So, it’s time to write your dissertation but you’re not really sure where to start. You might feel somewhat intimidated or think the task ahead of you is simply impossible. If this is the case, let us begin by stating unequivocally that it’s certainly not impossible. It will be difficult and there will be times where you will want to forget about the whole thing, but writing a successful and well-constructed dissertation is firmly within your reach.
Dissertation advice can sometimes feel a bit lame or wishy washy but keeping the following tips in mind should help you to plan your time, put pen to paper, and make it through to the other side unscathed and in one piece.
1. Create Goals and Give Yourself Deadlines
Breaking down your dissertation into a series of smaller goals, each with their own deadline, will help to make your task feel much less daunting. Start each day by putting together a concise and manageable to-do list. Crossing out each task as you complete it will keep you motivated and reassure you that you are making headway, even if it might not initially feel as though you’re getting very far.
Additionally, set yourself deadlines for completing each core component of your final piece. Aside from your bibliography which you should be continually adding to as you write, give yourself X number of weeks to research and write each chapter. Aim to set aside longer than you think you will need for the editing process and plan backwards from there. So, let’s say for example that you’ve got 12 weeks until your deadline. After giving yourself at least 2 weeks for editing, printing and binding, you’ve got 10 weeks to play with. If you know your second chapter is likely to require more time, make sure you schedule accordingly.
2. But, Always Allow for Some Adjustments
Although it is important to be strict with yourself because you are going to have to do the work at some point, schedules change. Unexpected life-related things can and do often appear at inopportune times. Building in some flexibility into your schedule from the beginning is crucial to avoid having to miss an important last-minute event and to stop yourself feeling guilty for having to take a week or so away from your dissertation. Your work is important, but so is everything else you’ve got going on in your life.
3. Keep in Contact with Your Supervisor
Your supervisor is there for a reason and consistently asking for advice and feedback throughout will always make for a smoother and simpler editing process. From sitting down right at the beginning to set out rough chapter outlines to sending initial drafts to trusted advisors willing to read them, the feedback you receive will help you to shape your dissertation into a final piece of work that feels complete and has a cohesive structure.
This process will also stop you from feeling isolated and keep your motivation and energy levels up. Sometimes it can be difficult to see which areas need additional attention when you’re in the midst of everything, but an external voice should help to point you in the right direction.
4. Take It on The Chin
Occasionally you might receive some feedback that sounds a bit harsh. It is completely natural to feel upset or annoyed by tough criticism of all the hard work you’ve put in, but it is essential to remember that your supervisor always has your best interests in mind. They don’t want to tear you down unnecessarily, but they do want you to produce the quality of work they know you’re capable of.
If you’re feeling a bit fragile or think that engaging with the latest piece of feedback you have received might cause you to lose motivation, step away and work on something else. Sometimes all you’ll really need is a bit of encouragement so instead of emailing your supervisor, go and grab a coffee with a sympathetic friend who will give you a boost and tell you that you’re doing a really good job.
5. Understand What Is Expected of You
Regardless of your subject, you will be required to work within a set of clear parameters and it is crucial that you know exactly what these are. Read the guidelines you have been provided with closely and ensure you fully understand each point.
You don’t want to start working only to realise weeks later you have been using the wrong referencing system or that the sources you have selected aren’t appropriate. If there is something you aren’t sure about, ask for clarification as soon as possible to avoid any potential obstacles before you reach them.
6. But Remember That, Ultimately, This Is Your Work
Your dissertation is a place for you to demonstrate the knowledge and skills you have learnt over the course of your degree. It is often impossible to please everyone or to implement every piece of advice, so remember that standing up for your arguments and forging your own path is an important part of your dissertation process.
7. Give Yourself a Break
Taking time away from your dissertation is necessary for both your productivity and your personal wellbeing. You should never feel guilty about continuing to do the things you enjoy outside of your studies because you shouldn’t be sitting at your desk 24/7.
From socialising with your friends to catching up on your favourite TV show, your life shouldn’t stop because of your dissertation. Careful planning will mean that you can balance both and create a sustainable schedule that works for you.
8. But Make Sure to Maintain Your Motivation
Whether you’re taking an hour off here and there or a couple of weeks to attend to other important things in your life, remember that you are going to have to continue writing eventually. Maintaining passion and motivation for your work is key and you can do this in a variety of ways.
From engaging in a bit of light reading over your weekends to keeping a notebook close by for any fleeting thoughts you might have as you’re doing other things, make sure you are consistently striving to maintain a mind-set that gives you the best chance of achieving success.
9. Practise Saying No
Being surrounded by people who don’t understand the amount of work that a dissertation requires can be challenging. Make it clear that you need time to write and perhaps pre-warn everyone that you might need to say no to a few nights out here and there. You won’t necessarily want to say no, but if you know you need a few uninterrupted hours to finish a task, sometimes prioritising your work is essential.
10. But Say Yes Too
Shaking off a permanent ‘I should be working all the time’ mentality is incredibly important. Taking regular breaks is essential to your productivity and happiness, so if someone wants to take you out to lunch or grab a coffee at your favourite hangout spot, make sure you say yes.
11. Work in Short Bursts
You don’t necessarily need to work in long sessions, in fact, you might be surprised at just how much you can get done in half an hour. If you’re writing a page every day, you could quite easily complete an entire chapter in 3 or 4 weeks.
That said, it is crucial that you never feel scared to start writing. If you aren’t sure where to start, spend some time outlining where you expect your argument to go. This will help you to navigate your arguments in a way that makes sense to you right now during your writing process and also to your reader when they are evaluating your efforts in the future.
12. No Excuses
You will always be able to whip up a list of at least 10 excuses why you can’t work on your dissertation right now. But honestly, it might be time to throw the very concept of excuses in the bin. Rather than wasting 10 minutes trying to justify to yourself why you should probably be doing absolutely anything else, sit down and read an article or jot down a page of notes for your next chapter. Doing something, however small, is always better than doing nothing.
13. Read Everything but Remember Research Is Not the Same as Writing
Your research will form the foundations of your dissertation and it is vital that you gather a comprehensive understanding of the scholarship that already exists within your field. That said, it is often easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re making fast progress when you’re reading and taking notes on article after article.
Reading is not the same as writing and you need to make sure you are putting in at least as much effort into forming your own arguments and thinking about how to structure them in ways that make your points clear.
14. Celebrate Every Accomplishment, No Matter How Small It Might Seem
Smashed your daily to-do list? Written your first 1,000, 3,000, or 5,000 words? Finished a chapter? Well, applaud your accomplishments. Go and grab your favourite snack, meet a friend, or take the afternoon off. Do whatever you need to do to feel good about the work you have put in.
15. Believe That You Really CAN Do It
Although it might seem intimidating, you really can do this. Not only can you write a cohesive and convincing piece of work, you can also thrive as you’re doing it. Often starting is the biggest hurdle but as soon as you’ve begun seriously researching and writing you will feel much more in control of the situation.
Oh, and please remember to consistently back up your work. Storing your dissertation on your computer alone simply isn’t enough. Whether you use an external hard drive, cloud storage, or even email it to yourself, just make sure you always have several copies of your dissertation on hand should the worst happen.
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