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Dissertation Guide: Picking a topic

The choice of project is largely up to you as long as it demonstrates mastery of a subject within the broad field of occupational health, with well-defined aims, an adequate literature search, appropriate methods, sufficient data, logical and discriminatory presentation and interpretation of results, and contextualisation within the field. Your study should be of interest to the generality of specialists in occupational medicine and should contribute usefully to the evidence base of the specialty. (There are many gaps in our research base and other areas where findings require confirmation.)

Dissertation ideas commonly arise from:

  • Everyday questions about practice,
  • Observed variations in practice,
  • Challenging/checking accepted practice, where it lacks an evidence base,
  • Topics of debate and controversy, and
  • Apparent gaps in the evidence base.

Such topics may arise naturally out of a question during your work or may feature in the editorial and letter columns of journals, the presentations at meetings, and the discussion forums of special interest groups. Studies based on an outcome of practice have the benefit of being of interest to the employer as well as to the specialty.

Another aspect of evidence‐based practice is reviewing the results of studies published in the literature. A literature review (in which no new data are collected) is an acceptable dissertation, but the same degree of rigour should be applied as for a project in which primary data are gathered. You will need to explain why you undertook the review and what methods you used to select and critically appraise the published studies. Good reviews begin with very clearly defined questions. They are systematic in their methods and apply precise rules that others could also follow with the same result e.g. defining databases, periods of inquiry, inclusion and exclusion criteria, key search terms, and quality assessment criteria. They also spell out the strengths and weaknesses of the chosen method and the implications for practice and/or future research. Familiarise yourself with the process and the standard.

Finally, you might consider conducting and reporting a substantial audit on a topic relevant to your occupational health practice or the health and safety arrangements of your employer. This should meet the general standards of a dissertation, and should thoroughly evaluate the background literature, formulate a well‐defined study question(s), define and employ appropriate methods and measures, include an appropriate statistical analysis, draw sensible conclusions, and propose (and ideally implement and evaluate) suitable follow‐on actions and changes of practice. The standard should be no less than that of work submitted in another permissible category.

When planning your project, read the ‘research competencies’ section of FOM’s Higher Specialist Training Curriculum. These are competencies expected in specialist practice and you will find that many are covered elsewhere in your training e.g. in researching unfamiliar medical conditions or workplace regulations, in audit projects within sectoral groups such as ANHOPs, and in policy review and development work for an employer. There is no need to aim to cover every competency within your dissertation, but they are a useful guide when planning.