Writing your dissertation can feel like a big deal, and it’s easy to put it off. But, by making a plan right at the beginning, you might find that you can avoid feeling overwhelmed and can tackle it face-on. So before you start to put your dissertation plan together, have a read through our top 5 dissertation tips for students so that you can really prepare yourself before you get started.
Firstly, what is a dissertation?
You might be wondering what all the fuss is about. What is different about a dissertation compared to the kind of essays or assignments you might be used to? Well, a dissertation is often a component of a degree (for most subjects and areas), and it usually is in place of a whole unit or module of your final academic year. Also known as a ‘thesis’, a dissertation is a larger body of work than your regular assignments. It’s a piece of academic writing that tackles a subject relevant to your area of study, often answering a particular question set by yourself, that allows you to add some knowledge and your own research (primary and secondary) to the academic writing that’s available on the subject.
So, it’s a big achievement and is something to be proud of. You will really have to engage yourself with it, so it’s also a great talking point when it comes to interviews and opportunities outside of university.
Whether you’re studying for your undergraduate degree, Masters degree or a PhD, these tips will help you smash your dissertation:
Choose a topic that really interests you
You will be working on this piece of writing for a while – probably for longer than any other university essay or project. So, bear that in mind when you’re choosing a topic to write about. You’ll also need to pick one that you’ll actually be able to write. It’s particularly important to learn how to be confident when choosing, as one of the most important things to consider is that it should be a topic that you find really engaging. The more interested you are in the subject, the less of a slog it will be to get it finished. There will, of course, be times when it will be a struggle, but if it’s something that’s meaningful for you, it will feel much easier to power on through and get it done.
It should be a topic wide enough for you to have sufficient resources out there to research but narrow enough for you to remain focused on your research. It is easy for your dissertation to be a vague proposition, but it means you will struggle to formulate a well-thought-out answer to the question.
If you’re struggling with ideas, you could spend some time researching your course materials and academic journals to identify current issues that relate to your area and to find some inspiration. Get a big blank piece of paper and start jotting down areas of interest and making connections between them. Mind-mapping in this way (with paper and a pen) allows your ideas to keep flowing, and you tend to explore ideas in a much more abstract way.
Choose the right tutor | Dissertation tips for students
Most universities will have a system in place where you will be linked with a specific tutor or supervisor who will help guide you through your dissertation. As well as choosing your topic, think about the specialist knowledge your tutors have. If you’re lucky enough to be able to choose your dissertation tutor yourself, take some time to research the areas they have worked in. Don’t be afraid to speak to them about what they have specialist knowledge in.
You will agree on your focus area with them, and so you will be at a huge advantage if you choose something that they will be able to help you with more easily. It makes sense to choose something that means you can really make use of them – but if you are assigned a tutor that has no knowledge of your area of interest, don’t worry. They’ll still be able to help you with your research methods, structuring your content, timings, referencing etc. The most important thing is that you choose something that you’re genuinely interested in, as that’s what will carry you through to the end.
Familiarise yourself with the requirements
Before you get into the thick of it, avoid making any silly mistakes by giving the brief a good read-through. And continue to keep checking it through each stage of your dissertation. For example, most universities will use the Harvard referencing style – but not all. So double-check requirements like these to ensure you won’t have marks deducted for no good reason. Make sure you know when and where your dissertation needs to be submitted (and in what format). What’s the word count, and how much leeway is allowed?
As well as this, spend some time looking at other dissertations written by previous students and academics. You’ll be able to familiarise yourself with how they’re structured, what you think works well or not so well, what types of source material are used and in what way, and what forms of analysis are used.
Plan and structure your content | Dissertation tips for students
When you’ve finally decided on your topic, you’re then ready to write a dissertation proposal. Your proposal will briefly outline the purpose of your dissertation and how you intend to go about your research. It will help to contextualise your subject area and will demonstrate how it is relevant within your field. Your introduction, literature review and methodology will then become much easier to tackle.
By laying out a plan at the beginning, including which content falls into which sections, you will help keep yourself on track and remain focussed without getting too overambitious with your research. You’ll be more likely to successfully develop a strong and coherent argument if you keep the points you are making really relevant to the question. And don’t worry if you find that the reading and research you are doing takes you in a slightly different direction. It’s OK to adjust your plan as you go. Just remember that you need to make sure everything is clear for the reader – so your title, headings, proposition etc, will need to reflect that direction change too.
Planning out your dissertation is a crucial step, so take your time to get it right. Talk through your content plan with your tutor too. The more they understand how you’re going to tackle your piece of writing, the more they’ll be able to help you.
It’s all about time management | Dissertation tips for students
From start to finish, writing your dissertation can be a lengthy process. So as well as planning out your actual dissertation content, take a few moments to make yourself a timings plan of everything that needs to be done, week-by-week. Again, your supervisor can help you with this.
- They might make a suggestion on how many weeks they think are needed for the reading and research in the area you’re looking at, for example.
- Gathering and analysing data is dependent on the resources you have around you – you could be lucky enough to gather the data in just one session or it might take multiple sittings, depending on your research subjects and the scale and nature of the research.
- Don’t forget that it will take some time for you to get everything communicated clearly on paper. The redrafting and proofreading stages always take much longer than you think, so you don’t want to rush this part. It would be a shame to have completed all that work and then not have the information written in a clear and understandable way for the reader. A thorough editing process is essential. It will ensure you produce a coherent and well-thought-out piece of writing. Make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to really engage with your dissertation at each stage (and especially once you get to editing). This will allow you to reassess your logic along the way. Taking a step back and looking at your work regularly, checking against the brief and the goals, will mean you’re continuously keeping yourself on track and not wasting that valuable time.
- Finally, make sure to leave sufficient time for your dissertation to be printed. You don’t want to be rushing around on the final day before submission, trying to find a printer that can take on the job. Dissertations all across your university might be due around the same time, so avoid joining a large queue in a panic by getting this done in good time before you submit.