I submitted my dissertation this week, and I can’t quite believe it’s finished! Writing a dissertation is often seen as the culmination of what you’ve learned in your degree; you can choose to write it on whatever interests you, bringing in your knowledge and perspective to make an original piece of work. At 9,000 words, it’s the longest piece of work most of us have ever done. We handed in our research proposals right at the beginning of the academic year, so it really is months in the making! It feels quite strange to know that it’s finally gone and out of my hands — but also a relief! It has certainly been hard work, but I genuinely enjoyed writing it. With all this dissertation-writing wisdom, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my experiences and a couple of things I wish I had known back in September.
The first, and most important, learning curve of the process: everything takes longer than you expect it to. Whether it’s in the long term (i.e. how long you expect the planning stage to take) or the smaller tasks (i.e. how long to write one particular paragraph), I always underestimated my timings. This made me feel like I was behind and trying to catch up with where I thought I would be, which only makes the process more stressful than it needs to be. If you can, I’d recommend allocating bigger chunks of time than you think you need for each task and stage of the process. If it doesn’t take you that long, then you have that time available for other things — especially important, as unexpected challenges pop up all the time. If you underestimate all your timings, and realise at the last minute that there’s a time-consuming issue to deal with, everything becomes a rush. I know that it’s much easier said than done, because Third Year is always keeping you busy with other deadlines and work. However, setting aside enough time to get the work done will make your life so much easier in the long run!
That segues nicely into the old favourite — organising your time. They tell you to make a big, overarching plan for the year right at the beginning, and this is definitely good advice! It can be as simple and broad as making a checklist of things you’d like to have done by the end of each term, or as precise as setting deadlines for yourself to complete particular tasks. For us, there were no formal deadlines for first drafts or smaller chunks of work during the year, meaning the only time bound we had was the final deadline. Unless you organise the time on a long term basis, it can be really easy to leave all the work till the last minute. You may not stick to the plan, or might have to rewrite it as the year goes on, but having just a rough guide of what you should be getting on with puts you in a much better position when April comes around.
Be prepared for your ideas to change. I lost track of how many times I changed my title! I spent a lot of time researching particular topics, thinking they’d form a big chunk of the essay, but ended up cutting them out entirely when I started writing. As I’m sure you will have found with any other essay, the finished product always ends up looking quite different to what you imagined. You start writing, and an idea doesn’t pan out the way you wanted, or you think of something better when you get started. For me, this only magnified with a longer essay. This was probably a big contributor in tasks taking me longer than I expected — when my plans changed as I started writing, I needed more time to go back to the drawing board and think about things. I think that changing your plans is a good thing. It means you’ve learned something or come up with a new idea which is better and more nuanced than when you started, and probably means you’ve thought carefully about your topic.
At the beginning of the year, 9,000 words sounded pretty scary. It helped me to think of it as 3 smaller essays, which I made into chapters, which all needed to be tied together. I soon found that I could have written a much longer essay, because you have to do a lot of research to get your ideas in order. I wouldn’t worry about the word count — no one I’ve spoken to struggled to make it up to 9,000, but most find it tricky to get it down to 9,000. With a topic you enjoy (because you chose it) and that you’ve spent a lot of time researching and thinking about, I think you’ll have plenty to say. Try not to be daunted by the project, because once you get started, you quickly get into the flow and it becomes much more manageable.
If you’re starting to think about your upcoming dissertation, or deciding if you want to opt in to write one, hopefully this blog has provided some insight. It was hard work, and certainly challenging at times, but I was proud to have put together a piece of work entirely based on my own interests and ideas.