• Abbie Tibbott

Dissertations: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Regardless if you're an undergrad or postgrad, the dissertation is usually the most heavily weighted and highly anticipated piece of work you will create. Over the course of two years I wrote two completely different dissertations, both in style and in subject. I wanted to pass on the main things I learnt during the process, and what I wished I'd known when I started.

The impostor syndrome is debilitating sometimes

Writing is hard work, and when you're working on an original piece it can be easy to doubt whether what you're writing makes sense. In my case, this led to some procrastination as I found it hard to justify writing more when I wasn't sure about the quality of my existing work. It's easy to get into a cycle like this and your workflow will suffer if it isn't rectified.

My advice would be to keep in regular contact with your supervisor. They should be your main source of support throughout the process. If everything is online, try and schedule online meetings in advance, and decide with your supervisor what you're going to talk about in each one. That gave me something to work towards and provided a deadline. It also helped the impostor syndrome by connecting me with an academic that had experience about my topic to allow me to check if I was making sense. It is unlikely that your university will permit your supervisor to read a complete draft, but do send them the amount allowed so you can get some constructive feedback. If you have friends on your course, you could ask them to read a section, or offer to swap work and offer some feedback for them. I found that exchanging work with people helped me to see the work from an outside perspective.

Deadlines are critical

Part of being a student is setting your own deadlines. The big deadline at the end of the assignment period shouldn't be the goal so it's important to set smaller deadlines to allow yourself to produce work, but also to proofread and format it correctly. To deal with the procrastination, I set small deadlines for certain sections of my dissertation. Writing 20k words is an unmanageable deadline at the beginning so try to break it down into chunks. My average word output on a good day is about 500 words an hour, so once you've worked out how fast you write, set a target for the completion of a chapter.

Research needs to be done before

You can never do enough research, but there is a point where you will have to stop and start writing. I continued to read and patch up bits of secondary research during the writing process, but nothing that severely disrupted my writing. Writing while still doing major research can lead to parts of your work feeling descriptive as you lack evidence to make a critical point, which can backfire when it's being marked. Set deadlines for research and create a running bibliography so you can keep track of your progress.

Don't leave the bibliography to the last minute

Don't be like me. I keep all my full references in OneNote, so it's easy to copy and paste over to the footnotes. The bibliography requires different formatting, especially for primary sources, and took a long time which I didn't honestly factor in, so I ended up having to rush it a bit. Although your writing is the most important, referencing correctly and having a good appendix and bibliography is a good practice, and helps to avoid plagiarism. A well-rounded dissertation will have all sections looking good and appearing consistent, so make sure to factor in some time to get everything looking right before submission.

Substance over style

Don't agonise over how your dissertation looks, Cover pages, contents pages and formatting can wait until the end, so leave some time. I didn't print my dissertation as everything was submitted electronically due to the pandemic and my long-distance learning, so the actual appearance didn't matter too much. Obviously make sure that everything conforms to department guidelines (if unsure, please ask!) but don't waste valuable time playing with your work when proofreading will be a better use of time.

Proofreading is essential

Get. Someone. To. Proofread. Your. Work. It's a no brainer, but it needs to be said. Once you've finished writing and proofread the work yourself, then it's time to pass it on to someone for a second opinion. I asked my boyfriend Dan to help with this step, as he is a Chemistry PhD student with little knowledge of my topic. He knew what a university standard piece should look like but didn't have specialised knowledge, so he was able to read it for its grammar, flow and structure. I asked him to look out for certain things and constructed a checklist that requested he highlighted long sentences, overused starting phrases, lengthy phrases and anything that sounded informal. Dan read sections at a time, and gave me back a highlighted document which I used in my second proofread to make changes. If you don't have a spare PhD student lying around, feel free to bribe someone with chocolate, preferably someone who is used to long-winded formal documents. Professional proofreading is an option but you're better off roping in a friend or relative.

Self-criticism is the hardest part

Whether you're a perfectionist or not, submitting a great dissertation should be a high priority. These pieces take a long time and are intensive, so it makes sense that you would want a great result, My MA dissertation was worth 50% of my entire degree, so it was easy to put a lot of pressure on myself. Criticising your work to the extent where you can't face doing more is self destructive and harmful to your self esteem. I saw friends at undergrad begin to dislike their degree and university life in general because of their dissertation, which was such a shame after a great three years. Long-form pieces are not for everyone, and if you're finding it tough there is help out there, pastoral and otherwise, to enable you to submit work you are happy with. If your writing isn't going well, don't be afraid to re-plan and take a step back to identify what you're struggling with. It could be a gap in your research, confusion over a certain topic or writer's block, but it can be overcome!

Thank you for reading some of my tips and tricks for dissertation writing. I hope to blog more in the future about planning essays, managing word counts and proofreading.

Happy Monday!