How do I Create the Perfect Question for my Master’s Dissertation?

By | June 15, 2011

ROBERTGuest blog by Dr Robert Lomas: Lecturer in Technological Management; member of the Operations and Information Management group and author of Mastering Your Business Dissertation (2011) Routledge, Oxford.

Every aspiring Master’s student, faced with a dissertation proposal form, worries about this question. The bad news is – there is no prefect question for every occasion – but the good news is there is always a perfect question for you. Your problem is to discover exactly what it is. Let me help you think about how you can do this.

1. Who cares about your dissertation?

There are three conflicting pressures you must resolve before you can hope to set the perfect question. They all arise from your choice of topic. So who cares what you choose to write about? You may think it’s all about you, but it’s not. You are about to become involved in a ménage à trois and it’s important to be properly prepared for the mental tension this evokes.

Who are the three players in the triangular relationship?  They are you, your potential – or existing – employer, and your business school. All have strong views about the topic you should research. If you are to uncover your perfect question each much be fully satisfied by your choice. So let me give you a quick mental check list

  • Is this topic interesting enough to maintain my interest and enthusiasm for the next six months and do I think I can write 15,000 words about?
  • Is this topic important to my career plans? Will it raise my profile with my employer and help me to stand out as knowledgeable and competent in this field?
  • Does this topic encompass sufficient academic content to demonstrate to my business school that I have attained a sufficient standard to be considered a Master of the business discipline it covers?

2. Will you stay enthused about your dissertation subject?

When you think about these three stakeholders you will find areas of conflict between any two of the partners – but you will also find areas where the interests of all three coincide. Chose a topic in this conflict-free zone and it  will become the subject of your perfect question. But justify to yourself why it matters and how to satisfy everyone, most particularly you.

Your interest and enthusiasm is vital for a successful outcome. If you’re not interested in the topic, how can you hope to enthuse anybody else about it?

3. Can you explain the answer to your dissertation?

The quest for the perfect question has become a search within the bounds of your chosen topic. But the next three steps are vital

  • Set yourself a question you can answer within the time and word limits of the dissertation. (for an MBA this is usually three months and 15,000 words)
  • Work out what facts and theories you need to answer your question, and plan how you will bring them together. And finally
  • Work out how to explain your answer to the reader of your dissertation. Remember, they don’t know who you are, what your question is about and need to be convinced it even matters.

4. Is your question really a question – or a statement?

Make sure you know the difference between a question and statement. Let me give you an example of how a question might develop.

“Successful businesses are limited by the manner in which operations are managed.”

This, of course, is a statement not a question. For the sake of clarity always remember that questions end in a question mark. Statements end in a full stop. Yet this sentence – in quotes above – was proposed as question for a dissertation by one of my students. With a little prompting it became

“Is the success of business limited by the manner in which their operations are managed?”

Now this question is either trivial, and can be answered yes or no, or a massive task demanding months of research. I put the question into the first person to help the student understand just how “big an ask” it could be. The question became

“How can I describe the ways in which the success of businesses is limited by the way their operations are managed?”

5. The perfect dissertation question for you

This question is biased. It asserts the key to success lies in how a business organizes its operations. If you know that why bother researching it? Otherwise it’s too wide in scope to fit into the time and word limit. Proving it will involve studying all successful businesses, tabulating the main features of their operations management over some period of time and seeking correlations between their success and any significant features of their operations management.

Limiting the task to a specific industry would help but even better would be to choose a particular firm, perhaps the one the student wishes to impress. When I pointed this out the student proposed a new question.

“How can I improve the operations management of Joe Bloggs Ltd in order to increase profitability?”

This is a question which can be answered. It satisfies the needs of the student, the employer and the business school. So it is the perfect question for this student.

What is the hardest part that you have found in creating your perfect dissertation question?