Your approach to one of the most important challenges of your academic career will determine the quality of your finished work - discover how to devise and stick to a work schedule
Devoting sufficient time to planning and structuring your written work while at university is important, but when it comes to that all-encompassing dissertation, it's essential that you prepare well.
From settling on a topic and coming up with a title, to the moment that you hand it in, the process is guaranteed to set you on an emotional rollercoaster of excitement, self-doubt, panic and euphoria. See our tips on managing stress.
Irrespective of whether it's your undergraduate, Masters or PhD dissertation you're gearing up for, the following pointers should help to keep you on track.
Choose your research topic carefully
It's vital that your research topic is something that you find engaging and meaningful -perhaps an issue that fits with your career aspirations, and is important to the wider academic community, explains Dr Alexandra Patel, learning development adviser at the University of Leicester's Learning Institute.
'Your dissertation is an opportunity to showcase your thoughts and ideas, investigate an area in greater depth and consolidate previous knowledge,' adds Michelle Schneider, learning adviser at the University of Leeds. 'Picking something you're genuinely interested in will keep you motivated.'
If you're struggling for ideas, you can research course materials, academic journals, newspapers and other media, to identify current issues that relate to your field and to find some inspiration for your dissertation subject.
Additionally, Alexandra recommends that you work with your supervisor to agree a clear focus or research question, benefitting from their understanding of the research area, appropriate methods, and what might be achievable within your time frame.
'Consider why it is important to tackle the topic you have chosen,' she says. Once you've summarised your findings, think about how they link back to your justification of why this is an important question or topic.
Check what's required of you
Christie Pritchard, learning developer at Plymouth University, recommends that you familiarise yourself with your faculty's ethics protocols, module handbooks and referencing style guides to prevent any silly, costly mistakes. Before you begin to plan, make sure you understand what's expected of you. You should endeavour to find out:
- what academic writing looks like in your discipline
- the word count
- when and where you must submit your dissertation.
Alexandra advises students to ask questions of other dissertations or academic writing in their chosen discipline, including:
- how is a dissertation structured?
- what types of source are used?
- how are these sources used?
- what forms of analysis are perceived as appropriate?
Finally, Alexandra points out that you can consider developing a shared understanding of what a dissertation is, through discussion with your supervisor.
Have a clear goal and structure
Christie suggests that once you've settled on your topic, you're then ready to write a dissertation proposal. By demonstrating how your research area is relevant, your introduction, literature review and methodology will become easier to tackle. 'Your proposal outlines the purpose of your dissertation and how you intend to go about your research.'
Sticking closely to a plan will help you remain focused without getting too overambitious with your research, which increases your chances of developing a strong and coherent argument. Knowing where your ideas are headed will ensure that you remain on track and only relevant points are made.
If the direction does shift somewhat, there's no problem with adjusting your plan - but your title, headings and content will have to be revised accordingly. Talking through your revised dissertation plan or structure with your supervisor can help you stay focused on the research, and determine if it's logical.
As you consider what needs to be achieved by the submission deadline, Christie recommends that you factor in time for:
- reading and researching
- gathering and analysing data
- structuring and restructuring
- drafting and redrafting
- printing and binding.
This careful approach can be rewarded by the end result, suggests Alexandra, who also recommends Gantt charts as a useful tool for planning the research and writing process for some writers.
Write as you go
When you are ready to begin writing, aim for a suitable target, for example 1,000 words each week, as this can be both motivating and productive. 'Can you use a meeting with your supervisor as a useful deadline?' poses Alexandra.
Start writing straight away, and use the writing process as a tool to help you better understand the topic. Check that you've addressed everything you want to cover once a section is complete. Each should serve its own particular function, linking well with the rest of the content.
'Your writing helps you to make better sense of the topic as you try to develop the narrative, and as you understand it more, your analysis, interpretation and emphasis will change. Editing can be the beginning, not the endpoint of your writing,' says Alexandra.
You should frequently back up, make research notes and maintain a comprehensive list of your sources. 'Keeping track of what you've been reading and where it came from will save you hours of work later on,' says Christie. 'It can be extremely difficult to remember where ideas came from, particularly when you have books piled high and folders bursting with journal articles.'
Continue to question
Alexandra's colleague, Marta Ulanicka, also a learning development adviser at Leicester, stresses the importance of maintaining a questioning and critical mindset throughout the dissertation process - both in relation to your own work and findings, as well as those of others.
'Remember to ask yourself how strongly you are convinced by a particular explanation or interpretation and why, and whether there are any potentially valid alternatives,' Marta suggests.
You will also need to explain your reasoning to the reader. 'As the author, you might think the justification for a particular point is obvious, but this might not be the case for someone coming across the concept for the first time. An assessor cannot give you the credit for forming a strong argument unless you provide evidence of how you reached a particular conclusion.'
As well as ensuring your bibliography contains plenty of references, make sure you've paid attention to the correct spelling of names and theories.
Don't underestimate the editing stage
A thorough editing process is vital to ensuring that you produce a well-structured, coherent and polished piece of work. Leave yourself sufficient time to engage with your writing at a number of levels - from reassessing the logic of the whole piece, to proofreading, to checking that you have paid attention to aspects such as the correct spelling of names and theories and the required referencing format. 'The art of editing' study guide from the University of Leicester suggests a five stage process and provides further guidance on what might be involved at each stage.
As well as ensuring your main argument is supported by relevant citations, make it clear to the reader that you are aware of the contributions of the most influential theories and research within your topic. This is because not doing so might make a writer appear ill-informed.
Enjoy the achievement
If you've used your time efficiently and adhered to a plan, even if things don't go exactly how you envisaged, there's no need to panic. Remember, you've chosen your dissertation topic after careful consideration, so ignore any irrational thoughts about possibly starting again from scratch.
'Your dissertation is a chance to research, create knowledge and address an important issue within your discipline,' says Dr Patel, so remain focused on your objective and you can be satisfied with your efforts.
Ultimately, your dissertation will become one of your greatest-ever achievements. 'Completing your dissertation will be difficult at times, but make the most of it and you'll look back with pride,' adds Christie.
Written by Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
Prospects · February 2017
Also in this section…
You may also like…
Many PhD students are now in the final throes of writing their thesis. Turning years of research into a single, coherent piece of work can be tough, so we asked for tips from supervisors and recent PhD graduates. We were inundated with tweets and emails – and @AcademiaObscura helpfully created a Storify of the tweets. Below is a selection of the best tips.
1) Make sure you meet the PhD requirements for your institution
“PhD students and their supervisors often presume things without checking. One supervisor told his student that a PhD was about 300 pages long so he wrote 300 pages. Unfortunately the supervisor had meant double-spaced, and the student had written single-spaced. Getting rid of 40,000 extra words with two weeks to go is not recommended.” (Hannah Farrimond, lecturer in medical sociology, Exeter University)
2) Keep perspective
“Everyone wants their thesis to be amazing, their magnum opus. But your most important work will come later. Think of your PhD as an apprenticeship. Your peers are unlikely to read your thesis and judge you on it. They are more likely to read any papers (articles, chapters, books) that result from it.” (Dean D’Souza, PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Birkbeck, University of London)
3) Write the introduction last
“Writing the introduction and conclusion together will help to tie up the thesis together, so save it for the end.” (Ashish Jaiswal, PhD in business education, University of Oxford)
4) Use apps
“Trello is a project management tool (available as a smartphone app) which allows you to create ‘boards’ on which to pin all of your outstanding tasks, deadlines, and ideas. It allows you to make checklists too so you know that all of your important stuff is listed and to-hand, meaning you can focus on one thing at a time. It’s satisfying to move notes into the ‘done’ column too.” (Lucy Irving, PhD in psychology, Middlesex University)
5) Address the unanswered questions
“There will always be unanswered questions – don’t try to ignore or, even worse, obfuscate them. On the contrary, actively draw attention to them; identify them in your conclusion as areas for further investigation. Your PhD viva will go badly if you’ve attempted to disregard or evade the unresolved issues that your thesis has inevitably opened up.” (Michael Perfect, PhD in English literature, University of Cambridge)
6) Buy your own laser printer
“A basic monochrome laser printer that can print duplex (two-sided) can be bought online for less than £100, with off-brand replacement toners available for about £30 a pop. Repeatedly reprinting and editing draft thesis chapters has two very helpful functions. Firstly, it takes your work off the screen and onto paper, which is usually easier to proof. Secondly, it gives you a legitimate excuse to get away from your desk.” (James Brown, PhD in architectural education, Queen’s University Belfast)
7) Checking is important
“On days when your brain is too tired to write, check quotations, bibliography etc so you’re still making progress.” (Julia Wright, professor of English at Dalhousie University, Canada)
8) Get feedback on the whole thesis
“We often get feedback on individual chapters but plan to get feedback from your supervisor on the PhD as a whole to make sure it all hangs together nicely.” (Mel Rohse, PhD in peace studies, University of Bradford)
9) Make sure you know when it will end
“Sometimes supervisors use optimistic words such as ‘You are nearly there!’ Ask them to be specific. Are you three months away, or do you have six months’ worth of work? Or is it just a month’s load?” (Rifat Mahbub, PhD in women’s studies, University of York)
10) Prepare for the viva
“Don’t just focus on the thesis – the viva is very important too and examiners’ opinions can change following a successful viva. Remember that you are the expert in your specific field, not the examiners, and ask your supervisor to arrange a mock viva if practically possible.” (Christine Jones, head of school of Welsh and bilingual studies, University of Wales Trinity St David)
11) Develop your own style
“Take into account everything your supervisor has said, attend to their suggestions about revisions to your work but also be true to your own style of writing. What I found constructive was paying attention to the work of novelists I enjoy reading. It may seem that their style has nothing to do with your own field of research, but this does not matter. You can still absorb something of how they write and what makes it effective, compelling and believable.” (Sarah Skyrme, PhD in sociology, Newcastle University)
12) Remember that more is not always better
“A PhD thesis is not a race to the highest page count; don’t waste time padding.” (Francis Woodhouse, PhD in mathematical biology, University of Cambridge)
13) Get a buddy
“Find a colleague, your partner, a friend who is willing to support you. Share with them your milestones and goals, and agree to be accountable to them. This doesn’t mean they get to hassle or nag you, it just means someone else knows what you’re up to, and can help to check if your planning is realistic and achievable.” (Cassandra Steer, PhD in criminology, University of Amsterdam)
14) Don’t pursue perfectionism
“Remember that a PhD doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Nothing more self-crippling than perfectionism.” (Nathan Waddell, lecturer in modernist literature, Nottingham University)
15) Look after yourself
“Go outside. Work outside if you can. Fresh air, trees and sunshine do wonders for what’s left of your sanity.” (Helen Coverdale, PhD in law, LSE)
• Do you have any tips to add? Share your advice in the comments below.
Join the higher education network for more comment, analysis and job opportunities, direct to your inbox. Follow us on Twitter @gdnhighered.