The season is upon us again, and the classic cloisters dissertation hand in photos are flooding Facebook. For those of you who have been putting off your dissertation in the hope that it will write itself, the time has come to face up to it. At this point in the year it might feel like all is lost, but there is still time. You can still pull this off.
Before I start, it’s important to clear something up. This is not a Tab-style boast about how I wrote my dissertation in 12 hours and still got a first and a personal congratulation from Anton Muscatelli. A dissertation should be a labour of love. It is your only chance in your degree to produce a piece of work that is entirely yours, from question to research and finally submission. Failing to take full advantage of this opportunity is the biggest regret I have from my university days, but life doesn’t always go as planned.
This time last year, I had just watched my classmates submit their dissertations whilst mine was still in the vague planning stage that most people get over in the spring of their third year. Due to a combination of my own bad mental health and unexpected family illness, I had messed up. I thought it was too late. This leads me to my first piece of advice. Ask for help. Owning up to the fact I’d been ignoring the most important piece of work in my university career was hard, but it was nowhere near as difficult as the months of angst I put myself through trying to work up the courage to email my supervisor. Get in touch with your supervisor and, if you have been facing extenuating circumstances, your department’s student support team. They are there to help, and they want you to succeed.
Now for the hard bit. You need to pull off a piece of work designed to be completed over the course of an academic year in a matter of months or weeks. In my case, it ended up being days. I went from a vague plan with no research to a submitted dissertation in 5 days. It is not pleasant, but it is possible. First things first, break it down. A dissertation sounds big and scary, but in reality it is built up to be a far bigger deal than it actually is. My dissertation came to 9393 words. That’s the length of three course essays.
My next piece of advice, be realistic. At this stage you are not going to produce a piece of research that will change the world. It’s unlikely you will have time to do primary research. Settle on an achievable theory-based topic and stick to it. Choose something you can easily break down into sections, and get researching. At this stage you don’t have time to read every book in the library, so streamline your reading. Go back to those handy course guides from subjects related to your topic and take a look in that further reading section we all choose to ignore. Start taking detailed notes of any useful information you find. Most importantly, note down the reference! You do not want to be searching for a reference from something you read last week half an hour before hand in. Choose your reading carefully. If something isn’t proving useful, don’t bother. You don’t have time to waste.
Now for the scary bit: writing. Write your contents page first, with chapters and sub chapters. With 48 hours till hand in, I made a plan which only required each subchapter to be 500 words long. 500 words is nothing. It’s achievable. Take one small chunk at a time. Writing a dissertation sounds daunting, but anyone can write 500 words on a topic they’ve been reading about for days beforehand. Don’t think about the next bit. After each 500 word chunk, treat yourself to a coffee and a library cookie and think about the next 500 words. Before you know it, those 500 words will start to add up.
Be very clear of your question and know what you are leading up to. Keep repeating why each section supports the main conclusion of your research. Recruit a group of friends and send them sections to proofread as you go. They can tell you if what you’ve written makes sense. Don’t be afraid to change your question if what you’re writing ends up not fitting the question you wrote. Most importantly, keep reminding yourself that you can do this. Many stressed students have done it before you, and the last minute dissertations will continue for generations after you have graduated and left behind these ivory towers.
After 5 very stressful caffeinated days, I handed in my dissertation and achieved a B3 grade. I still would not recommend the path I took. However, this does show that if you are in a similar position, all is not lost. So get off Facebook, email your supervisor and start reading. You can do this.