Would you like some free dissertation tips?!
I’m the author of 101 tips for planning, writing and surviving your dissertation.
I am delighted that it’s helping make the dissertation journey easier for students.
And for anyone who would like a taster to see if it’s for you, here’s the first chapter, for free…
1. Hello, add salt, and this is meant to be fun!
Welcome to your dissertation journey!
Or, if you have begun your journey already, welcome to this book of tips which I hope will help you wherever you are on that path. I’ve not written a separate introduction, because this isn’t that kind of book. It’s a book of snippets, tips and ideas which I have gathered over two and a half decades of experience of writing my own dissertations and theses (which numbered three at the last count – I’d like to think I’m done now, but never say never…) and of supervising, tutoring, advising on and marking hundreds of others.
That is not to say I know everything by any means, but I’ve been midwife to many people on their research journeys. These people have mostly been students of midwifery, but I’ve also supported and supervised people undertaking research in areas as wide-ranging as medicine, engineering, women’s studies, statistics, philosophy, education, nursing, travel and tourism, psychology, science, anthropology, information studies and epidemiology. As you might imagine, different kinds of people are drawn to different disciplines, and for this and many other reasons there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
So my first tip is that, because we are all so different, the best overall advice I can offer is to suggest that you read these and any other tips you can get your hands on, add a pinch of salt and then decide whether each is something that you can use in your own journey or not. Some won’t be, and that’s great.
Maybe they’ll be just what the next person needs to read. Perhaps you’ll realise that one suggestion is the complete reverse of what you need to do, or so far away from what you need that it will make you spend all afternoon trying to work out why that is. Maybe that will lead you to a revelation of something that is useful for you. It’s all food for thought, and thought is the order of the day. But if you can enjoy the ride, then so much the better!
Because I work mostly in the British academic system, I tend to use the terms ‘dissertation’ when I am talking about undergraduate and Masters-level work, and ‘thesis’ when I am talking about PhDs. I know it’s the other way around in some other countries, but there is no universal system that won’t confuse someone. I also know that a number of departments now have people write undergraduate projects or extended literature reviews in place of traditional dissertations. Some people have a tutor, some have a supervisor and some have two or more. With all this in mind, I’m going to alternate the terms I use and ask you to please adapt as necessary.
2. Get your head around the fact that your first goal is a first draft
This is probably the best tip I can offer you in terms of value, so I want to spell it out as soon as possible. If I was writing a book called ‘One tip for planning, writing and surviving your dissertation’, this would be it: unlike when you’re writing an essay, writing a dissertation is a multi-stage process. You need to write a first draft first, and then you work on that draft until you have a dissertation. In other words, the process is iterative.
Unfortunately, I don’t think enough people get told that, especially at undergraduate level, and many people set off on their dissertation journey thinking that writing a dissertation is like writing an essay. The problem is that many people can write an essay in one draft and then just add a few finishing touches before handing it in.
Not so with a dissertation.
Dissertations, theses and undergraduate projects are bigger beasts than essays, and they often contain multiple storylines, subplots and complexities. Research journeys also have this really annoying habit of hiding away nuggets of under-standing, like lost cities in valleys, until you have just reached the last section. So, just as the end is in sight, you turn the last corner on the metaphorical path and realise something amazing about the area you’ve researched. And your heart sinks, because you realise that you’ve used up your allocated word limit now and if you want to talk about the amazing thing then you’ll have to redo the whole of the middle section and lose some of your precious work in order to have enough room to fit it in.
Sure, I have known undergraduate students who decided to hand in their first draft, often because they ran out of time or energy, and I am never less than honest so I will tell you that some of the people who hand in a good first draft get a degree for it. But some don’t. Either way, if you take a little break and a deep breath after you write the first draft and then go back and write a second draft, and maybe even a third one, your dissertation (and possibly your future academic career, if you fancy one) will almost certainly benefit.
This is, of course, much easier to do if you have previously absorbed the idea that this is a document which needs to be written and then written again; not necessarily from scratch, but significant amounts of cutting and pasting and deleting may be involved. Once you’ve done that first draft, it is important to cheer, make a nice dinner, go out on the town, hug your kids or whatever floats your boat. But know that you need to come back to the computer after you’ve had a suitable break, and turn your great first draft into an even greater dissertation.
If you didn’t already realise that you would need to write multiple drafts, then it may just be that you need to adjust your thinking about where the finish line is. It’s helpful to do that as early as possible, which is why this is tip number 2. This is a good thing, because it also means that you can relax a bit in getting to that first hurdle of the first draft. It’s not your final dissertation, see?! It’s just a first draft, so you can chill out and enjoy getting there rather than agonising over every word. Get the words down first, and polish them later. You can even leave a few gaps and notes here and there if you want to … it’s just a first draft!
3. Block out the last month on your calendar now
The third of my three best pieces of advice is that this journey is almost certainly going to take you longer than you think it will and that things will happen along the way that you’re not expecting to happen. I hope they’re good things, like having to get your photo taken for the paper after winning the lottery, or flying to Scandinavia to collect your Nobel Prize, but stuff will happen that you don’t expect and that will need your attention. It is also a fundamental law of the Universe that roughly 80% of computers or printers owned by people writing theses or dissertations will break down, contract a virus or otherwise go haywire within the last month of their research journey. (I’m only half-joking here!)
The best way to counteract this is to move the finishing line at the beginning. If you have a target date by which you need to hand in your work, then bring it forward by a few weeks. That way, you’ve built in leeway for the last-minute stuff. Of course it’s great if you can also try not to use this extra time up within the first month, but we’re only human and there’s only so much we can do to try and protect our future selves from stress!
Also, this may not be the time to go on a diet, give up chocolate or start rearranging your entire wardrobe. Which is not to say that people don’t do all of those things – especially the last one – while writing dissertations. Like all of these tips, you need to add salt and adapt to your situation. One of my lecturer friends pointed out to me that, for some people, this can be a positive opportunity to create new habits or routines which can help you be better organised.
So, now you’ve read my three best pieces of advice, I’ll start at the beginning with the question of how one finds a question. This isn’t a novel though, so if you’ve picked this book up because you’re currently stuck on literature searching or referencing, you won’t miss out by going straight to one of those sections. I have written the tips so that you either read the book cover to cover or dip in and out and read about what you need at the time. Because I know some people will do the latter, I’ve put in lots of cross references: if I think an earlier or later tip might be relevant in relation to the one you’re reading about, I’ve let you know that.
Or, for more information and to see the other tips that I have shared on my website, visit the book’s webpage 😀