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Doing A Dissertation

These notes first appeared five years ago on an associated set of web pages. They have been slightly edited but might still have some outdated references. I hope that if so that does not cause any problems. My email address is available on the home page.


This was the first of a series of postings aimed mainly at Leeds Metropolitan University final year Tourism Management students. Hopefully it will also be of use to anyone who will at some point be doing a dissertation. Let me say straight away that the style of these notes is informal and a bit chatty - which is not the style you will use for your dissertation, which must be formal and very accurate.

These notes are mainly be about choosing the topic, which is the foundation for your work and sets you off in the right direction. After that you will be working with a good research book in one hand and your diary of weekly tutor meetings in the other.

You should use a good text book on dissertation research and some of those available will be listed later. These notes will try to explain the research processes required in dissertation research in straight forward language. Even some academic tutors have trouble with some of the vocabulary that pops up in research books! Just try saying ‘phenomenological’ quickly three times….

The need for being able to handle research:

Research is used by everyone, all the time, though not necessarily of an academic kind. What will the weather be like tomorrow? – ask a weather researcher. What clothing styles will be in fashion next year? – ask a fashions researcher. What jobs will be available in tourism when I complete my course? – ask a careers adviser (they research as well).

In our tourism courses, like any other course that includes what is called an individual, sustained piece of academic study (and those are not just dissertations, but that’s another story), the dissertation does three things:

a) It teaches you how to do research
b) It shows off how much you have learned and understood about a variety of skills
c) It allows you time to do some in-depth study in an area of knowledge that interests you

It isn’t easy to do really well, and all the time you have to remember that it is quality, not quantity, that counts. Tutors hear many students disappointed with their final mark say “I worked really hard and expected a better mark”. But what is important is good work, not just lots of work that isn’t relevant or which fails to deliver high quality results.

A dissertation will test you to the full. Remember that you are already in the top level of your age group for knowledge and skills and that the final year of your course is designed to find out just where your limits are – at the point when you complete your course. In later years you will be even better as you experience and practice grows. What we are interested in is how good you are going to be at the end of the dissertation work. You will reach your limit, whatever it is. It’s a bit like going over a military commando course: you have to find out just how good you are, and whether you worked hard enough earlier in the course.

So the first rule in order to do some hard training for the task ahead is – read, read, and read well the books recommended. Talk to tutors. Get advice. Make notes. Read the important bits of the books again – and again!

Now think about this question: what subject or topic in tourism interests you most? What interests you next most? Tourism operations? – marketing? – IT? – HRM? – attractions? – planning? – achieving sustainability? Is it something related to the kind of job you want when you graduate?


All research begins with some kind of question. Someone wants to find out what, why, when, how or who? – in connection with a topic. Some examples were given in the previous posting. They weren’t the kind that would form the basis of a dissertation, but they could be close. Start with your interests because you need to do a research project that you are interested in – you have to work on it continuously for several months! And here’s another tip – think of two or three because the first you think of may not work and there are important practical considerations to keep in mind – more about them later.

If you asked me for my interests I might say the geography of tourism, tourism planning or visitor interpretation. Those are the key subjects that I teach. How would I turn the geography of tourism into a research topic, though? One interesting and important question that everyone working in tourism management needs to know is: what are the changing world patterns in tourism? That leads to thinking about what the new destinations are, such as China and India, as well as the new tourism-generating countries that will supply tomorrow’s visitors, such as China (again) and the countries of eastern Europe. But this is a huge subject and could take you much more than 22 weeks to do – and in any case, you can get a pretty good idea just by looking at a specialist travel atlas.

So here are two key things to consider – can you carry out the research in the time you have got and have you chosen a topic that can be answered just by reading the right book? If the answers to those questions are respectively no and yes then you won’t get a successful dissertation completed.

What about choosing something like the nature of tourism planning in China? After all, we have just noted that China is going to be one of the big destinations – so are they planning tourism well?

First of all, China is a vast country and one of the most populous in the world, so again the question as it stands is far too big. OK, let’s cut it down to size and be very specific. Take one particular attraction that is high on visitors’ must-see lists – the Terracotta Warriors (an exhibition of which is opening in London shortly). These are over 8,000 life-size clay figures of soldiers and servants, individually designed, which were buried over two thousand years ago to accompany a Chinese emperor on his journey into the after-life. They stand in in columns like an army on parade. Around two million people visit the museum which now houses them annually.

Our question could be – how good is the tourism planning? The problem with this interesting question is that you would need to go to China to work out an answer. Can you afford the cost. Just as important, can you afford the time during the packed final year of your course? You might be able to get some useful answers from secondary research by reading management reports about the Terracotta Warriors site. You could also ask people who have been about their impressions, and work out a checklist of things like customer facilities and exhibition information in order to question whether they felt it was planned well. This leaves to one side a number of planning issues such as the effects of the site on the local community and the marketing strategy related to the Chinese planning of the attraction’s development, but there is a bigger question. How will you find enough people who have been in order to carry out a survey which represents a variety of opinions?

Here’s another issue (sorry there are so many, but that’s the first problem in any research). You might want to know whether the planning for the London Olympics in 2012 is good. Apart from it again being a big subject, we won’t really know until after the event, which is no good for your needs this year.

And another! You could whether the tourism associated with the redevelopment of London Docklands has produced benefits for the community, as a recent student did. She got a good result found it very difficult at times getting local opinions from the all-important public sector (people not available, tricky knowing who to ask etc). There was also the ‘hidden’ question underlying what she was trying to decide – were the benefits that were produced outweighed by the problems as older communities were subjected to unstoppable pressures aimed at changing them and their ways of life radically?

So here are some handy rules:

1 Choose a topic which can be studied within a few weeks without having to travel too far. It is possible to do a dissertation based on an overseas destination – I supervised one about tourism in South Africa for which the student travelled out there for a week – but it isn’t easy. And think how well you would need to plan the scheduling alongside the group TCV work and everything else, besides getting permissions, setting up interviews and planning what you want to observe, measure or ask. And what happens if you get home and realise you needed some more information you didn’t collect during the visit. Can you go back again?

2 Choose something that is, as we say, ‘well focused’, meaning that it is fairly simple to do and very specific by nature. Examples could be – do the residents of North Staffordshire think that Alton Towers is a benefit or a problem for them? It’s relatively easy to ask them and get a range of opinion by knocking on doors and talking to leaders of the community, local reporters and so on.

3 Is the information you need easily available? Some might exist in published reports, more might come from talking to the right people or observing activities, visitor behaviour and so on. What you need to think about is that sensitive information (about marketing strategies and levels of success, or about human resource management strategies and problems) might not be forthcoming. Some might be too commercially sensitive. Opinions about, for example, conditions of service and the way people are treated could, if published, cause individuals serious embarrassment so they aren’t likely to give you meaningful answers. Remember that to a greater or lesser extent all managers have to be very carefully about what they say for quite proper reasons (and you are going to be in the same situation in your professional lives).

Remember also – it’s difficult judging the success of something if it hasn’t happened yet – like to London Olympics.

By now you will be thinking that choosing the right topic that is ‘do-able’ as well as interesting is a real headache. Of course it is. Degrees aren’t given away lightly, and that’s what you are being trained to do.

Which raises a much more positive note: going through the process of solving problems like this is what is earning you marks AS YOU GO. Get the right topic and you might already have earned 10% of the final mark – even more as it leads on to the right research approach.


These were some of the dissertation topics proposed by Leeds Met students. Several were changed before work began and sometimes the emphasis was altered as they progressed.

Which would you think stood a chance of making a good dissertation? Which would be very difficult?

Take one of them and think how you would approach it - how would you think the research would need to be carried out? Which also means - is it clear what the student wanted to do? These are topic areas and the question behind each of them is not always clear.

Customer service behaviour and tipping
Motivations for dark tourism sites
Hotels' use of sustainability as their unique selling proposition
The rejuvenation of Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside and its impact on tourism
Terrorism v tourism: the case of Northern Ireland
The impact of marketing on tourism in Leeds over the past five years
Tourism development in Morocco - economically beneficient or socially destructive?
Motivations towards gap year travel
The impacts of climate change on nature tourism
The ethics of Auschwitz-Birkenau as a tourist destination
The likely effects of hosting the Capital of Culture for Liverpool in 2008
Lake District - sustaining outdoor tourism
Development and promotion of the wine industry in the UK
Rural tourism in Oxfordshire: economically valuable or intrusive on communities
Adopting a sustainable transport system in the Lake District
Sustainable tourism in the French Alps
Host communities' perceptions of tourism: a case study of York
Disintermediation and travel agencies
The demographics of green tourism
Urban regeneration and urban tourism: Castleford
Holidays for the disabled creating competitive advantages for the high street operator
Impact of regeneration on the London Docklands community
Effects of global warming on the tourism industry
Tourist motivations for visiting Norwich
The UK holiday market's perception of Bermuda
The implications of airport development for St Vincent and the Grenadines
Marketing of Ragdale Hall to maintain its wellness-tourism position
Evaluating the current position of women in management in the tourism industry
Marketing Thailand after the tsunami
The appeal of 'brand Manchester' to the youth market
Environmental practices in large and small hotels
Effects of Notting Hill Carnival on its community
Tourist motivations and the marketing mix of museums
Perceived risks of booking a holiday over the internet
The concerns of Fair Trade Tourism
New York City, its appeal and its marketing to British citizens
Ski resorts' commitment to environmental management
Destination branding and the youth market's perception of modern America
Visitor perceptions at UK heritage sites
Western China: the marketing strategies for building highland brand


You now need to keep in mind a few basics about dissertations. First, you have a limited amount of time to do it. Second, you have many other modules to cover, including the TCV group module – and if you let that slip, the rest of the group will mark you down heavily at the end of the year. Third, as the work progresses you will find it tends to expand with more things to find out about and include – so you will have to keep it in check.

To sort all of these problems, keep it simple. Focused. Crisp. Clear.
When you have chosen your topic, work out the exact, simple thing that you want to find out. You will test a number of aspects of the task you are thinking about and it might be you decide it isn’t, after all, the ideal job to undertake for your dissertation. At that point you will look at Plan B – an alternative. It might be you feel you have wasted time. You won’t have done, because it’s part of the learning process that is leading you to getting the dissertation right, and again, you will have earned some more marks towards your final figure.

Look at the list of previous topics above. Some are very vague – but the students then went on to make them clear and specific. Part of doing that requires that you decide how you would find out the answers – the research approach, often called the methodology.

Now, there is an important point to make here, and it is one that some tutors will fall out over. The general idea (the theory) is that you choose a topic and read up everything you can about it (the literature review) – up to date information, understanding of the situation, latest theory – then decide how you will add to that body of knowledge. You might want to test someone’s theory and see if it works when applied to a particular case that you choose. Or you might want to do a bit more – test out a theory and, if it doesn’t seem quite good enough, propose a variation of it that works better. You could take a case and see if what someone is trying to do is actually succeeding by using previous authors’ work as a guide to testing (like checking the quality of a car you want to buy by using an MoT report, published road tests, the opinions of friends and so on). Sometimes you might want to take a tourism activity and see who is benefiting, or what the effects are on the economy, the environment, the people involved, etc.

As an example, look at that topic “The effects of the Notting Hill Carnival on its community”.

It’s an interesting subject, it’s a current concern (of the enjoyment versus crime variety) and it is fairly easy to study being in London. OK, even that involves costs and time that have to be considered.

What sort of effects could this involve? The list could be economic, cultural, social, criminal, environmental etc. The good effects might include raising the awareness of black culture, bringing black and white people into a situation of shared enjoyment and appreciation, boosting the image of Notting Hill/London/Britain and having a good time. The bad effects might vary between increased pick-pocketing, drugs use and other crime to local disruption, noise, litter creation, urban stress, congestion and traffic disruption, cost of policing and any necessary medical services required and so on. Both lists are quite long and its obvious you can’t study them all.

The economic effects are difficult to study unless you have particular training and more time, though it can be done, partly by using secondary research – other peoples’ published results, with you either reporting on a wide range of research or else adding some primary research (that’s the kind that you do yourself) carried out in the area. But economic effects are complicated and you may well decide not to do them.

The “Key of Simplicity” rule would suggest taking just one kind of effect: cultural, marketing, management etc – and then deciding which aspect of that effect could be the exact focus. Cultural might mean racial integration or it might mean artistic activity. Marketing could be about drawing in the crowds or about changing perceptions. Management could be about dealing with a mega-event within a geographical area are about the management of antisocial behaviour. Pick one of them.

Then answer a question which will have to be looked at later in more detail: how would you find out the answers? What would be the criteria or means of measuring success or failure in any of these areas? Where would you get the information, statistics or opinions that you will use to make a judgement? – asking the organisers, the local council officers, the press, the emergency services, local people? – which ones, which department, close by or a bit further away? Will they give you knowledgeable, honest, objective answers or public relations guff or some whinge about the noise because they just don’t like it anyway and hope you might influence someone to ban the whole thing?

Having an idea about how you would get the results will suggest whether it is going to be practicable (or ‘do-able’), whether you will like the approaches needed (are you OK stopping people on the street to ask questions?) and whether the results will be of good quality.

If you come up with negative answers, then either change the approach or change the topic while there is time to do it.

What you must not do is think of a research approach that sounds fun and then try to decide on something to investigate using that method. You will come unstuck if you try that. The whole dissertation must be driven by a clear idea of what you are investigating.


You now need to be reading up the subject. Before going on, however, it’s important to make another point about two of the stages in your researching, each of which will produce a chapter in the dissertation when you write it up. You have to find out what the present state of knowledge on your chosen topic is as you start the work. Second, you need to devise a research approach (or methodology) in order to carry out your own, particular, part of the process. But the strange thing is that you actually start both of those right at the start, and can’t do anything without beginning them both. It’s as if you start both before you start either of them – which sounds silly. The point is that you will have had to do some reading in order to decide the topic and the title. It’s necessary to find out something about the subject and you probably did quite a bit of that over the last few years. Second, your research approach begins by doing some serious reading on the topic in order to identify what exactly you are researching and how. It’s for this reason that some – and I believe it is only some – tutors will want your very first chapter to be the Methodology. If yours is one who does that, you must take their advice, but it isn’t very common.

For your purposes you can think of the main reading-up as being done sometime later, and it will be called the Literature Review. The research approach chapter – methodology – will also come later. Just keep in mind that you are doing some preliminary work on both right at the start. As you decide which text books and journal to consult you are deciding the first steps in your researching.

For the dissertation proposal take two or three books and journals and see what they say on your topic. You will have to decide how many – and don’t try to read too much at this stage – and which ones. How do you decide? By choosing up to date works which are primarily about the subject (so those trusty first year books aren’t really good enough unless they have a lot to say on the topic) and which represent good, solid writing on your topic. One book is usually not enough because the topic needs to be looked at from different angles, perhaps by authors who have quite different views and might disagree with each other. You could choose one book (or journal article) as the starting point for an investigation – but you will need to describe what other people say on the topic to show some depth of ideas and discussion. It’s like having a picture on a sheet of paper: two dimensions, interesting enough, but not as good as a three dimensional model which can be looked at from all sides.

Notice the use of recent journal articles. These are often more up to date than the latest text books because they contain ideas which are being developed and discussed in order to test out the ideas. Text books tend to have material that has been around a bit longer, and you must show just how up to date you are. Each of these forms of publication has been examined by specialist editors and advisers who have said that the material is worth publishing and debating by readers. That testing by an editorial board is all-important. Web sites do not usually have anything like that rigorous testing. They might be useful: I hope you find this web site useful, but it’s only the work of one person and might be better edited or even written. (Go on, send me an email with comments about the bits that need better explanation).

So for your proposal that has to be submitted, do enough reading so you know what you are talking about and so that your tutor will be able to see where you are coming from – in other words, how your ideas have been shaped and who by. You will need to list the authors in a proper bibliography using the dear old Harvard format. Later – not now! – you will read much more and produce a full literature review. More of that in the induction sessions and research methods lectures. Oh, and one thing more: if there isn’t much on the subject, change the topic to something else. You need a good starting point in contrasting books and journals with information, opinions and theories.

Having said all that - go for it!

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