Sloshing about in dilemma puddles: getting in touch with your research topic

My dissertation students appear denuded of their initial enthusiasm, motivation and energy for their literature review topic. Could it be that they’re sloshing around in Piatanida and Garman’s  ‘dilemma puddles;’ having come face to face with with the very iterative nature of research. Whatever our source of research ideas we generally ‘just want to get on with it.’ But our sloshing has a purpose. Our research ideas often stem from profound indignations with events, injustices and wanting to bring about change. On the other hand it may just be a nagging feeling, a sense of knowing but not quite being able to articulate what it is that’s niggling away inside our heads. Either way, Aveyard believes that out of our sloshing comes explicit, clear, simple, realistic, unambiguous, focussed but not too narrow, answerable research topics/questions.

Tools to use whilst sloshing include writing a research question which includes the following:

Population –

Intervention/Issue –

Comparison/Context –

Outcome –

Time –


A similar approach is:

Sample –

Phenomena of Interest –

Design –

Evaluation –

Research –

My little phobia prevents me from spelling this one out in full! Use it if it helps, but I won’t be.

Both of these are very popular in medical and humanities research, and going through them certainly helps to focus and consider the specific nature of your topic. I can see the usefulness of using such an approach, especially for research projects and research based dissertations. How useful are they though for ‘library-based’ or literature review dissertations? If you have any experience or advice with these I’d love to know.

I also rather like Clough and Nutbrown’s  ‘Russian doll’ and ‘Goldilock’s tests.

russian dollsThe Russian (Matryoshka) doll principle is breaking the research topic, problem or question down. Stripping back the layers of obscurity. Sharpening the focus until you get to the little doll in the centre, the essence of your topic.

You might also find these resources helpful:

  1. Plymouth University
  2. International Burch University
  3. Leeds University

Once you have the tiny Matryoshka doll it’s time to consider your context. This is where the ‘Goldilock test’ comes in.

Ask the following questions of your topic:

  1. Is it too hot (too hot  for you or your organisation at this moment in time)?
  2. Is it too cold (is it going to retain your enthusiasm and interest over time)?
  3. Is it too big (does it require funding and more time and resources than you have available)?
  4. Is it too small (is there enough substance to the question)?
  5. Is it just right (is it a substantive topic which will lead to further enquiry and questions)?

These are incredibly helpful as you don’t want to be pursuing a vendetta, have too grandiose ideas, be cheerleading a particular issue or have something which will run dry and leave you bored.

I’m meeting with students to discuss and agree aims/questions and objectives. Although as a teacher I’m marinated in objectives, students aren’t. I still find it difficult and not the most exciting part of research to try to narrow down my thoughts. It feels compromising, unexciting and my passion becomes diluted. I don’t want students to lose sight of their original thoughts, ideas, motivations and passions. I want to listen as they describe ‘the thing’ they’re passionate about. I want to hear their values, beliefs, ideas and future plans. So I’ve asked them to write down and record their reasons for choosing the topic. What it is they want to achieve. What it means to them.

I see from their stories that it comes from their past and connects with their future. Past experience drives them to want to ‘make things better’ for others; to question why it has to be this way. They write of experiences with mental health, dementia, poverty, young people who seem without ambition and hope. They ask questions about why having closed the ‘workhouses’ we institutionalise our elderly population. Why they sit in formation around rooms waiting, just waiting. Their choice of topic is not accidental, it comes from who they are. I want to hear their voice right from the beginning of the dissertation.

The author’s voice, your voice is unique. It comes from your history.

So, write something. Tell us what has brought you here.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget to mention. I hope they are re-energised and enthused again now having agreed to ‘sign off’ their proposal forms!


The qualitative dissertation by M. Piantanida and N. Garman

The literature review. A step-by-step guide for students by D. Ridley

The literature review in health and social care by H. Aveyard

Doing a literature review by C. Hart

A student’s guide to methodology by P. Clough and C. Nutbrown








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