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How I Tackled The Dreaded Dissertation

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Hello fellow bookworms! It’s Sunday, so I decided to prepare a discussion style post for today. It’s not necessarily completely book related, but more a helpful hints and tips post for all you university students out there. As many of you know, I’m in my final year of university, which means I was required to write a dissertation. For those of you who don’t know what a dissertation is, it’s basically an extended piece of writing, like an essay but quadruple the length. Due to the fact that I study a creative course, I also have to complete one last project, the Final Major, which means I had slightly less time to concentrate on my dissertation (but it also meant it was a bit shorter than most!) I wanted to share a few things I did throughout the research and writing process which might help some of you, whether you’re just starting uni or panicking about essay writing (yes, these hints will hopefully help with essays too!)

Just a quick note to say I only handed my dissertation in early last week, so I don’t have my marks back yet, so if I end up failing I’ll let you know so you can completely ignore all the things I say in this post!

Start thinking of ideas over the summer

You know you have to write a dissertation, so why not start getting ideas about what you want to write about while you have the time to think and not drowning in other work to do. You might already have a rough idea what you want to do, but you have to have a fairly specific topic, but still open enough so you can conduct extensive and in depth research on it. Not too big, but not too small! Your supervisor can help, if you present them with some ideas, they can assist you in narrowing down the field of study.

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Begin researching straight away

As soon as you have that rough idea, and you’re back at uni with the resources available to you, start researching. Gather quotes that interest you around the topic, and find books that might be of note later on. I did some reading before my first meeting with my supervisor, and I ended up actually using some of the quotes I found in that research session in the final dissertation! Get a head start, you won’t regret it!

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Engage fully with your supervisor

It is so important to go to every meeting with your supervisor, and if you have a question about anything you are unsure of, email them, or organise an extra meeting with them if it’s quite a complex question, or if you are confused. They are there to support you every step of the way, so make sure you take advantage of them being there while you can. When it’s one week from the deadline and you are asking questions you should have known weeks ago, they probably won’t be too pleased! Your supervisor and your connection with them throughout the dissertation period will be invaluable, so make sure you get on well with them, and ask as many questions as possible. Pick their brains, because they know what they’re talking about!

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Keep up with the workload

I’m not going to lie by saying a dissertation isn’t hard, because it is, but it’s even harder if you don’t keep up with the work. If you can, do a little bit every day, and write down everything that comes into your head, even if you think it might not be relevant in the end. Do some research, even if it’s just half an hour a day, you will soon see your research and collection of quotes growing. The more you read, the more questions you can ask your supervisor as well, which means they can point you in the right direction. if you don’t keep up with the research, how are they meant to know how to help? It will also save a lot of stress in the long run.

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Get to know the guidelines

Most supervisors will tell you before you even start meeting with them that the dissertation will have to be formatted in a certain way. This includes making sure you have the correct font size, line spacing, and chapter system. Nailing the formatting, and knowing exactly how it needs to be presented in the first few weeks of researching will save a lot of stress at the end, because it’s one less thing to worry about.

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Immerse yourself

It’s no good writing about a subject half-heartedly. To write a really good dissertation, just like any essay, you really have to immerse yourself in your topic. Try to know everything about this small corner of the world you have decided to research, know it so well that you don’t stumble if someone questions you about it. Getting to know your topic inside out will make you more confident when it comes to writing the dissertation.

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Know when to stop researching

Even when I started the writing process, I still came across a few things I needed to research or get quotes to back up my argument, but it is so important to know when you have enough research to start writing, otherwise you really could be stuck researching forever. Set yourself parameters for everything you think you need to know about your topic and research them in as much depth as possible. Once you feel all bases are covered, start writing! Starting the writing process is the scariest part but it also feels so good, because you are on the home stretch. Researching and finding the information you need to form your argument can be the most stressful part!

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Use the holidays

You’ll hate me for saying this, but you need to make use of your Christmas holidays. Personally, I wrote my first draft over Christmas, and while it meant I didn’t have a lot of free time to relax, I was ahead of schedule when I got back in January. This also means that, as soon as the first draft is written, that’s it. All of your ideas are down on paper, and editing is a breeze compared to everything you have tackled up until then! But please make sure you do take time to relax as well, to keep the stress levels down (if possible!)

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Writing the first draft

Don’t write in chapter order. I always leave the introduction until last, because even though you have an idea of what you want to talk about in each section, your writing can take you to wild places, and you can end up discussing some things you didn’t initially plan to discuss. Write the main chapters first, and make sure you form a strong argument. They say the reader shouldn’t have to read a sentence twice to understand it, so make sure the writing is clear. I learnt a great argument structure in school, which was known as P.E.E. Some of you may know it, but it stands for Point, Example, Explain. You need to go slightly further with a dissertation considering the level of work that is expected, so I swap the Explain for Analyse (P.E.A, it still works!). Make your point, give an example in the form of an visual or description, and then analyse that point. That structure was really helpful for me to make sure I was fully explaining my arguments. Do this for every point you make, making sure you back up everything you say with quotes, and you’re on the right track. I recommend finishing your first draft slightly under the word count, so when you come to edit, if you’re adding loads in, you don’t tip over the maximum (I was so close to doing this, but I managed to keep it under the max word count by about 100 words in the end!)

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Editing

Once the first draft is written, editing feels a lot easier. All of your ideas are there, and you just have to make sure they are explained clearly, and you are getting your point across without using too many words. Simplify it right down, and get others to read parts you are unsure of. You have just spent 4 months researching and writing, you know the topic so well it makes absolute sense to you, but someone who knows nothing about the topic needs to be able to understand the point you are trying to make. Now no offence to any members of your family, but get them to read it, because if they can understand it, it means you have done a good job! In the end, I completed about 5 edits of my dissertation, each one taking about a week to complete. There is so much to keep in your mind when reading through your writing, so it’s sometimes easier to just focus on one thing at a time, for example, does everything make sense, have I explained this clearly, have I backed up my argument, etc. These are all key things to be on the lookout for. Whilst editing, make sure you make a note of any parts you are unsure about, and get your supervisor to read through them in your meetings. They will be able to see if there is anything missing, or reassure you that it does make sense and you are just overthinking it (which happened to me quite a bit!)

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Print and finish early

It may seem like a waste of time, but printing early and handing in even a few days before the deadline saves so much stress on your end. Make sure your printing is fairly good quality, and all the pages are in the right order. If you need to bind the dissertation, make sure this is done in good time in case something goes wrong and you have reprint and rebind it. Giving yourself that extra time means you have leeway if things go wrong. You also feel a lot less rushed, which means less stress (and it also makes you look super organised if your ready to hand in days before anyone else!)

And once you’ve printed, bound, and slotted your piece of blood, sweat and tears dissertation into your supervisor’s pigeon hole, all will feel right with the world, and a weight will be lifted off your shoulders…until it’s time to start the next assignment!

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For those of you who are writing your dissertation now, or getting to the point where you are thinking about writing, even if you’re not writing it until next year, I wish you all the best of luck, and I hope you found these hints and tips on how I tackled the dissertation helpful to your own studies. Feel free to leave comments if you want to know anything else, and I will try my best to help. Of course, I am only a student, but I can advise the best I can based on my own experience!

Until next time…

Jade 🙂

All gifs from giphy.com

By bookmuffin

I like books and tea. MA Children's Literature student.

3 replies on “How I Tackled The Dreaded Dissertation”

This is all such great advice, especially consulting with your supervisor. When I was doing my senior thesis in college (for my major, you had to be invited to write one, so not everyone did), our group asked a professor if anyone ever actually failed the thesis. She said only one person ever had–and that was because he had ignored feedback from his advisor. Basically, you should be getting enough feedback and advice during the writing process that your grade (or whether you pass at all!) should not be a total shock to you.

That said, someone my year became the second person to fail the thesis. I wasn’t in on the details, but my impression was that she just panicked and never did any work on it. Her advisor convinced her to cobble something together at the last minute just to have something to turn in, but she did not pass. (Which, because the thesis was optional for my major, meant she didn’t graduate with honors in the major, but she could graduate. I think she needed “something to turn in” because “writing the thesis” counted for class credits, and she needed the credits to graduate.) …And all of this supports your other point about being familiar with the details of how theses work at your school.

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I’m glad you thought it was helpful! That’s an interesting system that you have to be invited to write a thesis, but I guess it means that those who aren’t up to it don’t have to do it? So it doesn’t affect their grade. My supervisor was so helpful, I always made sure I had questions for her, and got her to read bits of my work because I knew she could see what was missing. Meeting your supervisor is the most important thing you can do! Thanks for commenting ☺️

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I always thought the weirder thing about my college was that the way theses worked varied by major. Some required a thesis. For my major you needed to have a certain grade in the major to be invited to do a thesis (but you could decline to write one anyway). The math major didn’t have a thesis at all.

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