Skip to main content

Researcher's Toolkit: A1 - Knowledge base

This researcher's toolkit has been developed to offer you practical advice and suggestions to help you design, carry out and write up a research project.

Dissertation Question Time

Dissertation question time (videos from the Brunel University London)

Extracts from a Dissertation Question Time where students submitted questions about their dissertations to a panel of postgraduate students, academic staff and an academic skills advisor including the following

  • What makes a good topic and how can I make it more manageable?
  • When should I choose my title?
  • How can I be original when my topic is already well-researched?
  • How should I structure and write my literature review?
  • Where can I get more advice on qualitative or quantitative research?
  • What is an appropriate style and structure for a dissertation?
  • Critical thinking examples
  • How can I get best marks in my dissertation?


Doing a literature review

Purpose of the literature review

The literature review is a preliminary exploration of a topic prior to carrying out a research project and is an ongoing process throughout your research. It should be comprehensive and demonstrate that you have read widely and have a deep understanding of your chosen topic.

Not all literature reviews are undertaken at the beginning of a study, however, and it is important that you follow your chosen research method carefully to ensure you undertake your review at the correct time in the process.

Top tips

  • Search methods should be explicit and systematic with the aim of producing reliable results which are repeatable, auditable and transparent. This is particularly relevant in the health fields although the search should be carried out in a systematic and methodical way whatever the discipline.
  • You should take a thematic approach and organise your review around ideas rather than the sources themselves so that key themes and trends emerge.
  • You may find that your literature review becomes more like a work in progress rather than a finished chapter. You may write an initial draft, put it to one side, and come back to it later as the focus of your project shifts, or if you discover new research.

Approaches for different disciplines

[Based on advice by Loughborough University]

It is important to acknowledge that each discipline will have a slightly different approach to literature reviews. Your department may have particular preferences so you should always make sure that you have consulted your supervisor before you start work.

  • Science - this discipline has fairly rigid conventions for reporting on research. Usually there is a specific structure e.g. “introduction”, “background” followed by “methodology” “results” and “discussion”. This is known as an explicit literature review.
  • Social sciences - literature reviews often follow a similar pattern to science literature reviews although some social sciences may have a less explicit approach.
  • Business - literature reviews are critical of existing literature. They usually include background theory, plus summaries of research done by other organisations, government statistics and publications.
  • Literature and history - literature reviews do not follow a single convention. In contemporary literary studies an “explicit” chapter may not be needed. The researcher may be taking a new theoretical approach to material which has already been studied before.

What is a systematic review?  

A systematic literature review is usually based on a single research question for which an answer is sought or on a selected research topic. It is not in itself primary research, but rather it reports on other findings.

Literature reviews in the health fields tend to be more rigorous or explicit in their methods. The key features of a systematic review are that:

  • Explicit and transparent methods are used.
  • It is a piece of research which follows a standard set of stages.
  • It is accountable, replicable and up-dateable – results are often presented in the form of a matrix.
  • There is a requirement of user involvement to ensure reports are relevant and useful.

Systematic reviews aim to find as much research as possible relevant to the particular research questions, and to use explicit methods to identify what can reliably be said on the basis of these studies. Methods should not only be explicit but systematic with the aim of producing varied and reliable results.  Such reviews then go on to synthesise research findings in a form which is easily accessible to those who have to make policy or practice decisions. In this way, systematic reviews reduce the bias which can occur in other approaches to reviewing research evidence.

More about systematic reviews for nursing and health 

Types of literature to include in your literature review

When writing a literature review, it is crucial to distinguish between

  • Theoretical literature - scholarly writing that helps you to build and sharpen your conceptual focus. Look at the evidence upon which it is based and the claims which it makes and judge whether the theory is sound.
  • Contextual or related literature - articles and books that are closely related to your area or subject of research. This literature may consist of research studies, reviews of research, practice literature written by practitioners about their specialist field and policy literature which tells practitioners or professionals how to act.

Making this distinction is important because you will need to examine every work that forms part of your core theoretical framework, but you can often do a quicker read of those articles that are part of your background literature. It is important to understand the types of literature you find in order to make sense of it and be able to compare it with other literature you find.

Reading for your literature review

Once you have thought about the topics you need to cover and have embarked on some preliminary literature searching, you should start to set down some draft subject headings to help you structure your literature review.

For each heading try to select a few key texts to read first - three is ideal to start with although you may find that you may eventually be writing about the same text under different headings, so bear that in mind when you are reading and making notes.

Taking a little extra time with note-making will save you time and trouble later.  Make sure that you always write the details of the text at the top of your page of notes, adding page numbers against your notes as you write them, so you can find your place again if necessary.

More about note-taking

When you have finished reading your chosen texts, summarise and comment on what you have read, making sure that you demonstrate how it is relevant to your research. Then look to see what you need to discuss further, and do more reading to enable you to fill any gaps.

Organising your information

Once you have finished reading for your literature review you need to start organising the information you have found e.g. by using techniques such as mindmapping or by grouping what you have read into different topics.

Structuring your literature review

There are a number of different approaches to structuring a literature review so you should consult your supervisor before beginning the work. The following is a standard model:

  • Introduce your research question (what it is, why it is worth examining)
  • Narrow your research question to the studies discussed.
  • Briefly outline the organisation of the paper. If there is a major controversy, describe it and explain that you will present research supporting one side and then the other. Or, if three methodologies have been used to address a question, briefly describe them and say that you will compare the results obtained by the three methods.
  • Describe the studies in detail.
  • Compare and evaluate the studies.
  • Discuss the implications of the studies and how you intend to build on them.

Reviewing your literature review

  • Does your review show a clear understanding of the topic?
  • Have all key studies been cited and most of them discussed?
  • Have you eliminated sources on your topic which do not relate to your specific question?
  • Does the review flow logically and tell a story?
  • Does the review state clear conclusions about previous research, using appropriate evidence?
  • Does the review show the variety of definitions and approaches to the topic?
  • Does the review reach sound recommendations, using a coherent argument that is based on evidence?
  • Is the text written in a clear style with complete references?

Anticipate readers’ questions, do not leave work open to questions such as:

  • What is your point here?
  • What makes you think so?
  • What is your evidence?
  • So what?
Loading ...

Literature searching

Defining your research question

Before you start planning your literature search you should draft a question or working statement to get you started. You may need to refine or re-phrase this at a later date if your focus shifts or narrows. It is important to define the scope of the review in order to help maintain focus and be selective in the materials you include.

  • You will need to identify the key concepts in your question and find appropriate your search terms.
  • You also need to think about the parameters or boundaries of your project. What are you not going to consider or include? Think about them before you start your search and be clear about information you intend to exclude.
  • Using a concept map can be useful in developing your search terms.
  • In the health disciplines frameworks such as PICO or PEO are useful in helping you to identify your population, exposure, intervention, outcomes, research design etc.
  • Search strategies tend to evolve through trial and error. As you search and read, you will discover different terminology and language. Any new search terms should be integrated into your search strategy to hone it further.

Literature searching for postgraduate students

Identifying the key concepts in your research question

Before you can start developing a search strategy you need to identify the main concepts in your research question and select words or phrases that describe these. Selecting appropriate search terms is the key to successful literature searching. Without meaningful search terms you are unlikely to find useful articles

Free-text searching

  • Think about alternative words e.g. synonyms (similar words), antonyms (opposite words) variant spellings, variant endings (plural, singular, etc.) 
  • If you are already familiar with the topic you may be able to list many alternative words or phrases for your concepts. Use a thesaurus to find alternative search words.
  • Consider also searching with index terms or keywords in addition to free text searching. 
When you are reading relevant articles, make a note of any specialist terminology, acronyms or other useful keywords that you might want to add to your own search strategy to improve it.

Subject headings searching

This is an alternative way of searching using the controlled vocabulary of the database and is particularly useful when lots of different terminology is used to describe the same idea.

Search techniques

The following techniques are useful in improving your search strategy and can make a significant difference to your search results. Always check the database help pages before you start searching.

  • Search terms - the key to successful searching is choosing the right search terms. Rubbish in = rubbish out so it is worth taking time to get these right.
  • Truncation and wild cards - useful for finding singular and plural forms of words and variant endings. Shorten your keyword to its "stem" or "trunk" and add the truncation symbol.
  • Phrase and adjacency searching – databases offer specific techniques for searching for phrases and words in close proximity.
  • Searching with subject headings – using the controlled vocabulary that a database uses to classify what an article is about.
  • Boolean operators - Boolean operators (AND, OR and NOT) allow you to combine search terms in different combinations.  

OR – broadens and is usually used to combine synonyms or “like” words to make results more comprehensive.

AND – narrows and is usually used to combine different concepts to make results more relevant.

NOT – narrows by reducing the number of results you retrieve by excluding a search term.

It is good practice to record your search strategy. The forms below can be used as a guide.

Refining your search results

  • Search limits should be applied at the end of your search after you have retrieved all the results relevant to your topic. Apply limits one at a time so you can see what effect they have on your results.
  • Most databases like Medline or Web of Science allow you to limit your searches by publication date, language, and publication type. Each database offers a different range of limits.

Search filters

  • Using too many limits may narrow your search too far; for this reason you could consider using search filters as an alternative. Search filters are pre-tested strategies that identify the higher quality evidence from the vast amounts of literature indexed in the major medical databases.

Improving your search results

If you find too few results consider the following:

  • Check your spelling
  • Has anything actually been written on your chosen topic?
  • Have you used Boolean operators correctly
  • Do you need to search more databases? Are you searching the most appropriate databases
  • Could you add more search terms to your search strategy? Are there any more synonyms or alternative words you could use to broaden your search.
  • Are your date limits too restrictive?

If you find too many results consider the following:

  • Is the search question too broad
  • Have you used Boolean operators correctly?
  • Could the search be limited by date.
  • Could you limit the search to English-language material

You can also find sources by searching in the following ways:

Citation searching

This differs from general literature searching for a topic as instead of searching for keywords you search for specific books or articles to find out which authors have been cited and also who has cited them in their work. Citation (or cited reference searching) is helpful as it allows you to follow the development of an idea or theory through the literature.

More about Citation searching

Hand searching

This is a standard technique used in identifying studies for a systematic review, but it can also be used for any comprehensive literature search. It is a useful technique because:

  • Not every relevant journal will be indexed in the databases you search.
  • Many articles contain a variety of information that is not indexed and therefore less easy to retrieve
  • Hand searching involves selecting the most important journals in a particular subject area and searching each one individually, by hand or electronically, with specific criteria in mind. It can also be used to search for sections/chapters in books. Benefits of hand searching.
  • No database search strategy is perfect, as errors can be made by both the database indexers and by the person searching. Also, information in book chapters is not routinely indexed in some databases.
  • Ensure that your search is as comprehensive as possible by searching a selection of key resources by hand. This will pick up material which might otherwise be missed. 

Evaluating your search results

Does your search plan need tweaking or revising to improve your results? Are there any more appropriate databases or other sources you could be searching?

  • Consider your search results and ensure that the material you select is relevant to your research question.
  • Start by reading the abstract to get a sense of the content of the article and the extent to which it is relevant to your review. You will need to refer back to your inclusion and exclusion criteria or to your PEO/PICO statements (health disciplines).
  • Critically read each of your sources. It may be easier to save difficult or poorly written articles to last when you have more familiarity with your subject.
  • Get an idea of the main topics within each article and then identify the methods used, themes, ideas, theories, approaches to the topic that have emerged from your reading. 
  • Synthesize your findings within your review and identify common themes.
Once you have completed your review you should still continue the process of searching for literature.

Documenting your search 

  • Documenting your search strategy will enable you to demonstrate that you have undertaken a systematic procedure in identifying the literature you included in your review.
  • It is important that you keep a record of where you looked for information, why you chose those particular sources, your search strategy, how you refined your initial results and selected your final materials.
  • It will help convince your readers that you have not missed any significant sources and will demonstrate to that your review is rigorous and your conclusions valid.
  • You may be conducting your study over a number of years so documenting your search will make it easier to remember your results and justify the decisions you made at a t a later date when you are writing up your literature review.
  • It is useful to keep a record of your search activity in the form of a search activity template. 

How much search activity should be recorded?

  • Recording your initial searches for background information is not usually a requirement as it is unlikely that you will need to demonstrate how and where you found your references.
  • On the other hand, however, for a thesis or systematic review it is often a requirement of your submission to provide a detailed record of your search process in which each stage in the process is documented. 

Always check with your supervisor if you are uncertain as is extremely difficult to retrace your search steps at a later date.

Reference management

A useful way of recording your sources is to use a reference manager such as RefWorks. This helps you to keep a track of your references and helps you present them in the required UoS style. More about RefWorks and reference management

Saving your search  
Many databases allow you create a personal login to enable you to save searches or to set up alerts when new relevant content is added to the database.

This section is based on guidance by Leeds University

Strategies for finding full-text

Once you have conducted a database search you may find that some of the articles you wish to read are available as abstracts rather than full-text which can be frustrating.

 Although most databases do offer a filter to full-text option, using this may result in you losing some potentially useful and up-to-date material where there is an embargo on recently published full-text content. In other words you may be unable to see recently published material from some key journals. However, as the full-text of these articles may be easily available from other databases, it is not good practice to use the full-text only filter as your search results will be incomplete. For the health disciplines this would be particularly inadvisable.

The following are useful strategies for finding full-text:

  • Ebsco databases - check the end of the citation record for a DOI link. The DOI is a standardised method for identifying digital objects on the internet and acts as a persistent link to the article.
  • Proquest databases - use the 360 link to navigate to the article in another University of Suffolk collection.
  • Copy and paste the title of the article into Summon to check elsewhere in University of Suffolk collections.
  • Copy and paste the title of the article into Google - it may be freely available on the web as an open access article.
  • Use the A-Z of Journals tool to navigate to your articles - this is an alternative way of searching across the University of Suffolk collections. 

As a last resort you can place an inter-library resource request for the article using the request form below:

Still unable to find full-text?

  • Read around the subject area - it may be that other articles or books cover the same subject area and can give you the information you are looking for.
  • Look at the keywords, read the abstract and explore the bibliography to look at other works cited within the piece of research. Many databases make this available free-or-charge as part of the search results list. This can help you determine how you might find other related articles or books.
  • Discuss the article with your lecturer - they have subject expertise and can help you explore the subject area.
  • As a last resort place a resource request after making a judgement about whether  you really do need the article - check the abstract, title of the journal, length of article, the extent to which it matches your inclusion and exclusion criteria etc. 

Keeping up-to-date

If you are doing a piece of work over a length of time, alerting service and RSS feeds will save you time and help you stay up-to-date with newly published information in your subject area and save valuable research time.

Alerts and RSS feeds can send updated information to your e-mail address or to a 'Start' page using an RSS feed.

  • Many websites now have RSS feeds
  • Services such as notify you when a change is made to a webpage you have registered interested in.

Database alerting services

  • Database alerts. Many of the University of Suffolk databases allow you to set up alerts to let you know whenever new articles matching your research interests are published.

Journal alerts

Journal alerting services, or current awareness services, such as Zetoc and Journal TOCs, alert you to new articles in your field by sending you a table of contents of new issues of journals of interest.

Other ways to keep up-to-date

Loading ...

Information sources

Start by considering how in-depth your search needs to be and which the best sources of information might be. These might include:

Click here for the main Information sources guide

Information may take also take the form of primary or secondary information which will be an important consideration.


Google is often the first port if call in academic literature searching because of its ease of use and convenience. However, although it is a huge search engine with extensive coverage, it has no quality filter and is not restricted to academic information.This lack of quality control requires the researcher to have the necessary skills to evaluate the information on the web.

You will save a lot of time bey searching for information using the following resources:

  • Summon enables you to cross-search all University of Suffolk books, e-book and journal articles collections, including databases
  • A-Z e-Resources Access to subject specialist databases provided by University of Suffolk

Useful web resources for researchers

  • British Library catalogues - Search British Library's national catalogues
  • British Library Conference Collections - The British Library has probably the most comprehensive and easily accessible collection of conference publications in the world. It is internationally recognised that this material is important to collect; papers given at conferences fulfill a distinct function in the field of research and yet are often overlooked as a resource for those undertaking research because they are difficult to verify and locate
  • Conference Papers Index - Provides citations to papers and poster sessions presented at major scientific meetings around the world. Subject emphasis since 1995 has been in the life sciences, environmental sciences and the aquatic sciences, while older material also covers physics, engineering and materials
  • COPAC - Search 80+ UK academic and specialist libraries
  • Office for national statistics
  • OpenGrey - Technical or research reports, doctoral dissertations, some conference papers, some official publications, and other types of grey literature.
  • OpenDOAR website - Directory of open access resources
  • UK Data Service - A unified point of access to data from ESDS, Census Programme, Secure Data Service and others
  • Web of Science - Access to the world's leading citation databases, including powerful cited reference searching, the Analyze Tool, and over 100 years of comprehensive back file and citation data. 
  • ZETOC - One of the world’s most comprehensive research databases, giving you access to over 28,000 journals, 45 million article citations and conference papers through the British Library’s electronic table of contents.

It is likely that you will need to look for both primary and secondary sources. Subject databases will provide you with both types of information. 

Primary sources  

Definition: primary sources come first-hand from the source or person.  
Primary sources are usually first-hand information about something such as diaries, court records, interviews, research studies about experiments, and information that has been stated but not interpreted by others. 
Types of primary research include:

  • An original articles or books created by one or more individuals
  • Novels, short stories, plays, poems
  • Paintings, photographs, court cases
  • Journal articles which describe new research
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Letters and diaries
  • Films
  • Speeches
  • Interviews, observations and surveys
  • Emails and letters
  • Debates, meetings
  • Historical documents

Secondary sources 

Definition: A secondary source writes or talks about something that is a primary source. 
Secondary sources analyze, interpret, and discuss information about the primary source. Most secondary sources analyze the material or restate the works of others. Many secondary sources are used to argue someone's thesis or main points about a topic. 

Secondary Sources include: 

  • Books, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, reviews, newspaper articles, specific essays
  • Journal articles
  • Research papers – most of these are based on secondary sources as they build on the research/studies others have done.
  • Literature reviews
Sometimes a source can be a primary source in one journal article and a secondary source in another journal article. It depends upon the relationship the writer has in the journal article. If he has been an active part of the research and he custom-writes about it then this is a primary source. If the writer writes about research done by others then this writing will be a secondary source.

Many national and international academic institutions make their PhD theses available for researchers to access either digitally or through paper / fiche loans. References for PhD theses may be found through database searches. 

UK Theses

UK theses are often made available through the British Library's EThOS service. this should be checked before any requests are made through the interlibrary loans service.

OpenGrey - Technical or research reports, doctoral dissertations, some conference papers, some official publications, and other types of grey literature.

Oxford University Research Archive  - Search for and download recent Oxford DPhil theses

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses  - Database containing dissertations and theses

International Theses

North American institutions often have their own online repositories which can be found and searched via their websites.

Loading ...

Statistics and maths support

The Numeracy and Mathematics Guide  will point you to self-help resources and you are encouraged to be proactive and access these resources. 

If you need further support  you are advised to contact an Academic Skills Adviser for your subject area who will direct you to additional material which might include online support  in the form of videos or courses.

Academic Skills Advisors - schedule an appointment


Referencing overview

Referencing is a very important aspect of your research as you will need to consult and refer to sources written by other authors. It is essential that you provide detailed, accurate information about the sources you have used. This information must be provided for a number of reasons:

  • You must correctly acknowledge your use of the statements, opinions, findings etc. of other authors that you have used in your research. Not to do so amounts to plagiarism.
  • Correct citations allow others to use your work as a research source (for which you will be cited!)
  • Accurate citation allows you to return to your work at a later date and still make use of the research previously undertaken

Referencing is a way of acknowledging that you have read, consulted and used the ideas, opinions, findings and written material belonging to other authors. It demonstrates that you have undertaken an appropriate literature search and that you have carried out appropriate reading. It enables anyone reading your work to look up your citations and read them for themselves.

 As a general rule, a citation must enable another person using your work to easily identify and locate the sources that you have used in your research so that they can check the information you have consulted, and the evidence you have presented in your arguments.

Citation styles

  • There are several different citation standard styles for the layout of citations in written work. Some of these styles (e.g. the Royal Society of Chemistry style) are subject specific, whereas other, more general styles are also used (e.g. the Harvard style).
  • It is important that you find out what citation style is used in the organisation for whom you are writing (called the house style), and to be careful that you stick this style for the whole piece of work. Styles used a the University of Suffol are Uos Harvard, UoS APA and UoS Footnotes (MHRA) and Uos Oscola.
  • Each citation style has its own conventions including the order in which you record the information (and what you record) so that the original sources can be identified.
  • Your citations must conform to your chosen style. In almost all situations, correct citation and referencing will form part of the marks you receive for a piece of work.

For more advice about referencing click here or use Cite Them Right Online

UoS Harvard style

The preferred referencing style for citations and bibliographies is UoS Harvard.

Guide to the UoS Harvard style

UoS APA style

The preferred referencing style for citations and bibliographies is in Psychology Routes courses is UoS APA.

Guide to the UoS APA style

UoS Footnotes (MHRA)The preferred referencing style for citations and bibliographies for History is University of Suffolk Harvard. This follows the principles laid out in:

Guide to the UoS Footnotes (MHRA) style 



The preferred referencing style for law.  Guide to using OSCOLA.

Referencing support

The university Learning Services department run regular workshops on the principles of using the UoS referencing styles, but you can also schedule a one-to-one appointment with either your Academic Skills Advisor or Academic Liaison Librarian.  Advice can also be obtained from Library staff at each of the university centres.


RefWorks is the recommended reference management tool at University of Suffolk. With RefWorks you can easily:

  • Import references directly from bibliographic databases and the Summon search tool.
  • Edit references to include .pdf documents and your own notes.
  • Manage your references in multiple folders which you create, for different subjects, assignments or projects.
  • Share your references with fellows in your work groups.
  • Generate in-text citations and full reference lists and bibliographies in the referencing style of your choice, e.g. UoS Harvard.


A free online tool for saving and sharing references, and for discovering academic papers as you can see what resources have been used by other researchers - see who is reading the same papers as you. There is no plug in for Word, but you can export citations into other software.

EndNote Web

The web based version of the Endnote programme allows you to save and share references. You will need to install the plug in for Word in order to add references to your papers.  


This enables you to save and share references via the web. It is a free reference manager and social networking tool which enables you to save and share references and to read your papers anywhere via the web.  


A plug in for the Firefox browser. It enables you to capture references from web pages. There is also a plug in for Word to enable you to insert references into your papers. Please note that you must use Firefox to use Zotero.

RefWorks workshop run for postgraduate students Oct 2016

Citation searching

Citation searching means that if you have found a relevant article, you can find a list of articles that have cited it. Citation (or cited reference searching) allows you to follow the development of an idea or theory through the literature.  It enables you to:

  • Find out whether articles have been cited (and used) by other authors. If other researchers cite them then you may wish to read their research too.
  • Discover references to a particular author.
  • Find more recent papers on the same or similar subject.
  • Discover how a known idea or innovation has been confirmed, applied, improves, extended or corrected.
  • Allows you to track research follow the development of an idea or theory through the literature.
  • Helps identify new papers/themes, especially if your topic is obscure.
  • Can help you identify if a paper/book is a seminal work within a topic.
  • Can see who is citing papers that you have written.
  • Can see who is citing your supervisor’s/external examiner’s work.
Although cited reference searching can be a useful complement to your database search, be wary of depending on it too heavily: if you only look at papers everyone else has cited it may distort your findings.

The main database for citation searching is Web of Science via the Web of Knowledge. This includes:

  • Science Citation Index Expanded -1970-present
  • Social Sciences Citation Index -1970-present
  • Arts & Humanities Citation Index - 1975-present
  • Conference Proceedings Citation Index- Science - 1990-present
  • Conference Proceedings Citation Index- Social Science and Humanities - 1990-present
When you log on to the Web of Knowledge, select the Web of Science in order to select the Cited Reference Search option. You will need to click on the basic search drop-down box to find this option.
Loading ...

Academic writing

Proof reading tips

Being able to proof read effectively is of course important at  any level and can have a major bearing on the success or otherwise of your writing.  At Postgraduate level however, it takes on even greater importance because of

a)     The amount of  writing involved - your dissertation may well be 2 or 3 times longer than anything you have written before. Not only is there more to check in terms of quantity, the demands are greater with regard to organising and structuring the material.

b)     The advanced nature of postgraduate writing brings with it raised expectations in terms of the fluency, accuracy and intelligibility of your writing.  Put simply, it needs to be  readable, clear and error-free.  With this in mind, you should -


1.    Make a clear distinction between editing and proof reading.      

  • Editing is about content. It involves addressing problems to do with responding to the assessment criteria and the question; the organisation and structuring of your material, and the appropriateness and consistency of your presentation (inc references, citations, headings, line spacing etc.)  
  • Proof reading is about written language. It entails identifying problems to do with spelling, punctuation, grammar, typos,  style and register (eg degree of formality).

2.    You need to do separate readings for each of the above  - one for content  (editing) and one for  language  (Proof reading).  This separation makes the overall task more manageable and focused - when you are concentrating on the development and organisation of ideas, you are not having to worry about spelling or punctuation, and vice versa.

3.    Read  aloud,  slowly and one sentence at a time, preferably from a printed page rather than on- screen.  If editing, ask yourself whether the sentence is clear and unambiguous, correctly referenced, and whether it contributes to the development of your argument both within the paragraph and overall.  If proof reading, ask yourself whether the sentence is grammatically correct (and not overly long or complicated), uses appropriate style and vocabulary and is correctly spelt and punctuated.

4.    Get a  second opinion  always  (and a third or fourth)  - you can guarantee that other people will read with a more detached and objective eye and see things you have missed, in terms of accuracy of expression. intelligibility, coherence and so on.

5.    Use the spell checker of course, but do remember that Microsoft uses American spellings, which can annoy British readers!  (eg behavior, center, realize)   Also, be extra careful to choose the  correct  word from any drop-down lists - choosing the wrong word can unintentionally wreck the meaning of your sentence.)

6.   Analyse your mistakes. Proof reading, like any kind of reading, is a great deal easier and more purposeful if you know what you are looking for.   Keep a record of the mistakes that you typically make. You can then use this as a proof reading checklist, with headings for spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary (use/misuse of words).   An Academic Skills Advisor can help you to do this, perhaps by looking at past assessed work and feedback received.

For more advice click here

Some Key Features of Critical Writing at Postgraduate level

1.       Length-  A dissertation can be defined as "a detailed, sustained and critical treatment of a chosen topic."  At Masters level this may be anything from 10,00 to 30,000 words, depending on the subject area and whether taught or research Masters. MSc dissertations tend to have a somewhat lower word count because they usually include a practical element. PhD theses will typically be between 50,000 and 80,000 words, with arts, humanities and social science subjects at the upper end of the spectrum, and science subjects at the lower end. The substantially greater length requirement makes it all the more important that you have a carefully worked out plan and time frame for your dissertation or thesis.

2.       Evidence of research "journey"- In most cases you will be writing your own question, which means you need to think very carefully about defining the scope and boundaries of your investigation. It needs to be something that can be adequately addressed within the word count.You will need to explain how your interest came about, how it has changed and developed and what exactly you have learned and  concluded.

3.      Depth and range of reading- You will need to demonstrate familiarity with and understanding of a wider range of research and sources. Your bibliography/reference list will need to be comprehensive, detailed and accurate and as such give a clear picture of your engagement or dialogue with the particular subject discipline.

4.     Taking issue- Related to this, at postgraduate level, references are not simply cited, but used critically, interrogated, questioned as to underlying values and implicit assumptions. You need to show that you are aware of divergent meanings and interpretations as well as the overall complexity of the issues under examination.

5.     Academic rigour- Your work needs to demonstrate scrupulous and objective testing of arguments and counter arguments, to establish the extent to which  they stand up to scrutiny. Evidence needs to  be well documented and unambiguous.

6.     Coherent argument- There will be an expectation that your dissertation or thesis develops and pursues a coherent and consistent argument throughout. It should be stylistically fluent and the "angle" or approach that you are taking should be clearly signposted and evident.

7.     Accurate and appropriate expression - At this level it is more important than ever that your writing is literate and grammatically correct, clearly and unambiguously expressed. You should show an assured use of appropriate academic vocabulary, both generally and in the use of the specialist terminology of your subject. 

8.     Originality - At  PhD level the expectation is that your thesis will make "an original contribution to knowledge"  within your subject area.  Whilst this is not necessarily a requirement at Masters level,  your dissertation should nonetheless show insight and initiative within its terms of enquiry, and be probing and exploratory in its approach to/dialogue with the subject discipline. It needs to have a distinctive voice and point of view. Above all, it needs to catch the interest of the reader (and the marker) and show that you yourself have a close interest in and engagement with the subject matter.  

For more advice about critical writing click here

Useful Proof reading Resources

The links below provide strategies and practice relating to several aspects of editing and proof reading -  practice quizzes to assess your ability to spot errors in grammar, expression and advanced referencing; explanation of the differences between editing, sub-editing and proof reading, in terms of purpose and process; checklists to assist you with both. 

Useful Critical Writing Resources

The materials listed below all address the question of what it is that is distinct and different about academic writing at postgraduate level, as compared to undergraduate writing.  All are useful - the lecture by Dr Joanne Leal perhaps especially so, because it has a lot of very specific and practical advice about all stages of the writing process. 

Loading ...


At postgraduate level, the sheer volume of written sources that you will need to read and process means that you will need to be as efficient and methodical as you can be in the preparatory stages. Having easily accessible, clearly organised and referenced notes will save you a great deal of time in the long run. In addition to the more generic postgraduate study skills/academic writing textbooks mentioned above (Academic writing - recommended reading)  the following are a selection of web-based materials specifically related to critical reading and note-taking at this level.

Find more advice about reading and note-taking click here

Report writing

A report, according to The New Oxford Dictionary of English, is "an account given of a particular matter... after thorough investigation or consideration by an appointed person."   There is considerable variation in the use of the terms  report, dissertation and thesis, even within academia.  For example in the UK the convention is to talk of a Masters dissertation and a doctoral thesis, whereas in the USA it is the other way round.  What is clear is that reports do have a quite different layout and structure to essays. (see Structure tabs)   In the business world and in government, a report is understood to convey information and sometimes recommendations drawn up by a researcher who has investigated a topic in depth and detail. A report of this kind  differs from an essay or dissertation in that it is designed to provide information that will be acted upon (hence the recommendations)  rather than to be read by people interested in the ideas for their own sake.

An academic report will typically combine features of both practical reports and dissertations. It can be thought of as a kind of simulation - in other words, try to imagine that someone wants the report for a practical purpose, even though you are in fact writing the report as an academic exercise, for assessment.  With academic reports the focus will generally be on ideas and theoretical perspectives rather than information and practical implementation, although there may certainly be an element of this with science and vocational disciplines.  This will depend to a large extent on the subject and the assessment criteria. The crucial thing here is to pay very careful attention to what is required and to any  instructions or guidelines  you have been given.  

Whatever the nature and exact format of the report, it will need to include information under each of these broad headings -

*     Purpose - What were the aims/objectives of the work?  What was it hoping to achieve?

*     How was the research carried out? - A justification of the methods used/problem areas.

*     Presenting the findings - What were the results of the investigation?

*     Discussion and analysis - An evaluation of the results and their significance  

*     Conclusions - A drawing together of the overall value and import of the research     

For more advice about report writing click here

Looking at the structure of research reports in a little more detail, it is apparent that there are essentially three distinct parts  (as outlined for example by   M.Denscombe (1998) in The Good Researcher Guide for Small scale Social Research Projects,  upon which the following draws).   These are :  1)  Preliminaries   2)  Main text and   3)  End matter.


Title - Needs to be an accurate reflection of the contents of the report.  Ideally brief, but can include sub-heading if necessary.

Abstract - A single page (250-300 words)  summary of the contents of the report, specifically its broad aims and conclusions. Needs to be clearly and engagingly written, since this is read primarily by others in the field to see whether it might be of use to them.

List of contents - Lists sections  (or chapters, in the case of a longer report)  including page numbers. 

List of figures and tables - Self explanatory, but make sure you acknowledge sources, label axes and graphical information as necessary.

Preface - Brief personal statement from the author explaining the genesis, scope and context of the study.

Acknowledgements - Brief expression of appreciation for support or cooperation received (if required).

Abbreviations - Give full version of any abbreviations or acronyms used in the text.           

The main body of the text will need to include the following -

Outlines the purpose and scope of the study, its primary aims, objectives and hypotheses.  Also any gaps in existing research that will be addressed.

Literature review
Covers key concepts and definitions, as well as relevant background theories and knowledge as related to your study   (ie specifically tailored to this, rather than "saturation" coverage of everything you have ever read on the subject)

Includes a justification of the overall research design and methods used eg whether documentary, case study, survey or a combination of these. This section should show how the methods were used to address each of the objectives, and why they are appropriate, in each case.  Also what type of data was gathered  - quantitative, qualitative or both.  Be sure to mention any tools or instruments used eg questionnaire, interview etc as well as considerations like sample size and population. Conclude this section by explaining how data was analysed, whether statistically or otherwise, and acknowledging any limitations that you are aware of eg in terms of time constraints or accuracy.

Results or Findings
Gives a clear and organised account/breakdown of what you found out, against each objective or sub-topic. You will need to show the essential data and calculations, using tables and graphical presentation where appropriate.

Analysis and discussion
In this section you will need to interpret the results, highlighting the most significant ones, and making deductions. Your discussion will be framed within the context of relevant theories and existing knowledge as well as your original objectives in carrying out the study. You can also raise and discuss any associated ethical issues.

Conclusions and recommendations
Gives an overall assessment of the extent to which the original objectives of the research project have been met - try and draw it all together.  Were you able to answer all of the questions raised initially, or just some of them?  Include any surprises or deviations from what was expected.  Don't draw  any conclusions that are not rigorously supported by the evidence - they must be valid and legitimate .You can make recommendations (if required) for further research and mention any new questions raised by the research.

You don't necessarily have to have an appendix, but you may need one (or more).  The rationale is that you should include in an appendix anything that would interrupt the flow of the argument in the main body.  Material that is too detailed for the substantive report should be included here so that it is available for close scrutiny.  If you have used questionnaires, the convention is to include a blank copy in the appendix. You may also want to include schedules, maps, diagrams, plans or visual material, plus any additional data or calculations not given in the body, but which may nevertheless be useful for a fuller understanding.

It is worth underlining here the difference between a reference list and a bibliography.  According to Cite them Right  (Pears and Shields, 2013)  "The reference list is a detailed list of references cited in your assignment. It includes the full bibliographical information on sources, so that the reader can identify and locate the work/item.  A bibliography also provides a detailed list of references but includes background readings or other material you may have consulted, but not cited, in your text. You should always check with your tutors whether they require you to include a reference list, a bibliography, or both."  (p.11)  This is equally true at postgraduate level.  Not all theses or reports have bibliographies, but you should certainly check with your supervisor.

Loading ...

Qualitative research

Advanced qualitative research methods (videos from the University of Derby)

  • What makes a good qualitative research question?
  • What makes a good research question?
  • What makes a good interview?
  • Selecting and protecting good research participants
  • What makes a good focus group?
  • What does good data look like?
  • What makes a good qualitative research project?


All images included in this guide are available through Creative Commons licensing CC-BY-2.0