Dr Jessica R Hawkins, Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies & Undergraduate Programme Director
The start of the new academic year is upon us. For those of you entering your final year of your undergraduate degree, dissertations will be making its presence felt. For those of you embarking on a postgraduate Master’s degree, you will know that it won’t be long before discussions on the dissertation start to filter into your chats with others in your cohort.
The dissertation forms a major part of your degree in the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. Yet, due to the interdisciplinary nature of the topics covered during all our degrees, students often find it hard to choose a topic. By the end of your second year in the undergraduate programme, or end of your first semester as a postgraduate, you will have a good idea which of HCRI’s key themes interest you more; but this still might not lead you to a specific dissertation topic. At both undergraduate and postgraduate level, the dissertation in HCRI should be a critical discussion of a relatively narrow research topic. Furthermore, the dissertation process should allow you to conduct a thorough and sustained piece of research, demonstrating intellectual independence. At undergraduate level, you should show you have an awareness of the relationship between theoretical frameworks, methods and practice, and develop the confidence to express your scholarly opinion in an informed manner. At postgraduate level, you should do all of the above and, in addition, have the opportunity to seek new research findings which add to the existing body of knowledge on your topic. Your choice of subject matter impacts greatly on your ability to achieve these learning outcomes.
There is no right or wrong way to choose your dissertation topic. Personally, I read an interesting chapter on taxation in Uganda (yes, you heard right, ‘taxation’ and ‘interesting’ in the same sentence!).
This led me down a rabbit hole of investigating the relationship between taxation and state-building, which resulted in me jumping feet first into the literature on state formation. The result was a Master’s dissertation looking at processes of state formation in Uganda. This blog post provides you with five pointers to help you overcome the difficulty of choosing the right topic.
- Think about your strengths. Revisit the feedback from your tutors on the past two years’ or past semester’s courses. What did they say about your essays in particular? Are you especially strong when it comes to interrogating the theories of humanitarianism, disaster response or global health? When the lecturers mention the term critical analysis, is this in reference to your discussions of the concepts and frameworks that you use to answer the essay question?
In contrast, they may talk about how you tend to focus on the case study. Don’t see this as a negative when it comes to choosing a dissertation topic. Instead, make sure your title gives you the space to provide a thorough analysis of a particular case. You’ll still need to engage with theory and have some sort of framework to structure your case study analysis, but this direction could help you to develop an in-depth knowledge of your topic.
- Although you should never choose your topic based on your favourite member of staff in the Institute (you can never guarantee who you will be allocated as a supervisor), it helps to understand the breadth of work researched at HCRI. The nature of our degree programmes means that not all members of staff get to teach every aspect of our research. Did you know, for example, that some colleagues study the role of graffiti and street-art in conflict-affected societies?
Each staff member has their own research page on the University of Manchester website. Look at the articles they have written or the blog posts they have contributed to. Investigate what organisations your lecturers work with. Some work with large NGOs, others with small, community-based projects throughout the world. Some conduct research here in Manchester. Do any of these topics or organisations interest you? If so, start reading the works of that academic, then use the snow-balling technique. What literature have they used? Does that lead you to another avenue of research? Is there an area you think they have missed out? Once you have jotted down a few ideas, there is no harm in speaking to that member of staff. Perhaps they never had the time nor research funding to further their projects, or maybe they have a suggestion of how you could further knowledge in their area of expertise.
- Don’t forget how important the literature is! Preparation for your dissertation usually involves studying research methods: learning how to use them and evaluate them.
Most undergraduate and postgraduate students usually conduct desk-based research. This can involve primary sources (archives, data from organisations, grey literature, etc.), however, the majority of your sources will be the academic literature. Therefore, you need to ensure your chosen topic has enough literature on it to write a 12-15,000 word piece of research. For example, if you did choose to write a dissertation on Covid-19, your research methodology and framework would be crucial as the number of academic papers published on the topic is limited. You might be able to use literature from previous pandemics to make assertions. You will need to think carefully about what questions you can ask based on the limited academic work available. Perhaps, you might wish to investigate the information that organisations have published; this would enable you to write a dissertation which takes into account that kind of data. In addition, as scholars based in a western university studying topics which affect primarily those based in the Global South, we need to ensure that we diversify our reading. We have found this reading list really useful for expanding our curriculum and could form the basis for scaling up your reading in this regard.
- Students are often told to think about their favourite topic that they have studied in their previous modules and use this as a starter for their project. This is indeed a good idea. However, some of you may find there were too many topics you really enjoyed; others may feel that nothing has spiked their interest yet. So, let’s turn this idea on its head. Imagine you had my job as Programme Director for your degree. You have been allowed by the School to devise one new module aimed at third-year undergraduate or postgraduate level. What would this module be called? Write an introduction to that module, along with the intended learning outcomes. Then think about the individual lectures (10 or so) for the module – what would the titles be? Once you have a rough plan, send it through to me, and we’ll pop it in the programme structure for next year…only joking! Instead, select the lecture you would want to design first. This should give you a good indication of the topic you have always wanted to learn more about and would get excited spending day after day reading and writing on.
- By the end of your dissertation, you should try to think of yourself as being the expert in your cohort on your chosen topic. What would you like to be an expert in? This can also feed into the direction you would like your career in humanitarianism to take. Perhaps you would like to work in humanitarian logistics, so maybe a dissertation considering the supply chains in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Or maybe you’re interested in working in fundraising at an NGO headquarters in London. That could involve looking at the use of humanitarian imagery for Red Nose Day. You may not know the exact area you want to work in, but it’s important to remember that you can include the title of your dissertation on your CV. What would you like future employers to see in this regard? The obvious caveat to this is that you need to write a dissertation that you’re actually interested in, not just one that you think will make your CV look good.
That final point is the most important aspect to remember. You will be spending a long time researching and writing your dissertation. Most of this will be self-directed study. Therefore, you need to choose a topic you enjoy. This is your chance to become a scholar and develop your own voice within the field of international disaster management, humanitarian response and global health. Make this the best part of your degree.