how you structure the dissertation to allow you to answer it)
- write the introduction to see if you can explain the whole rationale for your dissertation before you do most of the research.
Now, I don’t want to get into a big debate with the deviants who want to write or rewrite their introductions at the end. You can do what you like, pal.
Instead, I want to emphasise the benefits of the early investment. If you get the research question spot-on, in relation to the introduction, you can do the following:
- make your project manageable from the start, without learning the hard way that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew
- save a remarkably hellish amount of time on your ‘literature review’ by producing a clear sense of what is relevant/ to be skipped over
- boast to your friends that you finished on time.
There is some good advice out there on designing a question to speak to a big question and a narrow research project at the same time.
For example, most of my projects follow roughly the same format: what is policy, how much has it changed, and why?
We can then narrow it down in several ways:
- Choose, say, tobacco policy (quite specific) versus health policy (very broad indeed)
- Choose one political system or one region, or limit your comparison of systems
- Choose one time period
- Choose what aspect of change you want to explain.
The latter is often the most important, because (in my case) it can make the difference between (a) feeling the need to explain many, many theories to give the whole picture (an impossible task) or (b) narrowing down theory selection by focusing on a small number of causes/ dynamics.
Ideally, the question should be super-important and sophisticated, but a dissertation also takes a lot of time and attention. So, my best advice is to choose a question to which you actually want to know the answer. If so, you should end up very satisfied in your result. If you don’t find the question interesting, you may come to resent your dissertation.
A final thought is that students often don’t know what question to ask, and they talk quite broadly about a very general topic. In such cases, it’s important to work with your supervisor until you’re both happy with the final result. My most memorable example is a student who, above all else, wanted to write about Beyoncé (and it worked out very well indeed).