Most of us eventually have to face it once we reach our final year of study – “The Dissertation”! The final year project is more than the multiplicity of your usual essays; it requires creativity and critical thinking. Let me tell you about my journey of writing an undergraduate dissertation!
Finding a Topic
Deciding on the topic of your dissertation might be the most important step of the whole process since it sets the overall framework of your research. Some departments will provided you with a list of topics to choose from, while others such as the Sociology Department will expect you to think about your own topic.
The first aspect you should think about is picking a topic you’re genuinely interested in, since your dissertation will accompany you throughout your final year.
As a starting point I reviewed the course material we covered in the previous years and browsed journals relevant to my subject, noting down any keywords which caught my attention.
Check if your department archived samples of previous dissertations submitted, those not only allow you to see what kind of topics have been researched by former students, but also help you to get an idea about the general structure of a dissertation in your subject. For instance the Student Resource Centre stores dissertations ranging from undergraduate to doctoral level within the field of sociology and criminology.
I considered what field I am interested to work in my future career and selected my topic accordingly. Writing a 10,000 word dissertation about a topic relevant to your future job, demonstrates interest and determination which might be an advantage for your application.
Deciding on a broad area of research will make it much easier to narrow down potential topics, aim to do it by the end of your second year – however you’re usually still able to change your topic after the summer vacations, so no worries!
Your research question might change, your motivation is likely to fluctuate, thus your supervisor should provide a constant you can always refer to. Meet up with your supervisor at the beginning of your final year and discuss your ideas with them. Even if they are not experts in your particular topic, they are still able to provide you with helpful feedback and point out how to find relevant resources.
Keep reading and reading materials relevant to your topic! Make notes and don’t forget to keep track of your references; I started a table on Excel where I initially added the reference and some key words, and later on evolved it to a comprehensive overview of the literature, including used methodology, comparisons to other literature and evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each source.
Most of us are guilty of procrastinating and finishing some coursework last minute – however be aware of the scope of your dissertation! Many departments require about 10,000 words and weight your dissertation as a full year module, making it impossible to complete it within only a few days but it is necessary to begin well in advance and work on it continuously. Bear in mind that if you carry out empirical research, the process might be less predictable and you should plan some extra time in case anything unexpected happens. Write an outline for your research, setting out what you need to do and set yourself personal deadlines.
Don’t think of your dissertation as one large bulk of work, but plan each chapter individually, roughly outline the key points for each chapter and how many words you approximately plan to write for each section, which will help you enormously to avoid excessive word cutting later on when you need to ensure your work stays within the set word limit.
The writing process
Find your own working style and don’t compare yourself with others, some might have finished the vast majority of their research by Christmas, while you have been working on other assignments, as long as you made a realistic schedule and stay determined you will be fine.
Create an environment where you can thrive, some of us can only focus in a quiet corner in the library; others get inspired when sitting with their laptop in one of the cafes on campus. Whenever I felt stuck with a paragraph I would leave my work place for some time, and get a coffee from the Starbucks on campus, or take a stroll around the lake to collect my thoughts.
Always make sure you get sufficient sleep! When being drowsy I felt that my productivity suffered, especially when trying to demonstrate creativity within my arguments. If you are more of a night owl, like me, being more efficient in the late evening, be aware of other commitments such as classes you have for the next day. Doing an all-nighter on a regular basis might disturb your biological clock, so it is best to avoid those nights until the final period if necessary.
Once you finished the writing process, you need to edit your work. Make sure it complies to the guidelines provided by your department, check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and whether you titled all of your tables and graphs. If possible try to finish early and submit a draft to your supervisor who can provide you with some final comments.
Also ask your friends to read your dissertation (or parts of it if there is not sufficient time), ask them to be critical and mark any sections they feel are unclear.
You can print and bind your dissertation on campus in the Copy Centre (though I would recommend to print it yourself in the library or in a lab to save a bit money), but be aware that there will be a long queue on the final day, so plan to be there at least a few hours before your deadline!
Last but not least, don’t forget to take the obligatory selfie with your dissertation 😉