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Research Questions

With reference to the problem and aims, state the emphases of the study in the form of questions, perhaps even just a single question.

You will have developed your questions early in the process of undertaking the project, and now you need to articulate them in a precise way. The questions are not the same as the aim; Mickey’s aim was to develop methods for online search among pieces of fiction, while his questions concerned whether statistical properties of text could be linked to reader preferences. For Anouck, her aim was to examine bilingual signage in urban spaces, but her questions were focused on the role of attitudes among residents. A strong thesis will often rest on just a single question, but, to provide highly specific direction to the work, it may instead be appropriate to use two or three related questions that suggest a thread of activity.

Approach and Outcomes

Briefly provide an overview of the methodology of the project, how the outcomes were achieved, and what they were.

From the start, you need to know whether you are investigating a phenomenon in a specific context, or using the phenomenon as an example of more widespread issues and concerns; this is the ‘study versus case study’ question I discussed in Chap. 3. You also need to know if your work will be quantitative or qualitative; observational or inventive; based on existing tools or on tools developed for the project; and so on. I urge you to ‘locate yourself’ by mapping out the various characteristics of your approach. Anouck, for example, saw herself as a qualitative researcher conducting an observational study through the use of an established framework for linguistic and attitudinal analyses. By situating her study as such, and understanding her choices, she was less vulnerable to the temptation to make changes, or to endlessly reconsider choices, as I’ ve seen some students do.

Critically, you need to know how the outcomes will be measured and assessed, and you need to know what constitutes a positive outcome. This issue, and questions such as whether it is a study or case study, determine what data you need and what activities you undertake.

Later, you will set out your approach, data, and so on, in the appropriate chapter of your thesis. At this point, you need to give the examiner a general overview, which would usually occupy no more than a page or so—but not all of the detail, or a lot of detail presented too compactly. The introduction is where the ideas are sketched out, and can be absorbed in an informal or intuitive way; the detail is filled in by the body of the thesis. An examiner who has read your introduction should be able to open the thesis at any point and quickly grasp the broad thrust of what is being discussed.

A thesis is not a story that unfolds slowly like a crime novel, designed to keep the reader in suspense; thus the results should not be kept as a surprise for the examiner, tucked into the last few pages, but should be clearly flagged in the opening chapter. I have examined several frustrating theses in which I could not identify what the student claimed to have accomplished! Make sure that the examiner understands, right from the start, the purpose of your thesis and where it is heading.


Provide a brief summary of what is to follow, chapter by chapter.

An overview can consist of about 8-10 sentences in a single paragraph, and is often used to wrap up the introduction. It is used to succinctly indicate to the examiner what lies ahead, in terms of the structure of the thesis. If you like, it is a sketch of the learning the examiner must go through in order to appreciate your project and its outcomes. It states what is explained where, and in what order, and it can be thought of as answering a series of questions. Where is background literature discussed, and from what areas? Where is the data introduced and explained? Where is the methodology, and on what principles does it rest? Where are the experiments, and how comprehensive are they? With this brief guide to the work in hand, the examiner can quickly proceed to the body of the thesis.

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