Whether you are a second year student preparing to start your final year dissertation, or a final year student in the midst of your research, below are my top five tips to completing your project. These aren’t tips on how to conduct your research or how to write coherently. Instead they focus on the more practical side of the dissertation experience, and are all things that I learnt and put into practice during my final year.
1) Research can be expensive.
Travel to and from archives, access to certain online research material, charges for copying documents…there are many costs that can crop up during your research (not to mention that cost of printing your dissertation). Keep this in mind when choosing your topic. Are the sources you need kept in archives close by, or will you need to travel to them? Are the online sources behind a paywall? If there are significant costs involved in your research, ask your supervisor about potential bursaries that you can apply for. Some universities have funds donated by alumni which can be used by undergraduates to complete their research, so make sure you know what is available to you. However you will still need to budget for the potential cost of research, as the bursary may be offered in remittance after you have completed your project. Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get into any financial trouble over your dissertation. Try and plan a budget and talk to your supervisor of any problems you encounter.
2) Get organised.
Hopefully you have some sort of organisation system that works for you by this point, but if not, now is the time to get one!
Paper and pen folk – Keep your primary and secondary research notes separate. I had one notebook, and kept my primary source notes in the back and secondary in the front. Print outs of newspaper articles were in a folder of plastic wallets, and I kept a running bibliography of everything I read. Colour code, alphabetise, file chronologically…whatever works for you. When compiling your project you will want to know where that quote you want is, and you will want to be able to find it with as little trouble as possible. Trust me.
Digital SOMETHING – Label your documents consistently and helpfully, and have key information in the titles of PDF articles. You will want to be able to find what you need at a glance. Date drafts and pages of notes, and (as always) have everything backed up. Finally, take time to declutter your digital space. It’s all about being able to find what you need quickly and easily.
3) Timetable your dissertation time.
Dissertations require a lot of independent study time, and depending on your department’s approach, the amount of contact time will be a lot less than you have for any other module. It can be really helpful to schedule your research and writing time as though it was another module, and then build your independent study around it. This kind of structure will allow you to get a minimum amount of work done each week, and make your dissertation a habit rather than a chore. It will also help you to deal effectively with all your other final year work, and see more clearly how much work you can realistically do per week with your other commitments added in. Speaking of other commitments, timetabling you dissertation time gives you a much better time of having something that resembles a social life during your final year. And yes, scheduling a couple of hours to watch Louis Theroux documentaries with your housemates definitely counts as a social life. You can (almost) have it all, and time management is the key.
4) Be nice to your proof readers!
Proof reading is essential to any piece of assessed work, and even more so for your dissertation. Why lose points for the small stuff? Get friend or family member to proof read sections of your dissertation for you, but give them something to look for e.g. grammar, sentence structure, syntax. What you use your proof readers for is up to you, but giving them small sections of your writing and a specific focus will make their lives much easier, and therefore they’re more likely to want to keep proof reading your work! Just be mindful of their other commitments, and offer a drink/chocolate/ice cream payment for their time when all it’s all done and submitted. Essay/chapter swapping with a class mate is also a useful way to get your work proof read, and to do something in return for their time. However if you’re a person that is likely to compare your work to theirs, and stress out over what you are or are not doing, then maybe swap with a class mate from another module or course.
5) Expect the unexpected.
Finally, you can’t plan for everything. I can guarantee that something will come up in the year in which you have to plan, research and write your dissertation. You might find secondary scholarship that turns your argument on its head, or find out that there wasn’t the primary material you were hoping for. You might lose half a chapter’s worth of writing, get sick for two weeks, or be abducted by aliens (not really). The point is, life is going to get in the way at some point, so be as prepared as you can be, but flexible enough to get through it. Setting earlier deadlines is one time management trick that really helped me to get ahead of the game and lessen the impact of a nasty flu virus in my final semester. Finding a secondary source that approaches the same subject in the same period of history halfway through your writing can make you feel like you’ve taken 100 steps backwards, but just take a minute to breathe and think. Are they using different sources? Do they have holes in their research that you can fill? If the unexpected is just too much, no matter what form it comes in, talk to your supervisor. You’re not meant to confront everything alone, and your supervisor is there to offer feedback, guidance and support during your dissertation, so use them. In fact, that probably should be the biggest practical tip on this list.
Talk to your supervisor.