Here’s how not to do your dissertation


Retrospect can be great for self-improvement but for me it is only an unkind reminder of all the things I did wrong whilst writing my dissertation. So someone may as well benefit from my mistakes and that someone may as well be you…By Nuala Clarke

Here’s how not to do your dissertation:

Don’t just do a topic because you like it

When I started to look at topics, I read books that touched upon a variety of different subjects until I found a couple that caught my interest. I’m rather partial to a bit of religious literature so I went for Dante’s Inferno. Turns out a lot of other people are interested in it too and there’s shed loads of material written on it. I’d hit gold. Or so I thought…

As it happens, lots of material written on your subject doesn’t actually make your life easier. It means that you’ll find it incredibly hard to write an original dissertation, in which you don’t just regurgitate what other scholars have already said. Rather, do your research and find a topic that hasn’t been done to death. It’ll make a more engaging research project for you and a more interesting read for your tutor.

Don’t wait and hope for your ideal tutor

The right tutor can make or break a dissertation, especially if this is your first large assignment. And it isn’t luck of the draw either. If you know that there’s a tutor that will benefit your style of working or one that has expertise on your subject, go and speak to them. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to chat about your ideas. This will also mean that they’re aware that you’d like them as a tutor, which will make all the difference when tutors are allocated. Similarly, if things aren’t working out with your tutor, ask to swap. It’s worth speaking up if you’re not happy, especially if this is going to affect your dissertation.

Also your tutor isn’t your keeper; it’s up to you to set periodical deadlines and keep to them!

Don’t be a stubborn know-it-all

I remember when my tutor told me not to use a particular word in a specific context. It seems quite trivial now, but at the time I was adamant that I was right in my vocabulary choices and proceeded to use the word anyway. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the best idea, seeing as my tutor was going to be marking my dissertation… So remember, your dissertation tutor with their PhD and years of experience probably knows a little bit about writing dissertations so do try to heed their advice.

Don’t over-read and under-write

Reading into your chosen subject is probably the best thing about doing a dissertation. As your knowledge grows, you feel more confident and sure in your topic. However, it’s tempting to read just one more little article when actually your time would be better spent writing something down. It’s actually rather difficult to convert all those pages of notes into a cohesive argument and it does take some time and dedication. I often found myself convincing myself and others that one more chapter was essential to my theory, until my friend told me that I was just procrastinating and to get on with it. Is denial the first stage of a dissertation?

Remember to keep track of everything you read! Try using Endnote Online to organise your bibliography.

Don’t write each chapter the day before it’s due

(I’m really hoping that my tutor doesn’t read this.) Yes, guilty. I’m one of those. And while it might have got me by with termly essays, it doesn’t really cut it when writing a 10,000 word dissertation.

So here’s my advice: write it as you go along. Your dissertation might look like a giant rambling thought explosion at first, but after some nifty editing, it’ll turn out much better than if you’d hastily written it in a fight against the clock. You’ll also be better able to move around your ideas when they’re all in front of you on paper, rather than grasping at half-formed thoughts in your head.

Leaving plenty of time will also mean you aren’t that person frantically running around trying to find somewhere to print and bind your dissertation the day before it’s due. Trust me, you don’t want to be left to the mercy of odd opening hours and a dodgy USB.

Top tip: work out your layout and presentation in advance. It took me hours to figure out how to begin my page numbers three sheets into a document.

So there we have it – how not to do your dissertation. With any luck you’ll be able to look back on your dissertation process without the lingering burden of regret. Help out your fellow students by commenting with any other tips!

Image: Head in Hands/Alex Proimos/CC BY-NC 2.0

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