dissertation tips and tricks
Being totally honest, just the thought of having to write a dissertation was giving me heart palpitations in first year, two years before I had to start writing! It can seem like a super daunting prospect when you’re already buried under heaps of deadlines and feel in no way capable of producing one. But, ya girl is here to calm your fears and outline a few pointers that I picked up whilst writing mine.
To start with – disclaimers!
I wrote a History dissertation so my advice is geared around that discipline. However, my flatmates wrote Geography and Psychology dissertations and the vast majority of advice here definitely overlaps multiple disciplines.
Just to give some rough timescales (to make it easier to translate this to your own university’s termtimes) I finished second year in June ‘16 and started third year in October ‘16. At the end of second year we had to hand in a provisional title for a disso topic (which basically everyone made up because actually writing it was so far away and no one had a clue) but it wasn’t until December ‘16 of third year that we had to finalise our title and thesis. Our hand-in date for the final dissertation was end of April ‘17, a week before our final exams began.
I probably should point out that some of you will already be in the midst of writing your dissertations and so some of these points won’t be all that helpful to you now, and might be more beneficial to first and second year students. Also, please don’t let this post panic you if you ARE a third year student in the middle of writing! Points here can definitely still be used to make life a little easier. Also, please remember that we all work in different ways.
Let’s begin, friends.
- First, read/research AHEAD OF TIME, as much as you can.
So I didn’t really do this as I only finalised my topic around the start of January (which is totally normal) and that meant I didn’t use the first few months of the school year to read ahead around my topic. I actually chose a different topic first and read up on it the summer before I went back to university, but in the end logistics meant I totally had to change topics. But, if you can get your topic/thesis sorted ahead of the game, it gives you a lot more time to work with and a lot more time to dedicate to writing and editing. (This isn’t always achievable and not many people manage it so don’t kill yourself over it.)
Also, don’t expect to know exactly where you are going straight away! Things will become clearer with time and it’s fine to find your way as you go along.
- If you’re assigned a dissertation supervisor, make sure you get along and understand each other.
You don’t need to be best friends but you need to get along, respect each other, and not be too scared to go to them for help with what will feel like stupid questions. They also don’t have to be a specialist in your area (my dissertation was on the Rwandan genocide whilst my supervisor’s area was the Middle East) as the most important thing is their ability to point you in the right direction and help with logistics. If you aren’t happy, speak to someone in your department and try to get things changed.
- Talk to other people about your thesis.
Talking my topic through with my flatmates actually led to some of my biggest breakthroughs, especially when my brain was turning to sludge. Friends can give you new perspectives to approach things with and can make the whole process way more enjoyable. Enjoying your topic enough to discuss it in your free time is a good sign.
- Think outside the box.
High marking dissertations offer something new to the discipline and the literature. When I first heard that all I could think was “how the hell am I meant to offer something new to a discipline that historians dedicate their lives to?”, however, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. Your markers know you aren’t writing a book that you’ve spent five years researching, they just want to see a fresh view or nuance to a much studied topic. Don’t be overwhelmed by the thought of having to pull something out of thin air, just aim to infuse your thesis with your own individuality and interests.
- Pick a topic that you love or that you are passionate/excited about.
You’ll find it far easier to dedicate hours a day to your dissertation if you at least find it interesting and engaging. If you have always found an aspect of your subject interesting, now is the time to chuck yourself into it. Think of it this way, it’s the first time in your academic life that you’ve had (more or less) free rein to dedicate time to something you genuinely find interesting!
- Accept that things will go wrong and your plans won’t run to the times you wanted them to.
If you’re a third year reading this and you’re freaking out about the whole ‘plan ahead’ thing when your hand-in is in two months, BREATHE. However much you did or didn’t plan ahead, you’d still be freaking out now. Even if you spent two months reading the literature, you would still get to this point and think you’ve got way more to look at and would end up reading more for the sake of it, and that’s normal. Expecting everything to go to plan is unrealistic! So much of a dissertation is hinged on dependent variables.
For me, I spent what felt like forever looking for one flipping letter sent from Oxfam to the British government in the mid 1990s. I trawled the internet for ages before realising I was going to have to travel to Oxford University to search the archives. It all added time on that I didn’t want to spare. The same happened again when I found out some information that arguably could have contradicted my thesis (cue meltdown), which meant a load more research to build an argument that ruled it out.
The point is, things change as you go along as you find new information, realise certain key documents and studies etc are inaccessible to you and you are forced to accept that time scales are unachievable. Allow yourself flexibility and you’ll be far less stressed.
- Organisation HAS to become your best friend!
I am honestly the queen of chucking everything on the desk in the hope of it staying in the right place for when I need it in three weeks time. It ain’t ever there in three weeks time. Even I had to accept that folders, page dividers and check lists were going to have to come out to play. A dissertation is too big a project to be able to be lax on the organisation side. You’ll thank yourself when you come to doing your referencing, for example, if you’ve meticulously kept track of book/article/study details as you’ve gone along. Referencing and writing up bibliographies is a bitch so make it easier for yourself!
- BACKING UP YOUR WORK IS ALSO YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND!
Back up everything you do! Any new piece of research, writing, planning you do needs to be backed up and backed up again. After anything I wrote, even if it was just brainstorming, I backed it up on my USB and on dropbox/google drive. I even emailed myself the actual disso document every time I wrote another section. Overkill? Yes probably but 1. I’m neurotic and 2. The thought of losing work put the fear of GOD in me. I actually left a bag of notes on a train once that I never got back but luckily still had on my laptop/USB etc.
Dont be that guy (or girl) who’s losing their shit because they spilt coffee over the their laptop two weeks before hand-in!
- Finish the bulk of your dissertation with plenty of time – you need longer than you think to edit and wrap up.
This is easier said than done but really aim to finish the bulk of your writing a good amount of time before your hand in date. My disso was due April 23rd so I set a mental finish date for the bulk of my writing for end of March. I knew that in reality I wouldn’t make the target, but it would at least put a rocket up me to get finished ahead of time.
Conclusions, referencing and editing can take way longer than you expect, so having time left over to dedicate to them will be a godsend. I also knew that my exams could be starting within a week of my hand in date, and seeing as my three exams equated to 75% of my whole third year, I had to have enough time to prepare for them. That said, I know people who literally referenced their entire dissertations the day before hand in, so clearly some can manage it!
And lastly, enjoy it! Dissertations are a chance for you to really have some academic independence and throw yourself into a body of work for a long period of time. You will look back and feel so proud of yourself for the piece of work you’ve produced when you come out the other side, even if it keeps you awake at night and gives you a severe eye twitch during the process.
Cover Photo by Mike Tinnion on Unsplash