How scary is a dissertation, really?

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Published by Beth
on 20/05/2020

Writing a dissertation is infamous for being a terrifying and painstaking process. However, I feel I’ve been really lucky with how the process has gone. It’s coming up to deadline day, and my dissertation is sitting on my desktop, waiting for one final proof-read before I send it off and leave it in the hands of my markers.

At times there has been stress and particularly in the early stages of developing an idea, it felt like a big ask to come up with an idea that was new, original, exciting, important and big enough, but not too big to write about in 12,000 words. I should say, that I study English Literature, but other subjects have different word counts.

In one of my first dissertation supervision sessions of the year, my supervisor told me to think of the dissertation as three 3,000 word essays with a 1,500 word introduction and conclusion. I get that this was meant to make the process appear more manageable, but the thought of writing 3 3,000 word essays that all had to link, but not overlap seemed more than just hard.

One thing that really helped me was talking to academics other than my supervisor. I spoke to lecturers who worked within fields I was thinking about writing within, and just in having these conversations, new ideas came to the fore. In fact, one lecturer recommended I read a book which ended up being a central text in my dissertation. After reading the book, I went back to the lecturer to talk about it, and in that discussion three themes emerged as things I seemed most interested in. These three themes became the basis for my three chapters.

Then began the heavy-duty research. I had done some broad reading about disability studies, which I knew was going to be key to my dissertation. But when I had a broad chapter outline, I began to gather as much material as I could that was more specific to the themes I was discussing. I even re-read some of the material I’d already read, because reading for specific information is a different to general reading, I’ve found.

I gathered all the key extracts, quotes and points of interest in a word document, and tried my best to write the full references as I went along, and always made note of the page number from which the quote was from. This was something that my supervisor repeatedly stressed to me, and though its painful and boring and tedious, she was right and it made life so much easier in the long run.

I re-read my core texts. And read them again. In fact, I can’t even remember how many times I read them, but I re-read them for each chapter I wrote, at least, highlighting, making notes and jotting down ideas in different colours for each chapter. This might seem a long-winded way to go about things, but it really helped me, and meant I got more and more familiar with my source material.

When I had a huge document of notes and quotes, I read through the whole thing and highlighted this for key quotes and ideas. This narrowed down a lot of research even more, again with my three themes in mind, because you’ll always do more research than you can actually use.

When I began writing, I began writing chapter one. Although I knew I needed an introduction, this was going to be an overview of the whole dissertation, and I didn’t know enough about what I was going to write quite yet to write this. So I began chapter one, defining and explaining the concepts I needed for that specific chapter. In the end, a lot of these explanations ended up in the introduction, so it was not a waste of time.

I planned all three chapters like they were three individual essays. I had a short plan, which was essentially bullet points, and then an in-depth plan, that had key quotes, ideas, theorists etc that I planned to use. This meant that when I actually came to start writing, I essentially had everything I needed to just write. I found this much easier than trying to research alongside writing.

My aim with the dissertation had been to work little and often towards completing it. At first, I set the same time each week as ‘Dissertation Time’. I kept this up for a while, but, I began to let it slip. I didn’t stress too much, though, because I knew I had time, and I also knew there was no point forcing myself at that point.

as long as I did some every week, whether that was reading, idea-storming, or something else, I felt like it was all building towards the end goal.

Having a good plan meant I could stop mid-chapter and be able to pick up again writing where I left off. That was helpful. And sometimes, I left myself a little note to remind myself what I was planning to write next.

Staying motivated was tricky, sometimes, but you have to do it at some point, and even if I only wrote 200 words, that was more than nothing.

Once I had a draft, I gave it a full proof-read, then sent it to two lovely friends to proof-read again (because I read what I expect to read!). Having time to do this has been great, and meant I didn’t need to put pressure on my lovely readers to be fast. While they were proof reading the main body, I was able to check my references and bibliography, and do all the finicky formatting so I lose as few marks on presentation as possible!

I haven’t had the mad panic or rush in finishing this dissertation and I have genuinely enjoyed writing it. Of course, at times I got fed-up, tired or bored. But nothing having a break couldn’t fix. I went weeks, at times, without looking at my dissertation. Though this wasn’t my plan, it was what I needed and it has all worked out.

Overall, my advise is pretty simple. Write about something that interests you, work on it little and often, talk about your ideas, and plan!