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Research methods dissertation in social sciences

Researching and writing a dissertation will enable you to consolidate and apply the skills and knowledge gained in earlier postgraduate study. You’ll undertake independent research on a topic chosen in consultation with your tutor. Depending on your earlier subject choices, you may undertake an ethnography or discourse analysis, a survey, or an experiment. In some subjects, research may be literature based rather than empirical. You’ll complete staged assignments to help with planning and production, before writing up your research in a dissertation of up to 15,000 words. This course requires extensive preparatory work and early registration is strongly recommended.

What you will study

This course is a compulsory module in the postgraduate qualifications in research methods and up to and including May 2012 could also be taken as part of the MA in Social Policy and Criminology (F18) (a later start date would not enable you to complete D845 before this MA qualification is withdrawn in December 2013). It builds on the research training you will have gained in your earlier postgraduate studies. In it you undertake a substantial piece of independent research on a chosen topic, which will require you to collect and analyse data (understood in a wide sense, including text as data), using a primary methodology based on your earlier studies. 

The topic you select for your dissertation must draw on, and engage with, subject matter and academic debates from prescribed social science topic areas, appropriate to your particular disciplinary-based postgraduate programme. The course is designed to offer you contact with academics active in social science research and with activity and discussions at the forefront of research.

By the end of the course you should be able to:

  • define a clear purpose for the research; an interesting or novel set of questions to guide it; an appropriate set of methods; and justification for the choice of topic, questions and methods
  • undertake information searches in an academic context, using academic libraries, online resources, or archives
  • recognise the appropriate boundaries of the literature in a selected field and make judgements about what should be excluded, to produce a critical analysis of relevant literature
  • demonstrate awareness of the conflicting methodological and theoretical frameworks that can be brought to bear on the objects of analysis
  • collect and analyse data using the chosen method, and reflect on the process and the ethical issues involved
  • be confident about the process of drafting and redrafting large amounts of material and editing long documents
  • pace your workload and activities over a lengthy period, keep to a schedule and be flexible enough to make alterations in it when problems occur
  • construct and sustain an argument through a long document without resorting to long descriptions that are not embedded in the structure of the argument
  • write and understand the purpose of an introduction, a conclusion and an abstract for an academic document
  • write clearly and imaginatively, and with a sense of authority
  • use a referencing system (e.g. Harvard) with consistency and accuracy.

The content of the course is presented through the framework of the five main tasks involved, set within the overarching requirements of managing an independent project over a substantial period of time:

  • Task one: The development of appropriate and interesting research questions
  • Task two: Reading other literature
  • Task three: Data collection or selection
  • Task four: Analysis, interpretation and writing
  • Task five: Writing up the dissertation as the end product.

You will need access to the internet so that you can access the full range of course resources provided and take part in course activities, including contact with other students. Access to the internet is also essential for the initial work you are required to do in preparation for the course. You will also use your computer for access to literature – mainly through The Open University's online library services – and to take part in electronic communication that will give you experience of an active research environment.

Vocational relevance

Universities are keen to admit doctoral research students who have completed most of their research training, finding them better prepared to begin and better able to complete their theses in the required time. This course provides some of that training in research methods and skills for advanced students.

There is growing professional and commercial demand for highly qualified graduates who have a range of transferable skills. The course is particularly useful preparation for environments in which research is a significant part of the work, and for any profession that requires numerate and skilled researchers who have experience of a wide range of methods.


As D845 must be the last module you take when following the dissertation route in relevant qualifications, you will need to have already gained the appropriate 120 credits towards your qualification.

You will be asked to provide a synopsis of your research topic, so that we can allocate you to an appropriate supervisor. You will not be allowed to progress to the course start if your topic is considered unsuitable for a masters-level dissertation in research methods, or if we are unable to find an appropriate supervisor. Every endeavour will be made to find supervision for students' choice of topics, but we reserve the right to require a change of topic if appropriate supervision cannot be provided. If you have any doubt about the suitability of the course, please contact the  Learner Support Team, Postgraduate Studies in Social Sciences (telephone +44 (0)113 234 1225, or email).

There are specific requirements for each of the masters-level research methods programmes:

MSc in Management and Business Research Methods: Your choice of topics for the dissertation should be drawn from current research within the broad field of management and business studies. Your choice of methodology should be based on those you have studied in previous courses in this masters degree, and should be appropriate for the research question(s) you wish to address.

MSc in Psychological Research Methods: Your choice of topic must be selected from the broad area of either cognitive or social psychology, but could be in an applied area of either of those two branches. Your choice of methodology must be appropriate to your research question. The vocational relevance of this programme includes professional branches of psychology such as clinical, educational, health, occupational and research psychology, as well as careers in personnel management, market research and so on.

MSc in Social Research Methods: We anticipate that most projects within this programme are likely to be drawing on either a sociological or a social policy orientation. Further guidance about possible topics will be available to you via the dedicated D845 website, to which you will have access as soon as you register for the course. The vocational relevance of this programme includes various branches of social policy, welfare, health, occupational, market and social research.

MSc in Technology Strategy Research: Your choice of topic can be from a broad range of areas including environmental policy and management, technology policy, innovation, and organisations and institutions, including particular issues that arise from different development contexts (North/South). Your choice of methodology should be based on those you have encountered during the courses in this masters degree, and should be coherent with your research question.

Preparatory work

You will need to be prepared well before the course begins, consider what topic you want to study and make sure that you have adequate access to an academic library. Good early preparation would also include a visit to an academic library and exploration of academic articles in an area of social science that interests you. You may also want to review your studies on research methods courses, as well as the other courses you have undertaken for your postgraduate programme. Early registration is strongly advised due to the extensive preparatory work required prior to the start of the course. Once you have registered you will have access to the password protected D845 website, which will provide you with further essential guidance and materials in preparing your initial outline research proposal. You will receive feedback on this initial proposal, which is then likely to need further work. Your outline proposal has to be agreed by the D845 Team before you can formally start the course in May and will provide the basis for allocating your supervisor.

You may find parts of the following books useful for your studies as well as for preparation before the course begins:

P. Cryer (2000) The Research Student's Guide to Success, 2nd edition, Open University Press.

N.Walliman (2001) Your Research Project, Sage.


If you are planning on studying towards any of these qualifications, please carefully check the descriptions of the qualifications you are considering to ensure that you have sufficient time to complete your studies, as our psychology and social sciences qualifications are now only available for a limited time.

D845 is a compulsory module in our:

Some postgraduate qualifications allow study to be chosen from other subject areas. We advise you to refer to the relevant qualification descriptions for information on the circumstances in which this module can count towards these qualifications because from time to time the structure and requirements may change.

Excluded combinations

Sometimes you will not be able to count a module towards a qualification if you have already taken another module with similar content. To check any excluded combinations relating to this module, visit our excluded combination finder or check with our Student Registration & Enquiry Service before registering.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

Much of the tuition and communication will be electronic. The study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader. Alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

You will need to spend extensive amounts of time using a personal computer and the internet. 

Study materials

What's included

Printed materials, dedicated website, CD-ROMs.

You will need

You must have access to an academic library, such as your local university library or a very large public or private library. There are likely to be charges for borrowing rights, inter-library loans and photocopying. Access to The Open University's online library services may be sufficient. If you intend to use an archive for any research you need to make sure that you can have access to it.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Tuition will be set up for each student individually. You will be matched to a tutor who can supervise your research topic and methodology, rather than one who lives locally. Your supervisor will advise you and mark and comment on your written work, and you can ask for advice and guidance. Your contact will probably be by correspondence, telephone, email and online forums. Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

The course is assessed by the dissertation and by one of the two compulsory assignments. All of the assignments are an essential part of the teaching, so you are expected to complete them all. The dissertation is the key element in the overall assessment (95%) and must be submitted on paper only.

Future availability

The details given here are for the final course start in May 2013. 

Distance learning

The Open University is the world's leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you're at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you'll be supported throughout your studies - your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information about distance learning at the OU read Study explained.

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