Strap in folks, this is going to be a VERY long one…
There’s a reason why so many people take a picture outside of their university library clutching a neatly bound paper bundle: your dissertation will probably be the most challenging piece of work you’ll have to do during your time at university. Up until my dissertation the longest piece of work I had written was 5500 words, so naturally doubling that word count came as a rather difficult task. So, although I can’t go into every nuance of the year long process, I wanted to share some advice and thoughts reflecting on my own experience.
1.Choosing a Topic:
This is the first thing you’ll do as part of your dissertation, and although there’s a possibility to change it if things really don’t work out, chances are you’ll be living and breathing that topic for almost a year. As soon as you get an opportunity (for my Film Studies course, we had to submit our proposal in September so we had the summer months to think about it) start thinking about a topic you could choose.
Generally a topic should be something that you’re passion about, and is not over/under researched. In film studies, for instance, we are highly discouraged from choosing a topic surrounding Alfred Hitchcock, who has so much work surrounding him it’d be unlikely you’d be able to develop a unique approach to his work. Equally a topic with no academic work attached to it, this is often a problem for those wishing to discuss films/television released just years previously, is also not a good starting point, as it negates the research and discussion element of the dissertation.
One thing I cannot stress enough is that even if you’re one of those people who can normally bust out an assignment in a week, your dissertation is a whole different ball game; it will take months of careful planning, researching, writing, and rewriting…and rewriting again. There’s a tendency to feel like you have so much time to do your dissertation but it can get hard to balance once all your other work kicks in, so hit the ground running with it.
You will submit a proposal, suggesting a basic topic outline, what you wish to discuss and the primary and secondary sources you might use. Although your proposal is likely to be tweaked and adapted, with guidance from your supervisor, it’s a really good idea to really get into your research as soon as possible, and get a feel for your topic. Also, it goes without saying but, 10,000+ words is a lot, getting something down on paper before second semester can really help in the long run.
Although your dissertation is a very independent project, that does not mean you cannot access help. Once you have submitted your proposal you’ll be assigned a dissertation tutor who, out of the department staff, feels they will be the most help to you (usually if their own specialties align with your chosen project). Once you have your supervisor it is your responsibility to reach out, and they are not obliged to chase you up if you do not, but they will be more than happy to help you.
Most students will email their supervisor and set up a meeting in person to start off with, but this relationship may change along the way, in regards to the frequency and form of communication, as you become more confident in what you’re doing. If you’re finding your supervisor isn’t particularly responsive (this isn’t common, but something that appears to concern people before going into their dissertation) it’s absolutely okay to reach out to your department and explain the situation, and get some support! Overall your relationship with your supervisor can be really rewarding and can truly help shape your dissertation for the better, you just need to be proactive about it.
4.Research and Writing:
Your research and writing process should come hand in hand, besides your initial research it can be really useful to keep looking for sources throughout the writing process, as new ideas develop or as your dissertation evolves in a new direction. When researching, usually done through the library website primarily, use all the tools at your disposal: archives/databases, books, online journals and audio visual material.
Be thoughtful in what you search (writing a long sentence into the search bar will bring up very little), but also be thorough in how you use these terms; you’d be surprised the amount of times you can find new material simply by rearranging your search terms or isolating one particular word or phrase. Make notes on what you’ve read for future reference; it’s very easy to forget what one particular journal article was about when going back to it six months later.
In terms of writing, not only start as soon as you can but also try not to worry about everything sounding perfect the first time around; it’s better to get your ideas down in a logical if unpolished way, rather than becoming too caught up in your use of language and how ‘fancy’ it sounds. Always leave time for editing and rewriting along the way, and don’t be afraid to change something later on, even if the initial delete of those 500 words of a now irrelevant point can feel demotivating. Always keep your structure in mind as although each chapter/section may have some separate points it still needs to flow well into introducing the next chapter and tie in with your overarching theme/topic.
To tell you that I didn’t have several times throughout particularly this past semester where I cried, or simply said I can’t do this, about my dissertation, would be a big, fat, lie. A dissertation tests you beyond your academic capability, relying also on your emotional strength to remain motivated and passionate about your topic and overall dissertation for months on end. Time will run away with you in many instances, not through laziness, but through the prioritisation of other matters which seem much more pressing than your deadline several months in the future.
From my own experience, and speaking to others, it appears the most successful method for many was setting manageable short term goals. In my case, in second semester I decided that I would write at least 500 words a week, which would give me at least 5000 more words of my dissertation over the teaching period. Although I didn’t always stick to this strictly, as in one week I may only do 300 words but the next I’d do over 1000, this average total really helped me stay on track. Equally, although easy said than done, don’t let set backs hold you back. My supervisor suggested that I entirely restructure my dissertation part way through semester two and I felt like I had taken one step forward and twenty steps back, but actually, after a couple of days feeling wobbly I sat down and looked at things a fresh, and honestly, I am glad that change was made, it really was the right thing to do!
I feel like even with this size of a blog post there’s no end to how much I could talk on dissertation writing. The experience I feel has shaped me in some way and has become such a major part of my university experience. There’s not better feeling of scrolling through those pages or holding that wad of paper and thinking “I did this myself, and you know what I’m flipping proud of it”. I’ve learned a lot both from an academic and emotional standpoint, so I guess my one residing piece of advice is to say: yes it’s scary and hard, but it’s also interesting, a confidence builder, and something you can look back on with pride for years to come; you can do this!
If there’s anything more specific I didn’t mention above, don’t hesitate to drop a question in the comments below.
Take Care Everyone, I’ll Speak to You All Soon!