If you’re a student starting to come up with a plan for your geography dissertation or research project, this guide offers some ideas to help you get started. Don't forget, your tutor or module leader will also be able to give you guidance specific to your course.
The word research means 'finding out' or 'discovery' of answers to something you want to know, by systematically gathering and analysisng information. Researchers collect information to use as evidence to back up their claims that something is interesting or important. Researchers use this information to help answer questions or solve problems. When they have enough evidence, they communicate it to others in writing, orally, or using other media.
Define your topic
Start with your broad area of interest. Is it a group of people? An event? An issue? A place? Type of object? What else?
Then, narrow it down to a more specific topic. Make your research manageable by limiting the investigation, e.g. to a specific time period, issue, geographic location or object.
Tip: If you haven’t already identified a group of sources that might help you in your topic, now is a good time to check what’s available. You might not need to look at sources in detail yet, but it can be helpful to explore what’s available and understand what work has been done on this topic before. This will help your project to build on work that has already been done by others.
Ask your question
Now you need to find a specific question or problem to answer using the exisiting sources available, data you might be able to collect yourself, or both. Starting with your topic, write a series of questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Don’t try to find out the answers yet – just think up at least one question for each, relating to your topic.
Tip: As you work through your questions, jot down any sources that you already know about you think might be useful to help answer that question, or sources you might want to use. Once you have a list of questions, look for overlaps and common themes. Choose one or two that you want to research. Make sure your question is focused and clear.
Choose your sources
The next step is to find sources that will help you to answer your question. Your university library may be able to help you find relevant sources. If you’re conducting archival research on the Society's Collections, you can use our catalogue and finding aids to help you decide what sources you can use to research your question. You can also use other search engines to find relevant materials held at other institutions. Make a note of relevant materials you find.
Review your sources – do you think you will have enough information to answer your question?
What do you think you will find out from these sources? This is called making a hypothesis.
Collect your evidence
Request your sources and look at them. What evidence can you find that will help you answer your question? While you are collecting evidence, you should keep in mind:
Where did this source come from? Why was it created? Is it reliable? Is it accurate? Are there other viewpoints I should consider?
Does this source answer your question, or cause you to ask other questions?
What is the best way to record this information?
What information do I need to record about the sources themselves? (e.g. catalogue references and control numbers)
What would I like to present at the end?
Analyse your findings
Give yourself enough time to read things carefully! Let the sources 'speak' to you.
Ask, how do these sources help me answer my question? Am I discovering what I expected to find, or is it different?
Tip: While you are gathering evidence, pause regularly to think about your evidence and review your research plan. Do you need to change anything, e.g. look for other sources, change your question?
Present your findings
Go back to your research question. How does your evidence answer your question? What story is there to tell?
What was your question? Why was this of interest to you?
What is the most interesting thing you found and why might other people also find this interesting?
What was easy to find out? What was difficult to find out?
Which sources helped you the most? Which didn’t? What would you do differently next time?
What would you do next?
Don’t be afraid to ask! Ask your tutor, friends, a librarian, or other researchers. Talking about your project and why it’s interesting to you will help to make it clearer in your mind.