Dissertation preparation

R22–0902 POLI60312

This session shows participants how to identify keywords and synonyms, find information using databases and the importance of evaluating sources, and can be adapted to any humanities subject by changing the questions.

Supporting materials


  • Group: 100
  • Length: 50 minutes
  • Room: Lecture theatre
  • Discipline: Humanities (Politics)
  • Level: PGT Dissertation

Suggested online resources

  • Planning and reviewing your search
  • Getting started with search tools
  • Getting started with subject databases
  • Evaluating your information sources
  • Planning your dissertation
  • Developing argument within your writing
  • Being critical
  • Getting started with referencing
  • Avoiding plagiarism

Session content

Introduction (slides 1–3)

Welcome to the library session on finding information and planning your dissertation. We will introduce you to some strategies and techniques that will help you get started with your dissertation.

Today’s session will look at:

•Searching for information

•Using library resources

•Evaluating sources

•Skills support from My Learning Essentials

Planning your search (slides 4–8)

Planning your search involves thinking about what you’re looking for, where you’ll look for it, and how you’ll find it.

First we’ll look at how to decide what we’re looking for:

“What are the key issues facing unaccompanied young people as asylum seekers arriving in the UK?”

Isolating the keywords in your assignment title or question helps you decide what you’re searching for.

In this example, the keywords are probably ‘Unaccompanied’, ‘young people, ‘asylum seekers’, and maybe ‘UK’, too.

If you were to search for just these keywords, though, your results wouldn’t include any books or articles that discussed these topics using slightly different terminology.

Creating a strategy
Once you’ve identified the keywords, you can start to think about different ways to ask that question, to help you to include synonyms and alternate terms in your search. This will help you to widen your search, let you bring in more results, and mean you’re less likely to miss something important.

Questions to think about before you start searching

Spend some extra time thinking about the answers to these questions before you start searching will make your search process more efficient and help you get to the relevant information more effectively and more efficiently.

Activity — finding synonyms (slide , Menti Q1)

For this quick activity, think about the keywords in this title: ‘What are the key issues facing unaccompanied young people as asylum seekers arriving in the UK?’.
What alternative synonyms could you use in your search?

Alternative words & synonyms (slide 11 and 12)

Recap after Mentimeter Q1

Make sure you think broadly when considering alternative words; include associated concepts and terms, as well as antonyms (opposing words) — these can sometimes be helpful in finding conflicting views or opinions. This could potentially help you identify as many words/terms as possible that may be related and/or useful for further investigation.

Activity — Fruit stall related and associated words — words that may not be so obvious at first.

Tip: If you are struggling to think of alternatives for specific keywords, scan through the reference list of a few journal articles to identify what terms other scholars have used (this is particularly useful for subject-specific terminology).

Further questioning (Slide 13 -15)

Try using a mind map or diagram (on paper or online) for each of the main topics. Think of some areas that may be related, for example, conflict and displacement, then try to think of issues that come up in relation to your main topic e.g. refugee. Asking new questions can help you achieve this. For example: How does the State treat them? What does the State expect from them? What are the experiences of child asylum seekers?

Mind map of key words: conflict, refugee and displacement

Taking the time to think about these synonyms will make your searches stronger and more comprehensive, and is also an important part of your dissertation planning. It helps you reflect on what you might know already and gather your thoughts before you begin.
Activity - to do at home — think about your area of research and find key words and synonyms

Planning and reviewing your search — online resource (slide 16)

When you’re starting to plan your own search for your assignment, have a look at our online resource ‘Planning ahead’.

Finding information (slide 17)

Once you’ve thought about your key words, you can move on to deciding where to look for it.

Where do you look for information? (slide 18)
For this quick activity, think where you go to find information. Where would you search?
Activity: Menti question (slide 19)
Menti Q2
Review results

Google and the deep web (slide 20)

Google is quick and convenient, but it can only search information that’s widely available. Like the tip of an iceberg, this means everything that’s easily visible, but it won’t include anything that’s hidden below the surface, in the deep web. These hidden areas include all areas of the internet that are housed behind logins and paywalls — and lots of useful websites and databases that the University pays for access rights to.

Finding information using Library search (slide 21)

You have access to a wide range of information resources which will help you find high quality scholarly sources such as journal articles and e-books.

Use Library Search on the Library homepage and carry out a quick search on your research question (or our example question). Try using the filters on the left-hand side to select only online journal articles.

Subject databases

(embed Subject databases 1.0 (inc. images) but please insert these two headings for the first and second paragraphs)

What is a subject database?

Why use a subject database?

Where can I find databases for my subject?
You can find databases for different subjects through the Subject Guides. Once you have selected a subject click ‘Databases’ to view the Library’s curated collection of databases for your subject. Given the nature of your course, the interdisciplinary element and the idea of ‘subject perspective’ mentioned above you might want to access subject databases across a number of subject areas.

Tip: You will find databases covering different aspects, even within the same subject area. Read the database descriptions to pick the right one for the information you are looking for.

Find and access a key database in your subject area from your Politics Subject Guide. Conduct a search on your research topic.

You’ll find that different subject databases look a bit different and use different platforms. Most offer the same features and you can find out more on how to use some of the most popular subject databases in these guides:

For ease you can also just Google ‘Advanced Search’!

Search strategies — How?

Getting the most out of search tools

Finally we get to the ‘how’.
Library Search and most subject databases offer a ‘basic’ and ‘advanced search’ function. The advanced search function allows us to combine our search terms (Google Advanced Search does too but in a slightly different way).

They all use something called ‘Search Operators’ that are sometimes known as ‘Boolean Operators’. This means you can combine different keywords and terms together when searching to either refine or expand your search results using search operators, such as AND, OR and NOT.

We use ‘OR’ to combine terms that are of a related concept. Using our research question example, we might search for ‘unaccompanied OR lone OR solo’. This returns results which feature any of those terms.

We use ‘AND’ to combine different concepts together. Using our example we might search for ‘unaccompanied OR lone OR solo AND asylum or refugee’. This returns results which feature both of those terms.

You can find out more about using these functions on our guide to using search operators for advanced searching:
Advanced search: making use of Boolean operators

Or try our interactive online resource:
Search operators: refine AND combine OR NOT?
(embed resource)

Search Operators online resource

Activity — Strategy Practice

Use Boolean operators to search on any of the search tools introduced so far, combining at least of the search terms for your research question.

Student Team Advice

Read through this blog created by the Library’s Student Team to find out their tips and suggestions for effective searching.
(embed ST blogpost on top tips for searching)

Evaluating your sources

The information landscape is vast and made up of a wide range of information types and sources. As part of your searching process it can help to recognise what types of information are available.

Before you begin to search for information sources to use in your academic work consider exactly what type of source you are looking for and how you intend to use the information you find. In other words, identify a clear purpose for your ‘information need’. This will help you to evaluate the effectiveness of a source, in relation to the research question you are working on.

Your ‘information need’ may be to gain a better understanding of a topic, to find specific data or a methodology that fits your purpose or it may be to identify the debate around a particular topic.

Consider the following questions:

  • What type of information am I looking for?
  • How will I use the information after I have made notes?
  • What do I need to take notes on? For example, do I need to note down bibliographic information in order to reference the source later

Before you continue it may be useful for you to have your research topic or question in front of you. As you complete each activity, considering how the aims of the research might affect how you evaluate the effectiveness of different sources.

What types of information are you looking for?
Identifying the type of information that you are looking for will help you search more efficiently. There are many different types of sources that you can use in your studies, so pinpointing exactly what types of sources will help develop your understanding and argument is important. Consider what information types you are searching for beyond just books, such as:

  • Journal articles
  • Websites
  • Reports
  • Conference proceedings

For further types and explanations of each take a look at this glossary of information types.

(embed Source Evaluation 2.0 — ‘Popular vs scholarly sources of information’ here)

(embed Source Evaluation 2.1 — ‘Primary, secondary and tertiary sources’ here)

(embed Source Evaluation 2.2 — ‘Questioning information sources’ here)

(embed Source Evaluation 2.3 — ‘Questioning Information sources — a breakdown’ here)

(embed Source Evaluation 2.4 — Reliability, objectivity, relevance’ here)

Activity — Evaluating Sources Practice
Work through our interactive online resource to implement some of the strategies we discussed above.

(embed resource Evaluating your sources )

Evaluation your sources online resource

** Elearning — this section below is taken from a session Craig did for R20–0751 RELT30000 — Literature reviews so can be used directly from Bboard- however please note there is an amend in the the comments where a change was suggested after QA -Thanks

Literature Review TK (new folder)

Literature review

Your literature is a great opportunity to become more familiar with the field of research and topic of your dissertation. As you can see from the image below, the literature review allows you to show off your knowledge of the topic and place your own dissertation in the wider context of past and ongoing research in the same area.

Work your way through the interactive ‘Dissertations: A-Z of literature reviews’ resource to discover:

  • where the literature review fits into your wider dissertation
  • what does and doesn’t belong in a literature review
  • the components of a literature review
  • answers to frequently asked questions about literature reviews

(embed resource)

Image of ‘Dissertations: the A-Z of literature reviews’ online resource
Dissertations: the A-Z of literature reviews

Literature Review — Planning

Now that you know what a literature review should include, it is time to organise and plan what work you need to do to get started with your own.

The Know, Want To Know and Learned (KWL) strategy will be really useful for this. It is a strategy that helps you reflect on what you already know, plan what you need to research and record what you have learnt during your own research. Read the My Learning Essentials blogpost to discover more about how to use this strategy effectively.

Here is an example of a KWL template completed for a literature review, using the components introduced in the ‘Dissertation: the A-Z of literature reviews’ resource. It shows what this student already knows and what they want to learn before starting to write their literature review. The Learned section is blank because the student has begun researching the things they want to know just yet.

Image of an example KWL template
Example KWL strategy

Activity — What do you know and what do you want to know?

Complete your own KWL to help identify where to focus your research for your own literature review. To do this, reflect on which of the components of a literature review (listed below) you already know and which you need to know. Completing the learnt section will then be an ongoing task that you can update as things you need to know become things you know!

Here are templates you can use: KWL — template (word), KWL — template (pdf.)

Image listing the components of a literature review
Components of a literature review.

Mapping Your Literature Review

As you start to plug the gaps in your knowledge and begin to learn the things you previously wanted to know, it is important to keep track of your discoveries in a way which ensures you are looking at the field of research as a whole, and not just in terms of individual papers and articles.

You can use the Literature Review Map to help you to do this! You may like to download and print a copy of this to annotate yourself.

By updating the map as you read new articles and papers, you will begin to see the connections, patterns and debates in your research area. This will help you to synthesise ideas across all of the individual articles you read together.

** Elearning — this section below has three parts taken from a session Craig did for R20–0751 RELT30000 — Building your argument so can be used directly from Bboard — however please note an amend in the the comments where a change was suggested after QA -Thanks TK

Building Your Argument TK (new folder)

Building your argument

One of the main expectations of any dissertation is that you will write a convincing argument for your reader. Any piece of argumentative writing usually contains three main components:

  • A clear position / thesis statement.
  • Evidence that supports the thesis statement.
  • Analysis of that evidence.

This means that you need to decide what you want to argue, find the evidence that supports your argument and then explain why that evidence is relevant, reliable and justifies your argument.

The ‘What’s the big idea: developing and organising your argument’ interactive resource outlines different strategies which will be helpful when building your argument in your dissertation.
(embed resource)

Whats the big idea?: developing and organising your argument

Structuring your argument

Following a consistent structure can help build your argument coherently across your dissertation. As you can see from the image below, each part of your dissertation plays an important role in developing your argument. This structure works for the dissertation as a whole, as well as individual chapters.

Structuring your argument

The blogposts below outline what to include and how to structure each of the three main parts of your dissertation and/or chapters. You will also find examples of introductions, main body paragraphs and conclusions that you may find useful in each post.

Take some time to read these now; you may also find it useful to look back on these when writing the different sections.

Writing Your Introduction

Writing Your Main Body

Writing Your Conclusion

Activity — Draft Writing

Use the Essay Structure document to help you write the first draft of your introduction, main body paragraphs and conclusion. It contains prompts and questions to help make sure you include the necessary information in each section to advance your argument.
(embed pdf.)

The Academic Phrasebank has a large collection useful academic words and phrases that you may find really helpful in writing your drafts for this activity.

The Toulmin Method

What is the Toulmin Method?

The Toulmin Method is an approach to constructing convincing arguments that believes strong and effective arguments can be broken down into six main parts.

  1. Thesis statement: What is the author’s position or claim?
  2. Evidence: what evidence is there to support that position or claim?
  3. Analysis: how does the author link to evidence to their position or claim?
  4. Follow-up: what additional reasoning has the author given to support their analysis?
  5. Counter-claims: what counter-claims and arguments are there that disagree with the author’s position or claim?
  6. Rebuttal: what evidence or claims does the author use to negate any counter-claims?

Activity — Building up your argument

  1. Answer each of the six questions above with as much detail and information as you can.
  2. Continue to add detail and information about each question as you research your topic and work on your dissertation.

You may not have all the answers to these questions yet, but it is important that you start to think about them.

Referencing your work TK (new folder)

Referencing your work

(embed Referencing 1.0 — ‘What is Referencing’ here)

(embed Referencing 1.1 — ‘Activity: Why is referencing important?’ — including discussion board here )

(embed Referencing 1.2– ‘Successfully integrate the work of others into your writing’ here)

(embed Referencing 1.2.1 — ’ Integrating the work of others into your writing’ here)

(embed Referencing 3.0 — ‘Referencing subject guide’ here)

(embed Referencing 3.1 ‘Start to finish: Referencing ’ here)

Reference Management tools

What are reference management tools?

Reference management tools allow you to keep track of the information sources you have read or want to read. It allows you to organise those items so that you can find them when you need them. Reference software can also generate citations and bibliographies for your written work, making referencing a little easier.

Some tools are based entirely online and accessed through your browser. Others are desktop applications that you can download, install and use offline. Others use a mix of online and desktop application. You can even find tools that have Android and/or iOS apps.

Many tools work with Microsoft Word while you will find other tools which are compatible with other word processing applications.

Using reference management tools

Here at the Library we support EndNote Desktop, EndNote Online and Mendeley. All three tools do similar things but in slightly different ways. EndNote Online may be useful for CPD students who may be working on their own personal device and a work device, as it only requires a Word plug in to be downloaded.

If you are doing a systematic review you might find that you need additional functionality. EndNote Desktop and Mendeley both provide this and which one you use is a matter of preference. You can find our guide to referencing and reference management tools on our website:

(embed Referencing 3.0 — ‘Referencing subject guide’ here)

The best way to get started with any of the reference management tools is to work through our guides:

Getting started with EndNote online

Getting started with EndNote Desktop

Getting started with reference management in Mendeley

Help and support

For any further help you may need, the Library and the My Learning Essentials team are here for you get in touch with us using any of the following methods:



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