Making your dissertation go further, do more

Studying for a master's here at UCL? The dissertation is a key element during a demanding and challenging year - why not make it go further and mean more? At the Community Research Initiative, we support you to consider doing your dissertation in collaboration with a small-to-medium sized non-profit organisation.

We think your dissertation can go further than just you and your grade at the end of the year. By collaborating, you are making knowledge more democratic by including the views and experiences of people not usually invited to influence research and you are increasing the chances of your findings changing something in the world, because you've developed it with people who know what is needed to make change happen.

Collaboration is different to asking a non-profit to help with recruitment of people to your study so that you can interview them or give them a survey to complete. If you ask a non-profit to recruit people for you, chances are they haven't had any say or influence over the interview questions or survey. Worse still, they probably had no influence or involvement with the overall aims or objectives in the first place. Your ideas and dissertation research question might be interesting but ask yourself - will the findings be useful for anyone? Will they change anything for the better for anyone?

This is really important to think about because it's linked to the concept of impact. Research should have impact and we have obsessed over journal impact factors and citations for years. But within universities, we think of impact in a very narrow way and often the impact remains within academia, certainly in the immediate and short-term. Did you know that it can take years and years for health service research findings to actually change clinical practice? Surely we want the findings from research into the best dementia care, for example, to very quickly lead to improved dementia care?

It is so important to ask the right questions with our research. And by right questions, we mean the questions that, when answered, lead to useable and useful new knowledge for those who are directly impacted, involved, or in some way, affected by the 'problem' for which we are trying to find the solution. If we make sure our aims for research include producing findings that are useful and useable in the real world, we stand a much better chance of having the right kind of impact!

How do we know what the right questions are? By taking what's called a participatory approach and collaborating with people at a non-profit organisation: they are experts in their own right, with different knowledge and experience compared to the higher education sector. The aim of the non-profit sector is collective action for social change - they will have lots of ideas for what the important research questions are to ask. All we need to do is listen and engage.

What will collaboration do for me?

Well, it is our aim to help you do more with your dissertation and with your time here at UCL. We have developed a service to enhance the student experience through lots of exciting opportunities to develop new skills, make new friends, work in a participatory way, and build new networks or identify new career options.

Students come to us for lots of different reasons and there is no judgement from us on your motivations! It can be for naked career ambition, altruism, or simply wanting someone else to help with the research question. Students have told us it feels like they are getting better value-for-money, that it helps because they don't know anyone in London or the UK, or that they hope it will improve their job prospects. Everyone is welcome at the Community Research Initiative as long as benefit to a non-profit organisation can be part of the picture.

I felt a newfound excitement toward my dissertation because the charity are focused on the type of policy-oriented work I’d be hoping to go into after graduating.

MSc Environment, Politics & Society student, 20-21

Recently we wanted to check if we are achieving this central aim of ours, to improve student experience around the dissertation. We were delighted to work with Niamh Healy, a UCL PhD student, as our research assistant. Niamh read all the written student feedback we had received between 2018-19 and 2020-21, looking for patterns or meaning across it all.

Students do benefit from collaborative working

What Niamh's analysis of our student feedback uncovered was consistent themes around career benefits, support for students, and learning opportunities.

Career benefits

A recurring theme running through the feedback was career prospects. Working with the Community Research Initiative to help meet and possibly collaborate with a non-profit organisation means students don't just have the appearance of being employable - they have the skills and experiences to back this up. Career benefits included network building, increased subject knowledge, and exposure to the organisation's professional activities. Students draw upon their collaborative dissertation experience during job interviews after their master's is finished and benefit from hearing first-hand when suitable jobs were coming up in the organisation or wider sector.

Working with my community partner really put me in a working frame of mind

MSc Anthropology, Environment & Development student, 20-21

Support with your dissertation

We try to support you in a personalised and flexible way and it seems like students really like this. From the feedback we received, it was clear that students appreciate direct support from the Community Research Initiative manager as well as through a wider "community research community" made up of like-minded students, other staff in the Volunteering Service, and non-profit partners.

We know this year is super intense, can be daunting, and is certainly overwhelming at times. Therefore we take a really personal, caring, encouraging approach:

The best thing about joining the Community Research Initiative was the team - they are truly interested in helping you. They are not going to tell you 'this is what we have, that's all you can choose from'.

MSc Medical Anthropology student 20-21

Our practical support will help you too, according to previous students! The kind of practical support we offer includes recommendations for non-profit organisations, a brokerage service where we get in touch on your behalf, and providing a template of a research partnership agreement because we think it is important to protect and support your ambitions to work in a different way.

We can also take the role of a 'critical friend' and help you narrow down your interests, form research questions, and advise on research ethics processes. This often feels like a 'kick start' to your dissertation that you won't get from your supervisor or personal tutor necessarily!

Finally, students benefit from our help with the admin of a new collaboration! This includes setting up meetings, bringing your supervisor into the process, offering advice and tips for how to take part in the initial meetings with a non-profit. Sometimes, we can even chair meetings which might have any particularly tricky situations.

Learning in new ways, in new places

It's far more exciting when your learning happens in different settings and takes different forms, right? Students certainly benefit from the Community Research Initiative in different settings: student group work; networking events; bespoke 1:1s ; multi-disciplinary team meetings including a non-profit sector partner. International students in particular can benefit from the networking opportunities we provide, such as making friends or learning and understanding a sector or industry that is totally different to back home.

There is a huge learning benefit to doing your dissertation 'in the real world'. For example, learning how to manage expectations, including your own; how to negotiate; how to align different agendas and needs between the academic and the real worlds; how to work flexibly and reactively. These are skills that are not easily learned during a traditional dissertation because the opportunities and challenges are different.

But, while it was hard to manage everyone's expectations, it was still a really exciting process, because in every conversation we were coming up with new ideas and all of the research questions that we considered were really interesting and it would have been very exciting to spend time answering any one of them!

MSc International Public Policy student, 20-21

The development of research ideas is an area of particular student benefit. Dissertation ideas, co-designed with a non-profit partner organisation, are interesting, exciting, and meaningful. Students benefit from a different perspective on a topic they are intellectually interested in and are able to narrow down their ideas through talking with people not commonly included in the research process.

Step by step it became more clear what was an interesting, relevant and realistic research topic. I’m very glad I gave myself the time to slowly figure that out.

Affiliate student, Bartlett School of Planning, 21-22

With a non-profit partner, students observe that it's a different relationship than with an academic supervisor and you can benefit from this more informal relationship; it's a working relationship where you can relax and be honest and gain confidence in speaking and working with different people than those typically within the university setting. We are completely independent from any master's programme and so students also benefit from an unrestricted space to try out ideas, be honest about ambition, speak up about worries or fears.

How can I get involved?

It's not too late to join the Community Research Initiative 22-23 to begin your journey towards setting up a collaborative dissertation! You can book a 1:1 appointment with Anne, sign up so you don't miss anything, or even take part in some skills workshops.

The full report, including methods, will be available soon.