A PR student’s guide to dissertations

About the author

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

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.

It may sound very academic, but a dissertation can also be practical in that you can develop knowledge and insights that can help you advance quickly in the workplace.

Here’s how to approach your student dissertation.

First, you need a topic. What are you interested in? Which sector/s would you like to work in? What aspect of PR and communication is changing?

At this stage, your topic should be big and broad. So your answer might be ‘digital PR’ or ‘influencer marketing’ say.

Next, you need to discover if there’s an existing body of literature covering your topic. Practitioner sources will be relevant – especially in practice-based disciplines such as influencer marketing – but unless you can also find some academic sources you will struggle to produce a strong academic disseration.

By the end of your dissertation literature review, you should be citing dozens of sources and many different models, theories and perspectives on your chosen topic. This can sound daunting, so here’s a shortcut to building up your reading list. Look for a recent chapter, article or textbook covering your topic, and check to see which sources that author has cited. You will also learn lessons in how to cite and reference academic sources, so allow these authors to guide you.

So far, you’ve gone big with your topic. The next step is to aim small in terms of your research question. In other words: what are you uniquely going to find out about this topic? What contribution can and will you make to the existing body of knowledge?

This will sound very challenging, but when you think about it, the definition of primary research is that you will be gaining unique insights into the topic (the definition of seconday research is that it’s already been published, so no surprises there).

The best advice at this point is to be very specific. If you ask a very broad question (‘what is public relations?’) you’ll end up with a very general discussion and will struggle to produce genuine insights. So ask a more specific question: Why has public relations struggled to achieve the status of a full profession? Is it time to rename public relations?

Once you have a specific question, you need to explore how you will find answers to your question. This is your research methodology. What combination of research techniques will you deploy (eg interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, participant observation)? How will you ensure that your research causes no harm to anyone (ethics)? There are some useful textbooks covering academic and business research projects that will prove invaluable at this stage.

Once you’ve gathered your research data, you’ll need to discuss and analyse your findings. At this point, it’s useful to reflect on your findings and compare them to the themes in the literature. Are your findings consistent with the literature (good, but unexciting)? Are your findings inconsitent with the literature (in which case, is there are problem with your research or have you identified a gap in the literature?).

Few undergraduates can be expected to propose new theories. Instead, it’s more likely that you’ll find that your 10,000-12,000 word dissertation struggles to reach any clear conclusions and recommendations. A word count that sounds so large at the outset can seem too constraining towards the end. So a neat way to conclude your dissertation is to point out the need for further research into this area. You could even revisit your research question and propose a new one for future research.

Here’s a previous case study of how one final year undergraduate approached her dissertation.

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.

This article was first published in November 2017. It was updated with a new introduction in April 2022.