A PR student’s guide to dissertations

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Ellys Bagnall on graduation day
Ellys Bagnall on graduation day

It’s a big piece of work (typically 10,000-12,000 words). It involves lots of reading and referencing. You’ll have to grapple with research methodology and ethics approval processes.

Your PR dissertation could be a chore. But it will also be your biggest individual achievement at university and it can open doors for you.

I spoke to Ellys Bagnall, who graduated with a First Class honours in Public Relations with Journalism at Leeds Beckett University in 2017. Her dissertation looked at the relationship between beauty brands and YouTube influencers.

‘My research showed that whilst respondents did trust influencers when they made their own content, they were far more sceptical of influencers’ sponsored content.’

Here’s our combined advice on acing your dissertation.

  1. Pick a topic that interests you. You’ll be spending months on your dissertation, and you want to be proud of it for years to come, so make sure you’re interested in your topic.
  1. Make it academic. Beauty brands and YouTube influencers ticks the first box, but where is the academic literature? Who has already written about this topic? For her study, Ellys needed to explore some broader themes: she needed to look at trust, influence, and trends in advertising and digital media. In doing so, she cited dozens of sources: books, book chapters, journal articles, blog posts and news articles – using academic referencing conventions. Help is available, but there’s no way of shortcutting this step – and sticking within the rules. Your dissertation will be inspected by anti-plagiarism software, so be careful to cite your sources and don’t copy large sections without attribution.
  1. Be a critical thinker. You should not only seek to understand what has been written on your topic, but what the authors’ perspectives are. You will also need to explore any gaps: why haven’t other authors answered your specific question? Your literature review should go beyond merely describing what others have written on the topic, to writing analytically or even critically.
  1. Make it researchable. You may be half way to your word count having written your literature review, but the next task is even more challenging. You’ll need to find something out for yourself through primary research. Before you do that, you’ll have to explain and justify your approach: that’s your research methodology. Why did you rely on interviews, say? How did you choose who to interview?

‘I tried to keep my research design quite simple. It helps when asking people to fill out questionnaires if you can explain the purpose of your research in simple language. If you know what you’re asking, you’re also more likely to get clear answers.’

  1. Make sure it’s ethical. Drugs trials are designed to cure disease and save lives – but they can sometimes have the opposite effect. These risks and unintended consequences explain why all academic research has to be approved by university ethics committees. PR students struggle to see how their research could possibly cause harm. So consider this: wasting people’s time causes harm. It distracts them from their jobs, and could even damage the reputation of the university and limit future opportunities for research and collaboration. So you will need a clear statement on how you ensured that your research could cause no harm.

‘My research into YouTubers was in the public domain and my questionnaire was circulated on Facebook: so no one was forced to complete it.’

  1. Make it presentable. There may only be a small mark for writing and referencing, but sloppy work raises other questions about your credibility and so undermines confidence in the whole piece of work. Besides, you’re a public relations student and you may want to show this to colleagues or employers in future. You’d expect to turn up suitably smart for an interview – and your work should also make a good impression.
  1. Don’t be daunted. ‘At the outset, this sounds like a lot of words to write. But you don’t write it chronologically from introduction to conclusion. Instead, you work on different sections simultaneously. By the end, the challenge is to make it all fit within the word count.’
  1. Work with your supervisor. Your supervisor wants you to do well. In all likelihood, they will also be assessing your work – so take every opportunity to meet them and listen to their advice and feedback.
  1. A proposal is a starting point, not an end point. You’ve submitted your proposal. Phew! Christmas is coming, so you’re allowed a break; it’s a long way to hand-in. The truth is, an academic year is more like six months, and you can’t leave your dissertation until the last few weeks and still expect a good grade. Check your project plan: you said you’d be making progress on your dissertation each month from November. You need to make time for this project.