This time last year, I had begun to write my final year dissertation. Having survived a term of seminars tackling the basic “do’s” and “don’ts” of research, meetings with my supervisor and hours trawling through books and articles in the library I had finally managed to piece together a plan of what I was going to write. It seemed that the fun part – producing intriguing and exciting ideas to research and discuss – was long over. Now I had found my topic, drafted a title and it was finally time to create my 10,000 word academic piece. A year may have passed, yet I can still vividly remember the panic at the seemingly enormous task ahead of me. No matter how much I loved research and writing, I had never written anything of this length before and felt inescapably daunted by the countdown to my dissertation due date, alongside all the various pressures of final year. Now, looking back on my experience, I feel a certain desire to share my advice on how to make the dissertation process as panic-free as possible. A quick Google search and you’ll find there are plenty of articles and blogs on dissertation writing and you’ll usually find that most advice offered is merely common sense, and yet, writing a dissertation always seems to spring to mind when graduates recount the most testing periods of their time at University. Therefore, I see no harm in sharing some of my top tips…
- Get in the frame of mind
During my final year, every Monday became known as “Dissertation Monday”. I would sit at my desk and work on my piece and wouldn’t work on anything else. Any other essays or seminar prep would have to wait for another day as Mondays were solely dedicated to the mighty dissertation. This kept me focused, I wasn’t worrying about other work or jumping from different topics and could focus all my energy and thought on the project at hand. You’re going to be spending a lot of time writing your dissertation, therefore, it can be helpful to develop routines and habits to keep you on track. This could be setting out certain times when you’ll work solely on your dissertation, or having a certain space where you’ll do your research or even just small things like how you organise your notes etc. Writing a dissertation is essentially a great big project, so treat it as such and focus your work ethic and face your project with a driven and determined attitude.
- Know how YOU work
Chances are you’ll know plenty of other people writing a dissertation, or who have written one already. Sharing ideas and advice is very important and I highly recommend it – however, don’t freak out when you find that someone else is writing in a different style or using different research methods to you. Likewise, resist the need to panic when you meet that one person who has completed their piece when you’re only one paragraph in. Everyone works in different ways and what is helpful for one person might not be for another. Work in a style which is true to you, whether that means jumping straight in, or getting all the research done first, taking your time, writing in bulk etc. Providing the work is getting done and it’s to a standard you are happy with then it doesn’t matter how you go about creating your piece. Completing a dissertation can reveal a lot about how you work best and how you prefer to write and create, so don’t fear originality and doing whatever feels best for you.
- Involve others who aren’t on your course
Discussing your dissertation with people who don’t study your subject can give you some good perspective on what you’re writing. This may be easier for some topics, depending on what you study and how easy it is to explain your project to someone with no previous knowledge of the subject. However, just showing someone your introduction or some basic drafts can prove helpful. Try this: Find a friend who doesn’t study your subject. Tell them what your dissertation title is and try to explain the basic purpose of your research to them as simply as you can. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in making your project look more complex or in-depth than it actually is. This isn’t really a good thing as you can be sure that whoever marks your final project will see straight through mumbo-jumbo and needlessly long explanations. So, keep things to the point, start off with simple questions and ideas and always seek outside perspectives and opinions – they can prove very useful at pointing out things you’ve missed or haven’t even thought of.
- Edit, edit, edit….and edit some more.
I would love to be one of those people who can just sit at a keyboard, hammer something out, read it through and know that it’s done. Sadly I am not one of those people, and know very few who are. Accept that your dissertation is likely to be a work in progress right up to approaching your deadline. Read things over and over. Don’t be afraid to tweak things, move sections about or delete things completely. Of course, when you’re approaching your deadline date there is a definite need to be firm and make decisions, but don’t expect to get everything right the first time. There is always room for improvement and you’ll find that you’ll discover new ideas while you write and as you expand your knowledge and research.
- Plan ahead
This is always the number one piece of advice that everyone seems to be aware of yet never truly adheres to. Get your deadline marked on your calendar/in your diary/ on your phone etc. Do it right now. Aim to have your dissertation finished at least a week before then. With good planning, you can completely avoid the nightmare scenario of having an unfinished piece the night before your deadline date. Don’t forget to factor in things like getting everything printed off and bound, as well as any paperwork you need to complete or special requirements. Try and stick to a plan even before you start to approach deadline day, for instance, make goals of how many words you aim to have written by the end of each month and keep a note of all your references as you go to avoid a last minute bibliography disaster. Planning ahead means you can minimise stress and may even get your work handed in early and can avoid the queues on deadline day.
- Be nice to yourself
See your friends, get out of the house, have a night out or just do something you really love. Eat well, exercise regularly…..all that jazz. It sounds like common sense, and it is, but you’d be surprised at how rapidly common sense goes out the window when the dissertation fear has a hold of you. So be sure to overcome it by looking after yourself and remembering that YOU WILL BE FINE! It’s easy to feel intimidated and overcome when you’re just starting, but once you get the ball rolling and begin writing you will find that things do eventually come together providing you stay focused and don’t give in, even when you hit a low. And believe me, nothing beats the feeling of pride and accomplishment when you have the completed piece printed out and in your hands. Good Luck!