• Abbie Tibbott

Tips for a Successful History Undergraduate Dissertation

Dissertation season might technically be over, but there’s never a better time to share some advice on how to write your biggest piece of literature. If you’re preparing for writing a dissertation next year, now is a great time to start thinking about how you’re actually going to get it done in time. You may have already submitted a proposal and had a chat with a potential supervisor, or you might just be thinking about narrowing down your topic. Regardless, your dissertation is going to take time, dedication, and at least some degree of passion for your chosen subject, so it’s important to get the foundations right.

This blog won’t discuss how to choose a topic, as I think that’s very dependent on your university, personal interests and what your research aims are. I’ve written a blog about the practical parts of archive research which I’d recommend reading alongside this one to give you an idea of how to plan out your idea. Instead, this post will focus on my top tips for success regarding the actual planning and logistics of managing a dissertation alongside the rest of your degree. This advice is also applicable for those studying for an MA in history as I used a similar approach, but please allow yourself more time for research and writing.


1. Use your supervisor

The hope is that you’ll be assigned a supervisor who is familiar with the area of history you’re planning to write your dissertation about, and they may be an expert in the subject. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way, and I think students who are assigned to supervisors unrelated to their topic are definitely at a disadvantage. My supervisor was a specialist in the period my research was based in, but not in the topic, so I had to do a lot of it on my own. If you’re in this situation, it may first be an idea to see if there are any other supervisors available or consider changing your topic. Some of my friends found that their supervisors were pretty pushy, advising them to change their topics to something that the supervisor was more familiar with. However, if you end up researching a topic that you hate, it will make the process pretty unbearable, especially towards the end. The whole system is imperfect, but there is always going to be an imbalance of subjects that students wish to pursue, so be prepared that your supervisor may not be as helpful as you would like.

There is an emphasis that your dissertation should be a mainly independent piece of work, but it's still worth mentioning that your supervisor will make a difference, good or bad.

That said, your supervisor will be your main point of contact throughout the whole process, so it’s important to form a good working relationship with them, as they will probably be one of the staff members that marks your work. I would advise arranging meetings with them regularly. Some universities may have a limit of how many times you’re allowed to meet, but try to arrange something at least twice a semester! If you don’t keep in contact, the supervisor may not know how to help you if you run into any issues. I would email my supervisor every few weeks with an update into my research and writing process too, but that’s entirely optional. Some supervisors may want to keep a close eye on you and others will keep you on a much looser leash, it all depends on their personal style.

Make sure to ask your supervisor about chapter structure and the content you wish to include. Give them plans of each chapter and a rough idea of deadlines. I had the chance to submit a 3,500-word draft of my introduction and first chapter, which meant that my supervisor had the chance to read my work and offer feedback. Please submit your drafts! They are very useful, especially if your supervisor has never taught you before, as it gives them an idea of your writing style. My draft feedback was really helpful and assured me that I was on the right track. It can be really daunting to submit such a large piece of work, so submitting a small section to your supervisor can help to reassure you. If you’re unable to submit the full word count allowance for your draft, anything is better than nothing.

Universities and departments will have set guidelines on what help you can expect to receive from your supervisor, such as a set number of meetings, draft submissions and read-throughs. If you’re not getting what was promised, don’t be afraid to talk to your department head or another member of staff. In terms of what else your supervisor can do for you; they may be able to direct you towards key historiographical texts that comment on the subject you are researching. They should also be able to provide you with letters of entrance to archives and collections to allow you to carry out your research. Finally, they should be able to offer you clear, distinct feedback on your dissertation when appropriate, as well as comments on any presentations or submissions required alongside your dissertation. Although you’ll be the one doing the work, your supervisor should function as an effective mentor during your first in-depth historical research project, so make the most of them!


2. Plan everything

Plan every chapter, section, introduction and conclusion. Plan which archives you need to visit and the books that you need to read. I firmly believe that the best dissertations come from the best planning, so leave time to get everything down on paper. As well as giving your supervisor an idea of what you’re doing, a detailed plan will keep you closer to your desired word count and stop your dissertation from being descriptive instead of analytical. Going off topic will mean that you’ll have to spend a considerable amount of time during the editing process cutting down the waffle and repetition. Breaking down your dissertation into well-planned sections means that you’ll have a better idea of how long you’ll need to spend writing so you can create small deadlines to work through. This method worked so well for me, as it resulted in my dissertation being completely focused on the primary evidence.

If you’re new to planning in detail, break your chapter down into an introduction, conclusion and several numbered sections that will answer the aims set out in your research questions. Making sure that you actually answer your research questions should be a top priority, so for every point you plan to make, think about how it will link back to your overall argument. I also tend to plan in bulk, so I’ll plan an entire chapter in one session in order to keep my argument structured and cohesive. Getting your planning done fairly early on will also show any gaps in evidence that you need to fill, which is useful if you still have some archives to visit. Submit any plans you make to your supervisor, even if it’s just by email, and ask for some feedback.

[[ This is what I looked like by the time I'd finished my BA dissertation. By the time I got it bound, I'd spent most of my time tied to my desk. I may or may not have spent a lot of the writing process wearing my dressing gown too! ]]

3. Organise your evidence

Whether you’re a digital notetaker or prefer a more traditional approach, keeping your research organised is the key to success. Group your work together in a system that suits you; this could be by author, archive, or time period, but be consistent! Have a filing system that is effective and is separate to the rest of your university work to make things easier.

I’ve written a whole separate post on referencing and citations, which I’ll link to this post if you need help with keeping your footnotes and bibliographies on track. I will say again though that it’s vital that you record all the bibliographical information you need before you start reading through. Having to go back and find this information is time-consuming and can result in your dissertation looking unprofessional and muddled. If you know that referencing is not your strongest skill, make life easier for your future self by recording all this information somewhere safe. There’s nothing worse than having to go back and search for biographical details when you’re running short on time!

Regarding secondary evidence, there’s the temptation to fill your folders with endless notes. From experience, this will make searching for the evidence you need extremely difficult, so be strict with what you write down. Picking out the key arguments, themes and conflicts in a piece of secondary literature is a skill you should hopefully have nailed by your final year, so make a conscious effort to remove unnecessary waffle from your notes. One tip I have is when you’re finished collating secondary evidence, go through your evidence again with your plans to hand and remove anything which isn’t relevant. Put that work in a separate document so you can always come back to it later.


4. Set deadlines for yourself

A dissertation is essentially self-guided, and the big submission deadline should not be your only goal during the process. Work with your supervisor to set smaller goals for research and writing, but if they’re more stepped-back, don’t be afraid to set your own! I set a deadline for a draft of each chapter, edit and review, and wrote them all down on paper and displayed it in my room to remind me. Achieving something on time is fantastic, so don’t forget to celebrate meeting your deadlines!

After you have written a first draft of your entire dissertation, map out time to edit and perfect your work. People often forget to allocate time for this important part of the process, and as a result, editing often gets squashed in around other deadlines. Around the time of my dissertation submission, I had another essay to submit and research that needed to be completed too, so I couldn’t afford to be complacent. The editing and proofreading are what will set your dissertation apart from lesser quality submissions. Equally, by this point you may feel entirely burnt out, or simply fed up with your dissertation topic. Be kind to yourself and break your dissertation into chunks of 1000 words for the first edit so it doesn’t get overwhelming. This will make it more manageable, and you can fit it in around other academic commitments. I used to edit my dissertation at night, usually alongside friends. It was a great time to catch up and decompress whilst still being productive. As well as the social aspect, bouncing ideas for wording or sentence structure off others helped my work to sound less repetitive as I tend to gravitate towards the same phrases while I’m writing. When you’re footnoting, if you’ve got a good filing system in place, it shouldn’t require too much brainpower. I would always handle my citations at the same time as watching TV, which also helped me to feel a little less burnt out.


5. Use quality sources

For your secondary evidence, using quality, reliable sources are your best bet. Get yourself familiar with academic journals that cover your subject and stay away from dodgy websites and amateur history blogs. A lot of websites are not written by academics and lack the citations to back up the claims that they are making. Even if a source agrees with your argument, if it lacks the legitimacy factor, it’s not worth using. There’s a misconception that websites should be avoided in academic writing, but I think it’s more to do with the legitimacy of the company or institution that’s involved in the creation of said website.

Reliable websites that I’ve used and cited include:

· The British Library.

· Museum websites, especially those based in London. Be cautious around websites built for smaller museums as they’re often created by volunteers who aren’t industry professionals.

· The National Archives, and other archive centres in the UK.

· English Heritage.

· UK Parliament.

If you’re unsure if a website is safe to use, ask your supervisor for clarification. Sometimes it’s difficult to spot whether a website was created by an amateur but sticking to big institutions is your best bet for success. Blog posts are generally not suitable to be cited, unless blogs are part of your primary evidence; the same can be said for social media posts.


6. Work to your strengths

By this point in your university journey, you should be familiar with your strengths and weaknesses as a researcher, so use this knowledge to your advantage. If you struggle with archival research (or have personal circumstances that limit your time spent in archives) making use of digital humanities, online archives and self-collected evidence (such as oral history) are entirely valid ways of preparing for a dissertation. Accessibility in historical research has become an open discussion since the pandemic, and your research is no less valid if it’s completed online.

If you struggle with accessing and using physical books for your secondary research, don’t be afraid to contact your library to request electronic copies. If you hate referencing, keeping a running bibliography so you can copy-and-paste your references into your footnotes will speed everything up. If you love writing, use this to your advantage and try and get a first draft produced as soon as possible, which will take off the stress a little while you’re working on other deadlines. If you know that you’ll need some extra support during the process, approach different supervisors and ask what their style of supervision is like to allow you to get the help that you need. These are all ways to maximise your productivity during a busy year!

Feeling anxious about the scale of your project is entirely normal, but I promise that submission day will fill you with relief and hopefully some sense of accomplishment. If a dissertation were going to be easy then you wouldn’t have to do it, but that isn’t to say that there are no methods of making your life a bit easier. Even if your results haven’t been as good as you’d hoped, your dissertation is a fantastic way to bump up your grades, and even push you over the next classification bracket. It’s worth doing well, so develop a mindset that helps you to achieve your goals.


Finally, everything is better with friends. The research portion of your dissertation can be a solo experience, but writing and editing is made much more bearable with the support of friends. My group would meet regularly for evenings in the library, helping to hold us accountable and feeling accomplished every week. Chipping away at your dissertation all year long is mentally hard work, so share the burden with friends and tackle problems together. Even if you’re all studying different areas of history, hitting your writing goals and slogging through your referencing is made so much better with friends by your side.

[[ If you've not parked up outside your department to take a photo, have you really finished your dissertation? ]]

There’s definitely more that I could say on this topic, especially in regard to the writing process, so I’ll be coming back to the topic of dissertations at a later date. If you’re embarking on a project this coming year, don’t be afraid to start your planning and research later this summer if that’s feasible for you. Mapping out your next year in terms of submissions and presentations is also a great idea and will leave you feeling more confident entering your final year. If you’re taking exams right now, best of luck! In around a month’s time, you’ll be able to enjoy a well-deserved rest and hopefully a summer that’s more what we’re used to.

Happy studying!