Writing up a PhD thesis

At some point in the journey to the PhD, it is time to stop experimentation, stop data collection, stop fieldwork, and consider how to convert this huge pile of data into a PhD. It’s not easy. No one said it would be easy. But it is achievable. Here are some coping strategies that I used when I was writing up – and still use today – that might be useful to anyone contemplating a large writing project, be that undergraduate or masters’ dissertation or a PhD. Continue reading

Giving a good presentation

Presentations are the mainstay of academic life, as well as the corporate and business world. Undergraduate students will probably need to give solo or group presentations as part of their coursework. Postgradute students will certainly have to do so. But giving a good presentation is an art, and it takes a lot of practice. I thought in this blog post, I would share some of my tips and practical suggestions for giving a good presentation. Continue reading

Writing an abstract

Writing an abstract is an important skill, and you will need to do it time and time again, for theses, conferences, posters, grant applications as well as papers. Undergraduate and Masters students may be set a task to write an abstract as part of their degree, and will need to write one for their dissertation. People will normally read an abstract before putting in the effort to read a paper, so you need to make sure that your abstract entices people in. An abstract should succinctly summarise your work, but they can be tricky to write. So, how do you write a good abstract?

In general, your abstract should cover why you did the work, what problem you were trying to solve, how you did the work (what methods you used), your key results, over-arching conclusions and the important, take-home message. You are aiming to impress upon your readers your overall findings, and to make them want to delve deeper and read your paper / project / report / thesis. Ideally you want a cite-able, quotable nugget of information that will draw people in.

Your abstract should be the last thing you write. You will need to know your final conclusions and precise implications of your work, so leave it until the end and then work on really selling it to your readers.


Set the scene. Write, in one sentence, why the work is important and summarise the rationale. You need to show why the work is necessary and interesting.


Set out the clear aim of your project. What were you trying to do? This aim should be a single, succinct sentence. You may also outline the objectives of your work here as well.


Add a single sentence outlining the key methods used. This is not the place to give detail, but people need to know the important techniques applied in your research.


Now is the place to add in the key results you found in your research. They should be succinct, accurate, clear and precise. Try to give quantifiable numbers and values, and clear data. Many people may only scan the abstract before deciding whether to read the paper, or even more importantly, to cite the results, so here is the place to give them the goodies. Avoid arm-waving, vague statements, and you don’t have space for the caveats, but you should be able to substantiate your statements.


This is the place to make a statement about the take-home message of your project. What are the broader conclusions? How does this sit within your broader research framework? What are the implications of your research and findings?

General considerations

Abstracts generally come with a clear word limit (usually 200 to 350 words). Make sure you stick to this, and revise your abstract early and often. It should be the best bit of your paper – you want to draw people in.

You could consider what you think people might be searching for within databases or the Internet, and including those search terms in your abstract. That might help your abstract be more easily found.

Use simple sentences and avoid abbreviations and acronyms, which are a barrier to understanding. Write words out in full.

You may want to assign ‘Highlights’ or ‘Keywords’, which are sometimes requested by a journal. ‘Keywords’ can be used to assign editors. ‘Highlights’ are a very abbreviated abstract, usually three to four bullet points. You could follow the pointers above for your ‘Highlights’, which should arouse people’s interest and make them want to read your paper.

Got a hot tip on how to write a killer abstract? Add a comment in the box below.

Wider reading

How to enjoy a successful fieldwork expedition

How to enjoy fieldwork in extreme environments

How to enjoy fieldwork in extreme environments

Many geoscientists undertake fieldwork as part of their research. Undergraduate, Masters and PhD students may all participate in fieldwork expeditions in far-flung, exotic locations. What things to researchers need to consider before they undertake their first expedition? I have put together this step by step guide, based on my 10 years of research in remote polar regions, to provide some tips and suggestions for a successful fieldwork expedition.

Continue reading

Writing your dissertation

Writing your dissertation in Geography or Geology

A significant part of most undergraduate and taught masters degrees is the independent research study. In glaciology, this study may often take the form of fieldwork, perhaps underpinned by remote sensing.

There are so many things to research that your dissertation, probably the most significant piece of work you’ve ever undertaken, may seem quite daunting. However, the good news is that most dissertations are formulaic. If you ground your dissertation well in the literature, understand the key unknowns, and have a specific research question and hypothesis to test, you’re off to a great start.

Planning your time

Planning your time is a key component to writing your dissertation. You should aim to have a full first draft well before the deadline – at least a couple of weeks. So work out when you’ll do your fieldwork or data collection, and then work out a schedule for completing the dat analysis, interpretation and writing. Give yourself strict deadlines and stick to them – otherwise, you’ll be back against the wall, handing in a first, unedited draft of your dissertation. And that’s a great way to lose marks.

Designing your research project

Planning your project well is hugely important, and can make a massive difference to your final mark. A succinct, well thought-through dissertation is a joy to mark. A rambling, wide-ranging, ill-planned dissertation makes a marker’s heart sink.

In the first instance, think about what you’re interested in. Which modules sparked enthusiasm? What did you do well in? Think also about your skills. Are you a field-based scientist, or do you prefer to work on a computer? Do you want to travel somewhere abroad or within your own country to do your dissertation, or do you need to do it somewhere easy? All these things should help you narrow down what you want to do.

Make a list on a sheet of paper, writing down in one column your interests, in another your skills and techniques you understand, and in another regions of interest to you – places you either want to visit for fieldwork or want to study remotely using satellite images or aerial photographs.

Once you have identified the kind of thing that you’re interested in, do your reading. Read up on all the published literature in your area of interest, both geographically and scientifically. Work out what the key research questions are. Where can you make an original contribution?

Once you have understood the published literature, it is time to start designing your research project. Read the Research Design page. You must identify a key research question and have clear, achievable aims and objectives. Work out the logistics and methods. What data sets will you need access to? Where will you undertake fieldwork? Do you have the correct programmes installed on your computer?

The best dissertations often use a combination of techniques, such as fieldwork and remote sensing, remote sensing and numerical modelling, or sedimentology and lab-work, processing samples for sedimentary petrology. That way, it is easier to apply what could otherwise be a parochial and small scale study more widely.

Secondly, the best dissertations are succinct, attempting to answer one small question well rather than trying to solve a huge conundrum that would actually take many years of research to do. You have less time than you think – research always takes longer than it should. Try and narrow down your ideas until you have a neat, achievable research question that you can answer in the limited time available.

Discuss your ideas with your dissertation advisor. They’ll be able to give you guidance and make suggestions. To get the best out of your limited time with them, prepare carefully for your supervision, making sure that you go in with ideas that you are ready to discuss. Do not expect them to give you a project to do – it is up to you to come up with something that is interesting.

Undertaking the research

Once you have worked out your research question, aims, objectives and methods, it’s time to get cracking. Do not put it off and delay – you won’t be able to do it all in the week before it’s due.

Make sure that you’re using the correct techniques. Read up in the literature, and check with your dissertation advisor that you’re on the right track. It will be difficult to correct later, so taking time now to make sure that you plan it well is vital.

Writing your dissertation

OK, you’ve got bag loads of data, collected lots of samples and processed them in the lab. Now you have to write it up. But where to start? It seems so huge! The good news is that dissertations are fairly formulaic. You can start by planning it out, adding in as much detail to the plan as you can. Then all you need to do is add flesh to your structure.

The key in writing a good dissertation is to make sure that it is well structured (doesn’t repeat itself), it is well grounded in the literature and is well designed (check! we did that when we planned it), and ends with sound conclusions, supported by the data. Take a look at this writing style guide for some hints and tips.

You may need to start off with acknowledgements and an Abstract. Your acknowledgements shouldn’t thank your parents, dog, best friend forever or budgie, but should instead acknowledge people who have helped you, or given you data. You may need to thank landowners for permission to enter their property, lab technicians for assistance with lab work, colleagues who assisted with fieldwork, or anyone who contributed any data that you have used. Failing to write proper acknowledgements could be construed as plagiarism, so be careful.

You can find some guidelines on how to write an effective abstract here.

1. Introduction

In the introduction, you should set out your rationale first. Why is this work important? Read the rationales in a number of papers (usually the first paragraph) and write something similar about your own work.

Put in a brief summary of the key state of the art of the literature to date, and point out what is currently still unknown – these key unknowns form the basis for your research questions.

Next lay out your research agenda. Specify your aims and objectives, and outline your hypothesis or research question.

Introduce your study area. Include a map and state why this study area is relevant. Why are you answering your research question here, at this site?

2. Literature Review

In this section, demonstrate that you have understood the key literature. Set out the current key findings, and outline what we already know. But point out key unknowns and any discrepancies.

3. Methods

In this section, you need to convince the examiner that the methods you have used are robust and appropriate. Provide enough detail and information that they can be sure that you have avoided bias and error as far as possible. Refer to the literature and demonstrate that your methods are reliable.

4. Results

In this section, give your results clearly and concisely. Do not attempt to interpret them – that should come later. You should tabulate your results clearly and provide maps and photographs where appropriate.

Thoroughly investigate your data. Perhaps you can do statistical analysis to see whether your variables are related, or analyse the data in a GIS? Spend lots of time working through your data, identifying patterns, trends and correlations.

5. Interpretation

OK, now you can interpret your results. Follow standard guidelines for interpreting your data.

6. Discussion

The Discussion is probably the hardest part, and the most important. Here, you need to place your data within the wider context. Luckily, you have already identified key unknowns in the literature, and worked out research questions based on gaps in our scientific knowledge. Does your data help you answer those questions? What are the broader implications of your data?

Spend some time on this section. It is difficult to get right, but the best dissertations will write a profound Discussion that clearly shows that they have understood the relevance of their work.

7. Conclusions

Brilliant, you are nearly there! Your conclusions should summarise your work to date. You should not add in any new ideas at this stage. State your research question, and show if you have answered it. It is not a failure if not – perhaps your research has actually thrown up some new, really interesting questions. If you had a hypothesis, did you test it? What was the result?

Your conclusions should be concise but should summaries your aims, methods, study site, your results and their interpretation and implications.

8. References

Now you need to add your bibliography. If you have used software such as Endnote, check it carefully to make sure there are no errors. Ensure that all references cited in text are in the bibliography, and vice versa. Poor referencing is a shoddy way to loose marks.


Pepper your dissertation liberally with figures. Figures should be self-explanatory, they should stand alone (you shouldn’t need to look at another figure to understand it), and they should always have a clear, concise caption.

Photographs during fieldwork are essential, and provide illustrations for the landforms you are mapping.

Maps should always have a key, north arrow, a scale and should be clear to read. They should usually have an ‘extent’ inset, showing your study area within the wider context of its location (e.g., if your project is in the Lake District, you may have several maps of different levels and detail, each one with an inset showing where it is within the wider context of the Lake District and the UK). If in doubt, keep it simple.

If your study is a sedimentological analysis, you will need to have detailed section logs following standardised keys. Read the literature and make sure you conform to the guidelines.

Draw your figures up in good illustration packages. Free packages on the internet include The Gimp, but you may have access to Illustrator or CorelDraw through your institution. There are plenty of tutorials on the internet that help you learn these packages. Take the time to learn these packages and draw your figures up professionally. Do not draw in pencil and glue in, or photocopy them in!

The first draft

Brilliant, you’ve got a whole first draft! That’s great, well done! Put it aside and don’t look at it for a few days, preferably at least a week. You need to take a break from it.

A few days later, print it off, pick up a red pen, and go through it ruthlessly. Check each reference. Check your structure. Have you repeated yourself? Could that paragraph be written more succinctly? Check your spelling and grammar, and look carefully for typos. Most first drafts are too long. Not a problem – this is where you weed out the waffle and edit it downwards.

The final draft

You may go through several cycles of reading, editing and revision of your dissertation. It is well worth taking the time to go through it several times. By the end, you will have a polished, well-written study that hopefully is worthy of a high mark. Submit it and go to the pub for a well-deserved pint. Well done!

Further reading

Writing your first academic paper

Writing academic papers is important


If you are a PhD student in the Geosciences and are wanting to go forward into an academic or research career, then it is imperative that you write papers. The process can seem daunting, but it is excellent training, and seeing your name in print is intensely rewarding. So, here are some thoughts for people starting to write their first academic paper.

Your supervisors would normally be co-authors on anything you write, and they are an excellent source of guidance and knowledge, just waiting to be tapped. Do not be afraid to ask them. It is their job to help you!

Choose the right journal

Your journal should be peer-reviewed and ISI-linked (so that citations of your work will be counted on databases). You should aim for the highest impact factor possible, but bear in mind that if your paper is a regional study that is only relevant to Britain, getting it published in a major international journal could be difficult. Ultimately, the citations that your paper receives is a way of deeming its success, so choose a journal that is read by the right people, who will want to cite your work.

It is very important that you choose a journal that will be interested in publishing your work. One first step could be to look at who you have referenced, and see where they are publishing. Also take a look at the journal’s homepage, and see if your work falls within their scope. Do they publish reviews, or only original work?

Other considerations could be, does the journal provide free colour images online? Will you have to pay page charges? Is the journal open access? Can you upload supplementary information or supplementary datasets? How long are the articles typically published by this journal?

Tell a story

Each paper should have one key message. You should be able to summarise it in a couple of sentences. Your goal, as author of the paper, is to get that key message across as well as possible. If your message is rather complicated, or you have a very large dataset, consider writing two shorter papers instead of one long one.

Early on, work out what your message is, and stick to it. Set out your paper so that this key message is introduced, examined, tested and summarised.

Try the And, But, Therefore technique – the main points are linked with an ‘and’, conflict or why-this-matters points are introduced with a ‘but’, and things are tied together with a ‘therefore’ (see Hotaling, 2020).

Writing a paper takes a long time

You should understand that getting a paper out takes a long time. You will need to start writing papers in your second year or start of your third year if you want them to be published by the time you finish your PhD. It can take a year to go through the review and published process, and that’s before you’ve written your paper.

Writing your first paper is likely to be a learning process, and you will go through many drafts with your supervisors. You should not be disheartened if your first draft comes back covered in red ink!

I personally find it very helpful to finish a draft, and then lay it aside for a little while. Coming at it with fresh eyes helps me see the problems and understand the solutions much better.

Writing gets better with practice. The more you write, the more it will flow. Try to write every day, and try to set aside designated periods of time to write.

Write first, edit later

The hardest part about writing is the blank screen. Get around this by not worrying about making your writing perfect first time. Just write anything, and edit later. If you’re stuck, try thinking about planning out headings or paragraphs. Just putting something down will build those creative juices and help the writing process.

Later, set aside time to edit. Expect to go through many versions of any paper. Ask for, and listen to, any constructive feedback.

Writing a paper is formulaic

Most papers will follow a rather set pattern or structure:

  1. Introduction and rationale. Here, you should set out your reasons for doing the research and identifiy the key unknowns. You should have identified these already before starting your research project (see Research Design).
  2. Aims and Objectives. Here you should set out your aim, hypotheses to be tested (if relevant; see this blog post), and specific research objectives.
  3. Study Area and Previous Work. It may be relevant here to give an overview of your area, the region’s geology, previous work on the area. You can also use this section to further emphasise your research questions.
  4. Methodology. Here you should have a brief overview of your methodology. Unless your paper is about pioneering a new technique, you should keep this section brief and reference the relevant papers, but it should contain enough information to make the work reproduceable.
  5. Results. In this section, present the results of your work. Some large datasets may be published as supplementary data. You should include some clear figures and diagrams at this stage.
  6. Discussion. In this section, you should place your results in the broader context. This section is often the hardest to write! What are the implications of your work, and how is it relevant to other scientists? What does it mean? Have you identified any more research questions? How has it moved the science on?
  7. Conclusions. In this section, you should summarise what you have found out. You may want to use bullet points. You could consider starting with your aim and summarising a brief rationale in one or two sentences. Then state what you did, then your results, and then your main conclusion: what did you find out? What have you changed? Did you accept or refute your hypotheses.
  8. Acknowledgements. Acknowledge any funding, financial support, fieldwork or lab assistance, people who gave you data or read the manuscript. Do not acknowledge your parents, dog, or informal support from colleagues.
  9. References. List your references in alphabetical and then chronological order. Check the referencing style with the journal.

Some journals will rearrange the order (e.g. short format papers may put the Methods at the end, as an appendix), but most papers will follow this kind of order.


Your figures should, if possible, be presented in black and white. This makes it easier for people to print out, saves on page charges, and means that your paper will be consistent between the online PDF version and printed version. However, they should be clear, concise, unique and well drawn.

Each figure should stand on its own, and should not necessarily need a long caption explaining it.

Writing style

Writing style is something that takes time to develop, and we could discuss at length. Your supervisor is the best person to learn writing style. Needless to say, your spelling and grammar need to be impeccable. Other variables are open to discussion. However, there are some pointers.

Write clear, direct, short sentences. Try to make the writing as concise and as clear as possible, to encourage people to read and understand your paper. This helps to transfer your message as efficiently as possible, and ensures that people will read your paper and, most importantly, cite it.

Remove unnecessary words. Avoid lead ins and padding. If you can cut out a word, cut it out.

Use simple language. This will help your message get across. Complicated words and clever phrases take up space, slow down how quickly people can read your paper, and can make it harder for your message to be understood. Write as clearly and as simply as you can; try to reduce your manuscript’s syllable count by using shorter, more simple words.

Be concise: long set ups and extra details befuddle the point and dilute your argument. They may even cause people to stop reading. Get to your point as efficiently as possible.

Important style pointers:

  1. Make sure you follow the journal’s prescribed format for headings and subheadings.
  2. Make sure you use references appropriately.
  3. Always be precise, do not be vague. Give facts and figures, not vague statements.
  4. Consider whether you are using the active (I caught the ball) or the passive (the ball was caught). Nelson et al., 1996, provide a good example of writing in the active voice. You can also see this article by Gopen and Swann, The Science of Academic Writing. It is more acceptable these days to use the first person in writing, as it comes across as more direct, it is shorter, and can be more interesting to read.
  5. Use ‘which’ after a comma, ‘that’ if you haven’t used a comma.
  6. It is composed of, but it comprises (it certainly does not comprise of).
  7. Try and avoid abbreviations or acronyms, as they can make it hard for the reader to follow you, unless they are very commonly used in your field.
  8. Structure is very important. Reread your article several times to make sure that you have not repeated yourself.
  9. You are writing for your peers. You can expect them to understand key words and concepts. You should use references to outline key ideas, but you should not necessarily need to define words, unless they are very new and original.

Writing an abstract

The abstract is possibly the most important part of your paper, and also probably the hardest to write. Leave it until last, when you have a clear idea of your paper’s content and outcomes.Most should be 200-300 words, but check your journal’s guidelines. You should try and be as succinct as possible. There is more information on writing an abstract here.

Your abstract should follow the same basic layout as your paper. Your abstract should start with a clear sentence about your motivation; this should summarised your rationale and it should be a ‘call to arms’! This could be followed by what you did; state your aim, because this is how you answered the problem. Outline next how you addressed these aims; the principal methodologies employed and what data you used. Next you should summarise your key findings, and then place them within the wider context. Why are they important? Finish with your main conclusions.

Here are some more resources:

The peer-review process

Once you have submitted your manuscript, it will be assigned an editor. The editor will examine the paper and decide if it is appropriate, within scope of the journal, and of a high enough standard to be publishable. Then they will send it to peer review, normally to two independent experts in your field. They will read the paper and decide whether it would be publishable, normally dependent on the author revising the manuscript in light of their comments.

Reviewer’s comments can be quite varied and range from disinterested to commenting on every single sentence, but are usually thorough and helpful. This constructive criticism, although it can be painful, is extremely valuable and will, in the end, make your paper better.

Put line numbers on your manuscript to make it easy for the reviewers.

Responding to reviewers’ comments

Once you have received your reviewers’ comments, read them, then put them aside for a day or two and recover from the process! When you come to write your response, you need to answer each one of their points.

Your letter to the editor should be formal and polite. State that you have amended your manuscript thoroughly according to the reviewer’s comments, and that it is much improved as a result. You now hope that it is suitable for publication in journal AAA.

Copy the reviewers’ letter into a new document and make all the text blue. Write your responses in black underneath. The key is to make it easy for the editor to see that you have done everything that you were asked. Give line numbers to make it simple to see where you have made changes. You could also, if they have given you some particularly helpful advice, say that this is an excellent idea, and that you have done as requested.

Sometimes reviewers may not understand your manuscript, or make a point that you feel is not valid. If this is the case, you can rebutt the comment and argue your case. You could state that you have clarified the text in question so that the misunderstanding does not happen again.

Acceptance and checking proofs

Hopefully, once you have responded to your reviews, your paper will be accepted! From there, it is but a short step to publication. Once your proofs come, read them carefully. Check all your figures, figure captions, authors names, tables and references (these are typically ignored and having a mistake in them is very embarrassing!). You may have to respond to questions by the type setters. Once you have proof read your manuscript, put it away for 3 days and then proof read it again. And perhaps once more for luck. You will not be able to make any changes after this point.

Reviewing a manuscript yourself

Once you have published a paper or two yourself, you may find that you get asked to review someone else’s. That’s a topic for another post, but here are some useful links:

PLos 10 simple rules

The PLoS 10 simple rules series has a number of articles that are useful for writing good academic papers:

These articles, in other journals, are also very worth reading:

This article has some straightforward advice, and is very useful

Further reading

Further Resources

Research Design

Why should we care about research design? | What makes a strong research proposal? | 10 steps to good research design | Writing your dissertation, thesis or grant application | Further reading |

Watch the video

You can watch the video of a lecture I gave as part of the APECS Webinar series here:

Ten Steps to Good Research Design from APECS Webinars on Vimeo.

Why should we care about research design?

If you’re an undergraduate or masters student, you will need to undertake a significant piece of independent study. Your dissertation will form a large part of your degree, and it is important that it is correctly put together. Your dissertation or piece of independent research has important added value and has many ‘learning outcomes’. No matter what you go on to do in your later career, being able to put together a proposal, argue its merits, and design a project, will be valuable skills that you are likely to rely on.

PhD students should consider research design early in their first year. The way that you design and plan your research will have significant implications for the success of your project. Although you will probably write the introduction to your thesis last, a well-designed research project should first work through these steps right from the start.

You may also be writing small grant proposals for awards and fellowships to attend conferences or pay for fieldwork. Nowadays, grant writing is a significant part of my job, and I spend a lot of time writing applications for money. So, good research design is important and a vital part of your skills toolbox, and a few successful small grants on your CV is a must for anyone considering an academic career.

The scientific methodology that you use underpins your entire project, and flawed assumptions or a flawed methodology will result in a questionable integrity of your results. Poor scientific methodology can also mean that you are liable to have biased results.

What makes a strong research proposal?

Good research proposals will achieve Closure by showing how impacts and deliverables will answer their ‘Big Question’.

What is research? There are varied definitions, and they include:

  • a systematic investigation to discover facts or collect information’ (Collins Gem English Dictionary, 1992)
  • ‘a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding’ (Cambridge Dictionaries online, 2008)
  • a process of investigation leading to new insights effectively shared’ (REF consultation document, 2009)

A key factor in all of these definitions is the focus on new and original facts, information and understanding.

Strong research proposals must skilfully combine and blend a ‘Big Question’, with wide implications, impact and importance, with a novel approach and a sound methodology. Good proposals will have a unique question or a new method, and the methods and study area will be appropriate. Finally, good proposals will achieve closure by bringing their proposal full circle, demonstrating how their outputs and deliverables will feed back into the ‘Big Question’.

After Alon, 2009. Project difficulty versus time spent. For a PhD or Post-doc student, projects in the upper right (not too much time, but large gain in knowledge) are best. For an undergraduate or MSc dissertation, projects in the bottom right are best. But no one wants projects in the bottom right – little gain in knowledge but very difficult. Where does your project fit?

It is very important that you consider, as a starting point, whether your research is achievable. Research projects can provide us with varying amounts of information, and vary in size from small to large projects. Different problems are suitable for people to tackle at different stages of their careers (cf. Alon, 2009). Is your project of a suitable difficulty for you to tackle, and does to add enough to our body of knowledge?

The best proposals are appropriate to the career stage and time available of the person concerned. They are concise, clear and complete – not asking to do too much. They have a strong rationale and a wider justification, with a Big Question clearly situated within this. The rationale and wider justification should clearly demonstrate the importance and impact of the ‘Big Question’. Finally, the best proposals are novel, but not too novel. ‘Me-too’ science is likely to not be funded – but so is large, speculative science, that is likely to have unachievable aims and targets.

Whether you are writing a proposal or a thesis or dissertation, you should follow these steps for good research design. You should also take a look at my blog post, “Climate Change Skeptics“, which also talks about research design.

10 steps to good research design

Below, I have put together a list of 10 steps for you to think about when designing a research project. Follow these steps for good research design, and for writing a good grant application or introduction to your dissertation or thesis. Of course, I have only covered this topic briefly here; there are many further resources that you can look at that discuss research design in more detail.

10 steps to a well-designed research project.

It goes without saying that your teacher or supervisor is the real expert here and they should be consulted at every step of the way. Make use of their years of training and expertise. Discuss your ideas with them, and where you want your research to go. The joy of research is that you get to decide what to do and how to do it. But you should check with your supervisor that your methods are appropriate, that your research is relevant (and hasn’t been done before!), and that it is achievable within your timeframe.

Step 1. Why are you doing this research?

The first phase of your research design is to decide what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Many people become so immersed in their project, they cannot see the wood for the trees, and assume that everybody knows why their work is important. This is not the case; you need to be able to explain to non-specialists the importance of your work. Your examiner will be looking to see that you understand the relevance. Whether you are writing a proposal or an introduction to your thesis, you should start with a rationale.

Grants are awarded competetively on the basis of their relevance and importance. Papers are only published if they are relevant. The rationale is probably one of the most important parts of your research design, and you skim over it or ignore it at your peril.

Step 2. Identify the key unknowns

Once you have decided on the broad area of your research project, and you have established a good rationale and reason for undertaking it, you need to read up on previous work. What are the key unknowns and key research questions? What gaps can my research project fill? Write a ‘Wider Justification’ where you explore previous work, but where you identify gaps in knowledge.

If you are doing a PhD or MSc dissertation, you should expect to spend a considerable amount of time at the start of your research project reading the available literature. Make a list of research questions and key unknowns as you come across them. This is a vital step to becoming an expert in your area.

Finally, this stage is imperative to make sure that your research has not already been done!

The best projects are novel, but not too novel (which is risky and difficult – see the graph by Alon, 2009, above), and should avoid ‘me-too’ science. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon because everyone else is doing it. Your project must have clearly defined research questions. Equally, large, speculative science is unlikely to get funded.

Step 3. What is your aim and what are your objectives?

Once you have worked out a rationale for your research, you need to decide on an aim. This is the most important part of your research design, and it should address the key unknowns identified in Step 1 above. Ideally, you should be able to express your aim in one sentence, e.g.,

Aim: to reconstruct the glacial history of the NE Antarctic Peninsula on centennial to millennial timescales.

Your objectives should help you to achieve your aim. You can identify, typically, 3-5 objectives that will each bring you a step closer to your achieving your aim. Ideally, each objective should be associated with research questions so that you are always trying to achieve something new and original. This will also keep your research focussed and on the right lines.

Good aims and objectives usually have the following characteristics:

  • Specific, achievable and feasible
  • Clear sense of deliverables
  • Specific, clear, over-arching research question
  • Realistic about methods and timescale available
  • Use words like Compare, determine, characterise, explain, quantify, interpret, measure

Alternatively, poor aims and objectives typically have the following characteristics:

  • Vague, broad, unspecified titles
  • No hypothesis or research question
  • Overambitious and not realistically achievable

Step 4. What hypotheses are you testing?

For reasons that are covered in more detail in this blog post, as scientists, we need to test hypotheses. These hypotheses should be indentified by your analysis of previous work and key unknowns. We work within a Research Programme: this means that there are key things that we hold to be true (evolution, plate crustal movement, basic processes of glacier movement), and that there are areas that are continuously under development and being questioned (details of past glacier history). You need to write one or two hypotheses that you will test. A good scientist should attempt to falsify her hypotheses. Your hypotheses should be based on the literature, your identification of the key knowns and unknowns, and should move the science forward.

Step 5. Identify the key deliverables.

What are the key outcomes and deliverables of your research going to be? The deliverables should use words such as, understanding, quantification, conceptual, process, analysis, characterisation, determination. For example:

  • An improved understanding of process XX
  • Glacier velocity maps
  • Process-based conceptual models of process YY
  • Quantification of ZZ
  • Analysis of glacier fluctuations over time (glacier outlines submitted to GLIMS)

These deliverables should enable you to test your hypotheses and achieve your aim. They should be specific and achievable, and help you achieve closure with your ‘Big Question’.

Step 6. Identify key resources

What resources will you need to complete this research project? Will you need to do fieldwork, and if so, for how long? Will you need any specific computer resources, packages, programmes, remotely sensed images, computer codes?

Step 7. Timeframe for research

Simplistic gantt chart (they do not need to be complicated). You should identify the key outputs in your caption. Needless to say, they should match the identified project deliverables.

Your research design should incorporate a realistic assessment of the time committments for each objective. Write a Gantt Chart (you can just do this in Excel or on paper!) that outlines each objective and the amount of time you have available. Work out in detail how much time each objective will take you, and be realistic about whether it is achievable in your time available. Typically, students underestimate the amount of time a specific objective will take them, so be cautious in your estimation.

Step 8. Draw up a work-flow model

An example of a stylised workflow model.

Once you have worked through the steps above, you are ready to put it together into a coherent workflow model. I think these should be included in all dissertations and grant applications, as they clearly set out how the different objectives fit together.

Write the aim at the top, and then the hypotheses beneath it. Include your resources or inputs below this. Then, each in a separate box, outline each objective and the key deliverables associated with this objective. Finally, at the bottom, give your end result; e.g., hypotheses accepted or refuted; a general model or process XX; quantification of YY. This makes it very clear how your research project will fit together, what you will achieve, and how it fits with your aims and hypotheses.

The workflow model should illustrate your deliverables and thus provide closure for your ‘Biq Question’.

Step 9. Risks and risk mitigation

If you are planning on doing fieldwork, you will need to do a risk assessment and clearly identify hazards and how you will mitigate or prevent them. But you should also be aware of more general risks; do you have the relevant knowledge? Are the resources that you need available? Will the costs change? Risks could include:

  • Unreliable exchange rates
  • Wildlife hazards (polar bears?)
  • Weather (hot / cold / blizzards)
  • Environmental hazards and disposal of waste
  • Equipment failure
  • Not being able to obtain key datasets
  • Access to field areas

Step 10. Undertake your research!

Now that you have spent some time carefully planning your research, you are ready to begin. You are going to research something that is important, interesting, and something that you will enjoy. You have written a good research plan, and know that your work is relevant to society and other scientists. Have fun!

Evaluate and refine your research as you go.

Evaluate your work as you go, and be prepared to change your methodology or objectives as you go along, if you find something is not feasible or too difficult. In fact, you may find that your work needs to go full circle if your methods do not work or it turns out to not be feasible! So, your final research design might look something like the figure opposite…

Always remember Occam’s Razor: In the case of several competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is most likely to be true.

Writing your dissertation, thesis or grant application

Now that you have done some excellent research design, you’re already well on your way to a top grade! So go off and complete your research. Write up your dissertation or thesis, but write your introduction last. Your introduction should follow something like the outline below (although your supervisor, teacher or advisor will give you more advice that is relevant to your project).

If you are writing a grant application, then the format should be similar to that below (check the application details carefully as they might be specificied), but you should include a timeframe for research as well.

  1. Rationale for the research. Why the work is important.
  2. Key unknowns and research questions.
  3. State aim, hypotheses and objectives clearly and succinctly.
  4. Show the Progamme of Research or Workflow Model.
  5. Go into each objective in more detail. Pepper them richly with research questions. Be clear about the resources and timeframe available.
  6. You may want to include a section on risks and risk mitigation, a wider justification of the work, and for grant applications, why it might benefit you personally.
  7. If you are writing a dissertation or thesis, you might want to give an outline of your thesis chapters here.

Grant applications in particular will need a careful justification or resources. You will need to account for every penny requested! Think carefully through all the things that you will need to cost in.

Further reading

Here are some excellent articles to help you on your way.

Alon, 2009. How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem. Molecular Cell.

Erren et al., 2007. 10 simple rules for doing your best research. Computational Biology.

Schwartz 2008. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of cell science.

Rhoads and Thorn 1996. The Scientific Nature of Geomorphology.

Article by Bethan Davies.

Essay questions

Are you a Geography A-Level student, teacher or undergraduate looking for some practise essay questions as part of your exam revision? Try these questions out.


What are the main landforms you might expect to form in a periglacial environment?

  • Rock glacier on James Ross Island

    Rock glacier on James Ross Island

    Key idea: difference between Paraglacial (recovering from glaciation; e.g. the mountains of Scotland), Periglacial (in the region around a glacier, typically in a cold environment; e.g. in Greenland or Iceland) and Permafrost (cold environment where the ground is frozen for more than 2 years in a row).

  • Periglacial landscapes are developed in a permafrost region.
  • Patterned ground, stone stripes, solifluction and gelifluction, ventifacts, rock glaciers, protalus ramparts, blockfields.
  • Frozen ground facilitates processes of slope movement (solifluction)
  • High snow fall results in landforms such as rock glaciers and protalus ramparts.
  • See Antarctic Periglacial Environments

Where are the modern permafrost environments found, and why do they form there?

What are the process-form relationships associated with periglacial environments?

Glaciers and glaciation

What are the main landforms associated with temperate depositional environments?

  • Supraglacial streams on San Jose Glacier with a small proglacial lake, James Ross Island.

    Supraglacial streams on San Jose Glacier with a small proglacial lake, James Ross Island.

    Key idea: temperate glaciers are capable of eroding, transporting and depositing large volumes of material

  • Key idea: difference between erosional and depositional landforms.
  • Depositional landforms: drumlins, moraines, sedimentary wedges
  • Key idea: ice-cored moraines are not normally associated with temperate environments
  • Ice stream depositional landforms: mega-scale glacial lineations
  • See Glacial Landforms

How do cirques form?

  • Cirques form in mountain environments
  • Snow accumulates on north-facing slopes (in the northern hemisphere) and south-facing slopes (in the southern hemisphere)
  • Snow builds up and transforms to ice under pressure
  • The glacier slips downslope under its own weight due to gravity.
  • The glacier abrades and plucks the ground underneath it, forming a bowl-shape on the side of the mountain.
  • See Types of Glacier, Glacier Flow and Glacier Processes.

Ice Streams

What is an ice stream, and what landforms are associated with ice streaming?

  • Velocity of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, using data from Rignot et al. 2011. Data set available from: Rignot, E., J. Mouginot, and B. Scheuchl. 2011. MEaSUREs InSAR-Based Antarctica Velocity Map, [list dates of data used]. Boulder, Colorado USA: NASA EOSDIS DAAC at NSIDC. http://nsidc.org/data/nsidc-0484.html

    Velocity of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, using data from Rignot et al. 2011. Data set available from: Rignot, E., J. Mouginot, and B. Scheuchl. 2011. MEaSUREs InSAR-Based Antarctica Velocity Map, [list dates of data used]. Boulder, Colorado USA: NASA EOSDIS DAAC at NSIDC. http://nsidc.org/data/nsidc-0484.html

    Key idea: ice sheets are not static, but dynamic features that are drained by fast-flowing ice streams.
  • Ice streams flow very rapidly and are responsible for most of the discharge from the Antarctic Ice Sheet.
  • See Ice Streams and Glacier Landforms.

How do glaciers flow and move? What causes different glaciers to move at different speeds?

  • Key idea: Glaciers flow under gravity
  • Key idea: difference between wet-based and cold-based glaciers
  • Key idea: Ice Streams
  • The thickness, geometry, ice temperature and valley shape combine to control the glacier’s thermal regime
  • The glacier’s velocity is controlled by steepness, accumulation rates, thermal regime, valley geometry.
  • Ice streams flow very rapidly and are fed by widespread tributaries.
  • See Glacier Flow, Glacier Processes and Ice Streams.

Ice streams in Antarctica. Courtesy of Neil Glasser.

Ice streams in Antarctica. Courtesy of Neil Glasser.

Glaciers and water

What landforms are associated with water in proglacial and subglacial environments?

  • Meltwater stream on Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska. From: Gillfoto, Wikimedia Commons

    Meltwater stream on Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska. From: Gillfoto, Wikimedia Commons

    Key idea: glaciers produce lots of meltwater, which results in key fluvioglacial landforms.

  • Proglacial landforms: sandur (braided channels), proglacial lakes, moraine-dammed lakes.
  • Subglacial landforms: Eskers, channels, Nye-Channels, subglacial canals, subglacial lakes.
  • See: Glacial Hydrology and Subglacial Lakes.

What causes glaciers to shrink?

  • Key idea: Glaciers receive snow (accumulation) and melt (ablate). If ablation exceeds acculation, the glacier will shrink.
  • Key idea: shrinking glaciers do not go backwards (see Common Misconceptions)
  • Mountain glaciers are shrinking worldwide and this results in sea level rise.