Surviving The Dissertation Process

"The authors write from the position of the ideal mentor, presenting the issues doctoral students would like their chairpersons to discuss with them, yet rarely have done. Additionally, the student perspective is integrated into the text through numerous examples from a wide range of disciplines." 

(Marilyn M. Irwin The Library Quarterly)

"This book was my bible going through my dissertation. The authors’ clarity of writing and comprehensive thought allowed me to easily take the principles off the pages and put them into practice. I highly recommend it!" 

(Dennis S. Reina, Ph.D.)

"A must for anyone considering graduate school. While the entire book is extremely helpful, the author′s frequent use of charts, tables, lists and questions is an especially effective method to organize and summarize information. This book is also a worthwhile resource for those crafting and writing a thesis or dissertation... a practical and well-designed work that I highly recommend."

(Ellen Nagy NACADA Journal)

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Around this time last year I was contemplating my dissertation: what I would be writing about, which texts I would be writing on (I studied English Lit) and how on earth I would write 10,000 words. I handed my dissertation in nearly a month ago now and I thought I would share with you my five top tips for surviving the dissertation in the hope that, like me, you remain calm over the process and not a stress mess trying to write it all a week before it was due.

Pick a topic you find interesting

Now, obviously, dependent on your degree there may be some limitations as to what you can write about for your dissertation, but as my dissertation was an optional module, I could literally write about anything I wanted to. Even if yours is more restricted, hopefully there’s some leeway in what you can write about. It can be really daunting to think about what you find so interesting that you’re happy to write 10,000  words (or more for some degrees!) on, so take some time now while you can to think about what it is that really interests you. If you’ve already submitted an abstract for your dissertation (as I know this time last year I already had) I can tell you now that your initial idea within your abstract, and the actual finished idea within your dissertation are completely different. Choose a topic that you don’t mind reading various articles about, or doing different kinds of research over. Although my dissertation was technically a spring semester module, I was thinking/researching about mine for about a year (including the semester of which it was a part of). You will do a lot of work over the topic, so make sure it’s something that really sparks an interest, rather than just a sort of ‘eh’ feeling about it.

Start early

As I said in my last point, the actual time I spent over my dissertation was spread throughout a year. I can’t stress enough that you need to start thinking about it as soon as possible! If you’re making research lists, or drawing up mind maps, it’s nothing major at this stage but will really help when you actually get into the proper research as you’ve covered a lot now. Starting your research early also allows time for your ideas to change throughout your research and follow new lines of enquiry, rather than trying to find everything that you can to fit into a specific idea that you have. Starting now means that you don’t have to rush and experience that last minute panic (the only thing that really stressed me out over the whole process was trying to work out how to order through the University’s print services online!)

Use supervisor hours

I think that it depends on which degree you study as to how many hours with your supervisor you are restricted to, but however many it may be, don’t just rock up with a vague concept and no real questions; use this time to its fullest as, after all, your supervisor is one of the people marking your dissertation! You obviously don’t have to do every single thing that they say, but talking to your supervisor can spark new ideas or ways of thinking, or can specifically help you with things such as the style of your writing, or if they have any recommendations of research you could do. Honestly, you’ll thank yourself for taking the time to actually speak to your supervisor as there may come a time where you’re a bit stuck and as they’ve already spoken to you about your dissertation, will more than likely be able to resolve an issue a lot quicker than if they had no idea about it.

Make a timetable

I was required to send the module supervisor a rough timetable for my spring semester, and though I didn’t stick to it point by point, I found that pre-splitting my time was really helpful. It wasn’t a ‘on this day I will do this’ specific type of timetable, but I split mine into weeks and what I wanted to get done in those weeks, such as research, writing, or seeing my supervisor. Creating a timetable allows you to see how many weeks you have of writing/research and enables you to slot in commitments such as essays or exams for other modules which ensures that come that week, you’re not all flustered with those essays you have to write and all that writing you have to do for your dissertation. Pre-planning really helps, and I would give yourself more time than you think you will need as this covers eventualities such as needing more time to research, or work from another module taking longer than expected etc.

Get someone to read your dissertation

As my dissertation was an optional module and therefore a 20 credit module (whereas a lot of other humanities degrees weight their dissertation at 40 credits) my supervisor was able to read a draft of my dissertation. If your supervisor is not allowed to do this, I know some degrees let them read a certain number of pages or words, and this is incredibly helpful. Even after you’ve sent in your allowed number of pages/words, supervisors’ are more than happy to read through the odd paragraph if you feel it needs clarification. I also found that having my boyfriend and my coursemate read it through to check for those errors that appear after staring at a screen for too long was super helpful (I of course returned the favour!). Getting different people to read it allows for different perceptions on your piece, and other people will spot mistakes or have suggestions that you may not have spotted yourself.

I hope that these tips help you in the process of your upcoming dissertation, and I wish you the best of luck- be sure to enjoy your final year as the end comes round super quickly!

Have you just completed your dissertation? Do you have any tips that you would like to share?

Jess x

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