You can do diss! What I learnt from my dissertation
Today I wanted to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt whilst working on my dissertation this year. If you’re going to be writing a dissertation in the future or want to find out more about the process, I hope this post gives you a useful insight into my experience and provides some helpful tips for managing your own dissertation project!
Just to give you some background information, a dissertation is a research project which you typically work on during the final year of your degree. Not everyone does a dissertation and the form can really vary. On the Theatre and Performance Studies course for example, students could choose to do either a practice-based final project or a more traditional written dissertation of 10,000 words. I opted to do a written dissertation as I felt that this type of project would be more suited to my strengths, and writing a dissertation was always something I wanted to do as part of my degree.
So without further ado, here are some of the things I learnt about working on a dissertation…
Start preparing early if you can
To get the most out of your dissertation project – and to save yourself valuable time later in the process – starting to think about your project early can really pay off. I started laying the groundwork for my dissertation over the summer before my third year and it turned out to be a very formative time for my project. During this time I was able to do some key background reading, read some of my main sources in depth and spend some time exploring wider ideas. It also gave me the chance to do a bit more of the ‘fun’ research like watching films and documentaries. I didn’t necessarily use these in my work but they definitely helped me to think about my topic in different ways and made me more excited about my project.
On the other hand, putting pressure on yourself to do lots of work on your dissertation early isn’t a good idea. I personally found it very beneficial to start my research early but everyone works at their own pace. It’s important that you don’t rush into a particular topic just because you feel like you need to get to work so it’s okay to spend more time thinking about what you want to do before diving into your research.
Think carefully about your chosen topic
Following on from this, it’s really important that you think carefully about what you choose as your dissertation topic/question. First and foremost, my advice is to make sure that you choose something you genuinely care about and will stay interested in for the whole year! Being passionate about your project will help you to stay motivated and might even inspire your plans for your future career.
It’s also good to remember that you can change your idea if it’s not working. Ploughing on with a project that you’re no longer interested in is going to drain your motivation so try and be open to shifting direction and following your instincts. Throughout the year your dissertation supervisor is there to offer support and guidance so if you’re struggling with your topic, talking things through with them could really help.
One aspect of my dissertation that I particularly enjoyed was exploring new avenues and disciplines outside of my subject. I read several books about my dissertation topic by non-Theatre academics which was a great way to shed new light on my question. Again, watching films and documentaries was also really helpful in terms of branching out; looking at things that weren’t all academic texts helped me to make new connections between ideas that I probably wouldn’t have made purely through my reading. Your ability to look into work from other subjects probably depends on the kind of dissertation you’re writing and what your chosen topic is, but exploring alternative angles more generally is definitely worthwhile.
Start tracking down copies of your key resources ASAP
The main difficulty that I encountered during my dissertation was accessing some of the resources that I wanted to use. I made the mistake of choosing some of my central sources before checking that I could get hold of them which made things quite difficult down the line! Tracking down your resources as soon as you know what you need will definitely relieve some stress in the long run. Your subject librarian can really help with too, so reaching out to them early on could make gathering your resources much easier.
Remember though, it’s not the end of the world if you can’t find something. During my project, I found that there were some resources that I just couldn’t access but I was able to work around it. If you won’t be able to access something, it’s good to know this sooner rather than later so that you can channel your time and energy into finding an alternative.
Be kind to yourself in terms of progress
Juggling your dissertation with other deadlines (and uni life in general!) can be difficult so try not to beat yourself up if you don’t meet a goal you’ve set for yourself. The most important thing is that you keep pushing forward, even if your progress is slower than you originally anticipated.
It’s also normal for your motivation levels to go up and down over the year. There might be times when you’re really excited about your project and are able to put more time into it, and times when other work has to take priority for a while. This is where choosing something you’re interested in helps a lot – if you find yourself in a motivation rut, going back to why you chose your topic can reignite your passion for the project and help you to get going again.
Avoiding the temptation to compare your rate of progress with others is also key. Everyone works in unique ways and at different speeds so stay focused on your own project without dwelling on whether others are further ahead than you.
Believe in yourself and stay positive!
For me, keeping a positive mindset during the project was a challenge at times but it played a huge part in making it to the finishing line. Doing a dissertation can be emotionally tough; the scale of the project can feel overwhelming and it can be easy to get caught up in feelings of self-doubt. There were times when I really felt like I wouldn’t finish my dissertation but I got there in the end and you will too! There are so many people who understand what you’re going through and are there to support you so make sure you keep talking throughout the process, especially at times when you’re struggling.
Although dissertations can seem daunting, it’s also an exciting opportunity to study something you’re passionate about. You will overcome so many challenges during your time as a student and writing a dissertation about something you love can really prove to yourself that you can do amazing things! It’s also a wonderful accomplishment to take with you into the world beyond university and might lead you to unexpected places.
I hope this post has helped you to feel more informed about the process of working on a dissertation and has made you look forward to writing your own! Although it’s been a challenge, producing a dissertation has been a great experience and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to do it.
If you have any questions about anything I’ve talked about, feel free to get in touch!