Dissertation Series · University

Nearing the finish line: My Dissertation How To – Part 1

After neglecting my blog for several months, I now have (a little) time to get myself back together and get writing again. This time I’m back talking about dissertations, my experiences and some of my tips and advice that I’ve picked up along the way. 5 tips will feature in this week’s post, and another 5 the following week!

From the title of my post, you can see that I’m going to talk about my dissertation – I should start with a disclaimer that every dissertation will be different, every department might ask for different requirements, each institution might have different requirements and each country will have different requirements when it comes to dissertations.

For anyone unfamiliar with what a dissertation is, Oxford Dictionaries defines it as

‘a long essay on a particular subject, especially one written for a university degree or diploma.’

Some countries might also call it a thesis. Depending on whether your course is social science, humanities, science etc. the parameters of your dissertation might be different – generally speaking they all are based on some type of research. Dissertations can be completed at Undergraduate and Postgraduate level – the main difference between the two is the high word count at Postgraduate level.  As I said above, each country might be slightly different, but the majority of the references or links I’ll include will be targeted towards the UK higher education system and my own experiences, although lots of the advice will stand for anyone writing a longer essay.

For a great step-by-step breakdown of a dissertation and the background behind it, I highly recommend the article ‘What is a dissertation?’ by the University of Birmingham. Whilst it’s aimed at undergraduate students of social sciences, it will help anyone unsure or unfamiliar with the British system understand how dissertations fit into undergraduate courses. For more generic advice and help with the dissertation process, I also recommend ‘Writing a dissertation’ by the University of Leicester. There’s plenty of easily Google-able information about writing advice online from The Telegraph and The Guardian newspapers.

Without further ado, let’s look at my first 5 tips and advice about dissertations:

  1. Writing a dissertation is not easy – even if you’re someone who likes to write. This may seem logical, but hear me out. I’m someone who quite likes to write – I know several people, my dad included, who would not be suited for writing and essay based courses, it’s just not their thing. HOWEVER, even as someone who does like writing, and finds it quite enjoyable, it’s still no easy task. There are two important things to remember even before you start – yes dissertations are difficult, even if you’re the best writer, with the best ideas, and all the time in the world, they’re not an easy task – which is precisely why they make you wait until the very end of your course to write one. You need all the skills you’ve learned in the modules before to help you write this essay. The second thing to remember is that, whilst it is difficult, it’s not impossible – several thousand people every year write a dissertation and it never did them any harm! (except maybe some sleepless nights!) In all seriousness though, yes the dissertation is probably going to worth a lot of credits (my Postgrad dissertation is worth a third of the course, and my BA dissertation was a third of my final year marks) and it’s important to take it seriously, but it’s not worth getting ill over the stress of writing it. If it’s making you ill or feel physically ill, you need to talk to your supervisor or personal tutor to put things back in perspective.
  2. Use the time wisely. And I’m not just talking about the writing time. Before you even come up with an idea or put finger to keyboard, it’s important to know the basics, namely:
    1. Do you need to write a dissertation for your course? (sounds basic but you never know)
    2. If so, how many credits is it worth, and much weighting does that have for your degree overall? (For example, my undergrad dissertation was worth 60 credits in my final year. My final year was weighted 60% of my degree, therefore the dissertation played a large part in my overall grade since it was such a large amount of credit in the most important year.)
    3. What are the major deadlines? (Depending on your course, they may want you to write a proposal for your dissertation over the summer before your final year. If this is the case, then you may also need to show how you’ll manage your time – thus it’s important to know what the major milestones are and when the dissertation needs to be submitted. It also will show you how much time you’ve got to write. At undergrad I had the whole year to write it up, at Postgrad I have about three months.)
    4. Do you have to pick a dissertation supervisor or will one be appointed to you? (This is a difficult one because there’s no hard and fast rule, to give some perspective I can tell you that for my BA I had to research my department as to who would be suitable for my supervisor, by looking at their biographies and interests on the official uni department page. Despite all this, I was assigned a different person. For my Masters, the uni asked me for a rough outline of what I wanted to write about and the title, and then I was assigned a supervisor – but I didn’t actually have a concrete idea of what I wanted to write about yet. Make sure you know which way they work and if you don’t know – ASK!)
    5. What is the word count? (Again, an obvious one, but it is very important to know how many words your dissertation needs to be – generally there is some leeway – mine is between 18-20,000 words but my undergraduate one was lower at 10,000 with 10% either way. It’s also important to know if bibliography, footnotes, introductions, abstracts are included or excluded in the word count. There is nothing worse than having a week to go and realising that you’re 5,000 words out because you’ve misunderstood the word limit.)
  3. Research, Research, Research – even before you write. Coming up with an idea for a dissertation may be hard or it may be easy. The biggest cliché, of course, it to start from something that you are interested in and go from there – it may be clichéd but it’ll make your life easier in the long run. For my undergraduate dissertation I had an idea of what I wanted to write about – translation of Harry Potter into German – but because of my subject matter, I needed to find a translation theory to use as the analysis criteria. Looking through different books I came across a case study that matched my idea and discussed a theory that I could use in my analysis – success! Depending on your course this type of idea may or may not be possible. Your supervisor can help you with theories or applications of your ideal topic, but they CANNOT come up with one for you. That’s not their job; you need to decide for yourself what you do and don’t want to write about.
  4. Keep a record of everything. Once you have an idea you’ll probably start some internet or book research to get a better and wider view of information. What I highly recommend is either writing the book and chapter title down or copying the web address into a blank Word Document and keeping any interesting articles saved there – this will also help with a bibliography in the long run too. There’s nothing more annoying than looking at a website in October that has useful info, forgetting about it and then desperately trying to find it again in June, 3 weeks before the deadline by Googling every possible permutation of your topic. This too may seem obvious but I’m talking about almost every website you read – as long as it’s not completely useless – and copying the web address. You never know when something will slip into your brain by osmosis and you can’t remember where it came from – to help save yourself from fraudulently misusing information, keeping a record enables you to look back and include everything you’ve come across into you bibliography. When I make notes on a book chapter, I also put the page number after the bullet points in [square brackets] so that I can reference more easily later.
  5. Make some sort of plan. Some dissertation proposals will require a very detailed plan of what you intend to cover in your essay – some will even want a draft title very early on. I must admit I’m not a planning person – I like to write freestyle, but even making a brief note about which chapter headings you’ll write about and which order they’ll go in is a good way to start. As you write you might decide to change or add new sections, so keeping a contents type page with the different section headings is a good way to start. It’s also helpful for crossing off sections that are completed or colour coding those that need reviewing, editing or are finished etc. I don’t like to be confined by an essay plan – I like to write freely – even so, a list of sections is important no matter your writing style.

For more about dissertation writing itself, read my post from last year ‘How to Write a Dissertation – Part 1‘ and come back next week, when I’ll give you my final 5 tips for thesis writing. I’ll also be talking about my dissertation as the final 5 week count down begins!




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