The One with the Dissertation
So, at the end of April, I submitted my dissertation, which is crazy. Of course, I always knew that I’d have to do one, but actually doing one felt surreal.
It was a bit of a shadow over my degree as long pieces were never my forte, but, having come out the other side, many of my anxieties were unfounded.
I wanted to put all my dissertation advice into one post for any incoming finalists or anyone else interested. This post is, of course, from the perspective of a history student, and I must preface it by saying I haven’t had my grade back yet, so this could all mean nothing in a few weeks!
The title was one of the most daunting tasks and pretty important since there wasn’t much I could do without one. It’s important to remember, in this sense, that there’s no need to have an exact question or topic before you start your research. Instead, a broad topic will do.
Speaking of topics, pick something that you are genuinely interested in! You’ll be researching and writing about it for a long time, so it will help if you actually care.
I would also recommend stepping out of your comfort zone. For my second-year research project, I kept it safe, allowing my anxieties over longer projects to get the better of me. As a result, I was complacent, and my grade wasn’t as good as it could have been. Perhaps pick a theme that you enjoy, like gender or politics, and examine it in a different country to what you would usually research.
Start broad with your research. Find a book or article that covers the general, overall history of your topic so you can find your footing. From there, you can use the author’s references and carry out some more nuanced research. Finally, write up a mock bibliography to know what topics you’re covering, and you can spot the gaps.
My supervisor’s advice was to leave your primary source(s) until the Christmas break. That way, you have the time to go through it thoroughly, and you won’t have to re-do it later down the line when you want to start writing. Try printing your source(s) out and scribbling your notes all over them – it doesn’t matter if they are a state, as long as they make sense to you.
Until the very end of writing my dissertation, I was convinced that I’d never in a million years be able to write 9,000 words. But I exceeded it in the end, just as my tutors told me I would. So I’m here to say that no matter how convinced you are that you don’t have enough to write, you will! It took me three years to learn that.
If you are worried about the word count, which is completely valid, try breaking your dissertation down as much as possible. For example, I ended up with about seven sections, all of which were around 1,000 words. Immediately that’s 7,000 words, not including introductions and conclusions or subheadings. It makes it more manageable and less overwhelming.
Ask for help.
When you submit your dissertation proposal, it’ll be used to match you with a dissertation supervisor who knows your topic. In my case, I was allocated the tutor for the module that my dissertation was based on. The key thing to remember is that they are there to help you!
My supervisor was great from the start – I sent over some broad ideas like empire, feminism and press. I received some incredible recommendations of primary sources and initial readings that really helped me hit the ground running.
I rarely asked for help in my first two years at university, but I really couldn’t get away with that through my dissertation and speaking to my supervisor was always such a great confidence boost so, if you take one thing away from this post, let it be to ask for help!
I hope that this has been of some use to anyone nervous about tackling their dissertation – you’ll do great, I promise – or satisfied the curiosity of others. If you have any questions, please drop me a message or comment on this post, and I’ll do my best to help!
Until next time