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How to... find ideas for your research

Options:     Print Version - How to... find ideas for your research, part 1 Print view

Article Sections

  1. Finding a dissertation topic
  2. Finding a PhD topic
  3. Post PhD: developing a research stream

Finding a dissertation topic

Here we are talking about a dissertation project done in satisfaction of the requirements of a masters' degree, such as an MBA. The idea behind this sort of dissertation is to gain basic research skills: unlike a PhD, there is no requirement for the research to be original or extend knowledge.

It is usual at a post-experience level to link the project closely with future career aims, and hence the project topic needs to be one of practitioner relevance, assuming the ultimate career destination is in this field. It is also common, given that many students will have had a few years in the workplace, or if part-time still be working, to draw the topic from some situation in the work-place, for example provide a solution to some problem, develop a new system, or review a campaign or some innovative way of working. Some schools encourage students to do consultancy-based projects, providing lists of opportunities.

There are various other ways of sourcing topics:

  • Using techniques such as relevance trees and morphological analysis – see next section.
  • Looking at previous projects, which will probably mention areas for further research.
  • Brainstorm with other students.
  • Look at abstracts in online databases, and list ideas you find interesting.

Image: warningBe aware of the following:

  • Your project must conform to the required academic standards, which will usually mean including a research methodology. Consult your tutor and your course handbook.
  • You have the requisite technical background, e.g. in statistics or mathematics, or will be acquiring these skills as part of the course.
  • The project should not be too difficult for your level: beware of topics which do not have much information on them in your otherwise well-stocked library, or where the language is overly technical.
  • There must be sufficient data – this is particularly relevant if you are doing a company-based project, make sure that your sample is large enough.
  • Will your supervisor have sufficient expertise to help you, and will there be other technical expertise, e.g. computing facilities to help you with the data.
  • Will the library hold sufficient secondary data, or if not will you have access to a good library that does?

You will probably need to do a research proposal which will need you to outline the topic very clearly, and will also need to state your objectives and your research methodology, as well as the intended outcome.

What is the difference between a dissertation and a PhD topic?
A dissertation topic: A PhD topic:
Does not need to make an original contribution to knowledge Needs to make an original contribution to knowledge and to add to it
May be drawn from a list available from a supervisor, or from a list of consultancy-type projects submitted by organizations Is usually chosen by the student
Requires that the supervisor checks the research methodology; does not need to be a subject expert Requires that supervisor shares common interests
Will need to be submitted to the supervisor Will need to be submitted to an experienced committee

Using the provenance table

Given that management is an interdisciplinary topic, you need to understand fairly early on how your topic fits into the whole body of knowledge. A.D. Jankowicz, author of Business Research Projects advocates using a technique known as the Provenance table and works as follows:

The provenance table
A dissertation topic: A PhD topic:
Area A discipline, e.g. marketing, or business function, e.g. accountancy and finance
Field A component of the area, e.g. sub-discipline, or one aspect of the function, e.g. international marketing, cost accounting
Aspect A more specialized aspect of the field, e.g. export strategy, penetrating a new market, how to increase efficiency and productivity
Topic Identifies an issue or problem within the aspect, e.g. how to export a particular type of good into China, a new technique for measuring business productivity

For more on this, see Jankowicz, A.D. (2000), Business Research Methods, Thomson Learning, pp. 45-51.