James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

How to.. Choose A Dissertation Topic (and aim to get published)

Choosing the right undergraduate dissertation topic can feel like a life or death decision. It needs to be good, because there’s a high probability it will engulf the next few months of your degree. Here’s some useful tips to give you a fighting chance.

Choosing a dissertation topic:

An excellent rule of thumb is quite simply what you find most interesting.

If you have the opportunity to read through a list of dissertation topics, then start by shortlisting a selection that stand out. Try and narrow it down to three or four, then read around those topic to develop your knowledge.

If you have to come up with an idea yourself, then a good way to generate ideas is to read recent publications from researchers in your department. This will not only show which areas are most topical, but potential supervisors will likely be more receptive to ideas that fit within their current research themes.

The right supervisor is as important as the right project:

http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/IMG_6599small-w960-h600.jpgPay as much attention to the supervisor as to the topic. Some recycle topics year on year, and so in reality the project might not be that interesting or engaging. Thankfully, the majority are keen to give undergraduates a real taste of scientific investigation.

You should be familiar with many of the staff in your department by the time you prepare for a dissertation. Which do you find most engaging?  Are they likely to have time to guide you, or are they always away (this can be both good or bad) at conferences or fieldwork? Arrange a meeting to talk about the project, but go prepared with questions from your background reading – don’t waste their time. If you leave enthused, then that’s a great sign the project is for you.

Planning a project:

There’s whole books written on this topic, and you will undoubtedly get guidance from your university. So instead, here are a few mistakes that lots and lots of people have made, myself included (over and over again, myself included).

  • Getting carried away with reading, reading, reading, and never actually starting.
  • Collecting data and assuming that you’ll work out what to do with it later.
  • Being afraid of proper maths/stats.
  • Finishing your project and wishing you collected more data.
  • Not making a note of your references (then spending hours looking for them).

The balance between ambition and originality:

The easiest way to get a good grade, is to be original. At the same time, it’s difficult to come up with original research within the scope of an undergraduate dissertation. Here’s some ideas how you might be able to do that.

  • Read review articles. what are their conclusions? Where do they feel future research should be?
  • Can you take some old research and revisit it with new technology or software (this worked for me).
  • Can you translate your supervisors interest to a different species or habitat
  • Can you mine data published as a by product of other research, looking for trends or patterns.
  • Talk to your supervisor!


How to get published as an undergraduate:

After putting in all that hard work to produce a dissertation, why not have a shot at publishing it. If you’ve managed to tick the originality box and produce a good amount of data then you’re in with a good chance. You definitely don’t have to have discovered a new cure or species. Published research is mostly made up of the small steps of progress.

On the downside, submitting to journals often means you will need to rewrite to different criteria. For example, journals often have tighter word limits, request figures to different specifications or ask that it be formatted in a different manner. Journals can also take a very long time.

…Then there’s the small matter of reviewers, who often come back with yet more changes. But when you get there, it’s worth it.

Interested in more articles like this? >> Browse Resources

Make the most of your vacations:

The other great way to get a head start in research is to apply for an internship or lab experience. This can be looked upon very highly when applying for Masters or PhD, and can of course provide an opportunity to get your name on a publication.

The Society of Biology and New Scientist both have good lists of opportunities. Or you could try and get involved through one of these


Read more about the Oman Expedition

A Little Inspiration:

Without a doubt the best example (that I’ve heard about so far..) of undergraduate research making a real contribution to conservation science was when three guys set off from Evergreen State College, Washington, to survey a remote island off Panama. The guys were looking for the Pygmy three-toed sloth, a species only identified a few years previously. They got a cracking paper published from the work and raised the profile of this severely threatened species. Just goes to show quite what you can manage if you put your mind to it.


Read more about the Pygmy sloth project here.

Some Useful Links:

Bioscience Horizons: a free online journal publishing the best undergraduate bioscience research from the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Journal of Maps: Another useful undergraduate and early career journal for those interested in geography and distributions.

Operation Wallacea: Undergraduate Research Assistants (example)

Undergraduate Dissertation Writing Tips: Useful tips from Oxbridge Essays

Conservation bytes: Useful common sense for biologists

Conservation Careers: Advice, jobs and profiles