How can I produce a high-quality research dissertation with impact? Top tips and reflections

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By Megan Streb…

About 9 months after I handed in my dissertation, Sustrans published a report based on my findings, which was picked up by national media, and has been included in an LGA briefing to local authorities.

Some of the strategies I applied to planning, researching, and submitting my dissertation on time will doubtless be useful for future MSc Urban Planning students. Here I share my tips and reflections:

  • Build your understanding of the issues

When I started the course, I signed up for a few planning mailing lists, joined the RTPI and Urban Design Group, and followed a bunch of people on Twitter. I kept abreast of issues between our lecturers, Twitter, and reading a lot of Executive Summaries.

By the time I was mulling over my dissertation topic, I had a few issues in planning that I was interested in researching.

  • Decide what you’re aiming for, even if you know it might change.

I knew I wanted my dissertation findings to be directly useful to officers in Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). Having that aim shaped my research in terms of how I settled on a topic, chose its scope, and how hard I worked to get a high response rate. Once I’d handed it in, that aim influenced my decision to find an organisation to publish it as a report rather than as an academic paper. 

I also knew I wanted to hand in by September, as my hours were going back to full time at that point. So all my project planning (yes, I had a Gantt chart) was working backwards from that date.

  • Grow and use your network

To narrow down my dissertation topic, I wanted to speak to people in the planning profession about what research they felt would be most useful.

I was really surprised by how many people responded to a cold introduction on Twitter or by email that introduced my broad area of interest and asked “can I pick your brain for 20 minutes?” I think the amount of Zoom and Teams calls has helped. I made sure to keep the calls to under 20 minutes, but those brief chats helped me refine my topic and get important feedback.

If the idea of reaching out to complete strangers gives you cold sweats, start with your existing network. If fellow students work for LPAs, ask if they can share your survey or help you identify someone to interview. If you know someone who works in a consultancy and want their thoughts on a topic, drop them a message and offer to buy them a coffee.

  • Narrow your scope far more than you think you need to.

If you want to say something interesting and meaty about a topic, you need to pick a narrow topic. Too broad and you’ll spend most of your time trying to bring it all together, and most of your word count just explaining things.

I thought I had a narrow topic around walkability in new developments, but I needed to narrow it further to talk about site allocations rather than site layouts in masterplanning. It was hard because I felt like I was leaving really interesting topics out, but I was able to say more of substance as a result. 

  • Know that there will be a lot of ‘grunt work’ and plan for it

I watched all of Bridgerton and a season of Drag Race AllStars while collecting email addresses for planning policy teams to send my survey out. It was unbelievably tedious, but I’d planned my time to allow for that. (I’ve now shared that list publicly so you don’t have to do the same!) That prep work plus a tailoring my emails (competition between regions for response rate was very effective) paid off. I had responses from ⅓ of LPAs in England outside London.

In contrast, I didn’t allow for enough time to process my survey results–my estimate was about one-quarter of what it actually took me.  That meant writing up my results and final editing was compressed into painful final months. Learn from my mistake and don’t underestimate the time grunt work takes.

“Don’t underestimate the time grunt work takes.”
  • Edit, edit, and then edit some more.

Whether writing for an academic audience, or with civil servants in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in mind, editing is such a crucial part of your dissertation. To help me with editing, I had a separate document called “what I’m trying to say” which outlined the “story” of my research to help me stick to a structure. Give yourself time to edit based on that narrative separate to proofreading.

When writing the report based on my dissertation, a lot of time was spent deciding what to cut to make sure the report was concise and to the point.

Doing an MSc gives you the space and opportunity to really explore a topic. Take full advantage of that, whether you want to further your career, make an impact in the sector, or dig into a fascinating academic debate.

If you’re interested in reading my dissertation If you treasure it, measure it: examining the use of walkable distances to amenities in the site allocation process, it’s available here.

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