We’re approaching that time of year in the academic calendar when we think about nothing else, other than our dissertation. If you’re lucky, you’ll be writing about 10,000 words, which for most people, is about five times longer than anything else they’ve written so far for university. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be writing 20,000. And if you’re a PhD student, God help you.
The problem with dissertations is actually the thing that makes them interesting: there’s so much scope that it’s often hard to figure out what to write about and where to focus your energies. Dissertation theses can be on subjects as diverse as ‘The Historical Significance Of Pyjamas’ to ‘What Explains The Housing Bubble?’
There’s another problem with dissertations though, and that’s the fact that they’re often important to your final grade. If you’re an undergrad, your dissertation can comprise anywhere from 25 per cent to 40 per cent of your overall degree classification. If you’re a PhD student, it’s often the whole thing. So what can be done to make the writing of a dissertation a little easier?
Be Picky With Your Supervisor
Unless you’re at a top-tier university, you’ll have noticed something about the academic staff: they don’t have a lot of time for you. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. It’s just a consequence of the toxic professional culture at most universities. Despite the fact that you’re paying thousands in tuition fees, most academic staff don’t see you as a customer. Instead, they see you as a burden on their time and somebody who will take them away from their research and endless pursuit of grant money.
It’s a good idea, therefore, to find a supervisor who doesn’t take this view and is committed to serving students. Usually, there is at least one person in the relevant department who thinks like this, but you might have to do a bit of digging. Furthermore, if you want the writing experience to be pleasant and to be properly supported, you might also have to slightly adjust your chosen topic to fit in with the supervisor’s expertise.
Try Not To Discuss Your Dissertation With Family
Many people who are outside the academia think the work that people do on the inside is grand and important for the world as a whole. But it turns out that most of what goes on is parochial and uninteresting to the vast majority of people. If you’re a history student, friends and family will expect you to be doing some cutting edge work on the collapse of the Roman Empire, or some great thesis on war in the twentieth century. But usually, your work will be a lot more specific and a lot less interesting to them. When you tell them what you’re actually doing, expect looks of disappointment and polite follow-up questions to cover it up.
Don’t Write Up To The Deadline
Thanks to the book binding process, your dissertation deadline isn’t actually the date that the university stipulates. Instead, it’s up to a week beforehand, given how long the binding process can take. You might have images in your head of you running across your university campus with your dissertation held aloft on loose bits of paper with the Chariots of Fire music playing in the background, but this isn’t how it will actually pan out. Instead, you’ll be stressed out of your brain, wondering whether the binding process will ever be done in time. Pro tip: get your writing done at least a week in advance and don’t risk having marks docked for your dissertation being late.
Be Prepared For Dead Ends
Not all the work that you do will actually end up in your dissertation. Instead, a large chunk of it will ultimately end up unused in the form of half-scribbled ideas on your desk. Most of the time you’ll waste will actually be at the start of the writing process while you try to work out which literature is relevant to your topic. It’s good practice to follow the literature back to its sources, using the references, to find out how ideas have developed over time. By getting a sense of how scholars built on each other’s ideas, you’ll be in a better position to start thinking about how your work could build on what has already been done.
Don’t Talk To Your Course Mates About What They’ve Done
Finally, don’t talk to your classmates about how far they’ve gotten with their work. You’ll invariably get answers like ‘8,000 words’ which are, more often than not, a total fabrication.