This post probably won’t apply to everyone because it depends on when you start thinking about your dissertation, but in the geography department we write our proposals in the second semester of second year, and then we are unleashed that summer to go and do our research and collect our data. If your department only starts the dissertation talk in final year, then by then it’s obviously a bit late to be doing it on your year abroad. But for everyone else, here’s a couple of things to think about before you commit to doing it abroad.
The first thing is not to necessarily choose a topic just because you can do it abroad. Choose a topic that you’re going to find interesting and get submerged in for the next year or two, rather than one that means you can do some research whilst abroad but you’re actually not all that enthralled by. If you find the topic interesting, the whole process will be about 97 times more bearable.
Doing your research abroad has a lot of advantages to it: you have more time (like a lot more time) and that, as well as the fact that you are abroad, means you have more opportunities available to you. I know people who’ve gone abroad and done their research on marine ecosystems that we don’t have in the UK, or examined deserts (that we obviously don’t have in the UK). And I’ve been looking at international students’ home-making practices and, as an international student, can add my own experiences into my dissertation. Plus I’ve had so much time to collect my data – I’ve been doing interviews gradually throughout the year, and been typing them up as I go along (the worst part of any data collection). So this means that when I go home I can enjoy being back at home without having to worry about collecting data, or spending hours listening to interview recordings and writing transcripts. It may well be my last summer of freedom, so I’m pretty pleased I’ve got it out the way.
So it’s worked pretty well for me, although this doesn’t mean it will for everyone. Before you commit to doing your research whilst abroad, you need to seriously consider if you’re actually going to do it. It’s easy to arrive at your destination, get swept into making new friends, going out, sightseeing every weekend, and leaving the university work at the bottom of your list (let alone your dissertation research). And suddenly it’s the end of the year, you’re heading home, and you haven’t done anything and it’s all a bit too late. Cue a mad scramble to collect what you can before you fly home (even if it’s not very much/not very good quality), or a whole reworking of your dissertation idea and a summer doing research (admittedly this can end up working in your favour and you end up with a topic that you prefer, but it can still be pretty stressful). So it’s definitely best to run this idea past your personal tutor and dissertation supervisor (if you’re allocated one in time) to make sure they think you aren’t setting yourself up for a mad dash to collect data.
So to any people about to embark on a year abroad and have decided to do their research whilst abroad, make sure you do it in time (and trust me, the time goes fast). And those who aren’t, enjoy your time but maybe keep thinking about your dissertation – because if you don’t think about it for a whole year, it might be hard to pick up where you left off when you get back home.