So, summer begins, and many students are either looking at their dissertation feedback, or their topic for the start of next term. In this blog post I want to go through the dissertation process and reveal things I wish I had been told, as well as some handy hints and tricks to make your research go much more smoothly. A dissertation is a lot of work, and a lot of work means a lot of stress, one thing I want to emphasise is breaking the diss down into manageable chunks in order to avoid overworking and anxiety.
What is a dissertation? This seems like a good place to start:
“A long piece of writing on a particular subject, especially one that is done in order to receive a degree at college or university” (Cambridge online dictionary, accessed 30/06/2019)
If you take away the jargon, a dissertation is a lengthy piece of research that requires you to use all the skills that you have learned throughout your time at university.
The expectations around undergraduate dissertations are quite varied, but my experience has been that your supervisor expects your research to be original, focused and coherent. However, your own expectations should also be taken into account, why have you chosen your topic, what skills do you want to employ during your undertaking of your research and, if you are considering a postgraduate degree, once you are finished where could your research go next? These six factors are key to starting the research process, but of course one of the earliest challenges that has to be faced is which topic to pick, as it will affect the rest of your year, so it is especially important that you pick a topic you are comfortable with.
When I was in this position a year ago, I had no idea what the topic of my dissertation was going to be, I had narrowed it down to five possible things. It was only having examined the state of current scholarship and considered the expertise of possible supervisors, as well as my own interests, that I was able to pick my topic: The Achaean League and Collective Identity. Your dissertation topic is a very personal thing, but it has to be emphasised that the topic should be a help rather than a hinderance. My first article on this blog was a ‘taster’ for a possible topic, but in doing the research I discovered there was very little recent scholarship, and that my lacking language skills would hinder me (a lot of the articles were in Persian). My advice is to use this time over summer to think about your topic and to iron out any issues that might occur due to lack of sources.
Over the summer, the main thing on your mind should be relaxation and rest from university, but I found doing dribs and drabs kept me in the right frame of mind. However, my learning style is likely very different to everyone else’s, and time management over summer is down to individuals and incorporating however much work they feel comfortable with. During term time it’s a little different since you have other deadlines in addition to your dissertation work. Dividing up the term into two-week intervals to complete other work really helped me last year, but I didn’t always stick to it, since other factors such as stress, one to many nights out and illness got in the way. The intervals are guides, rather than fixed boundaries, and, although it is hard, overrunning them shouldn’t be a cause of stress, since they are there to divide your time equally. An important aspect of time management that is often overlooked is taking care of yourself. Cooking, exercise, chatting, games and socialising at the pub with friends are a very important part of the dissertation process; being switched on all the time will drain you, time should always be given to switch off and recharge.
Before I tackle study tips, I need to talk about two things, the structure of your diss and the various resources you can tap into. My dissertation was divided into three chapters that dealt with three different chronological periods (Archaic and Classical Achaean League, the Early Hellenistic Achaean League and the collapse of the League), I felt this was easiest due to the long time span of my dissertation (over 750 years), however if I had focused only on the Hellenistic Period, I may have dealt with it thematically (e.g. the Federal Experiment, Internal Problems and Internal solution and Local Politics in an international World). Picking out the themes of your dissertation is important, not just for structuring your chapters, but for how you deal with the inner workings of your chapters and how you will draw your results together. This is something that should be discussed with your supervisor, as they may narrow or broaden the scope of your research, and they will help guide you in terms of structure.
I assume the majority of people reading this post are classicists and ancient historians, so this section is going to be very focused on that, but many of the resources I mention will be useful for other disciplines.
I am going to provide links to several sites that may prove useful, and if I have forgotten any, please let me know and I will add them:
- Google Scholar
- Ancient World Magazine has collected a database of free resources for ancient historians, including translations, archaeological evidence and scholarship, here.
- Bryn Mawr Classical Review provides free book reviews, useful for analysing your sources and finding flaws in their arguments, here.
- Not forgetting of course your university library, which, unfortunately, is now your home…
The actual writing process will be dependent on how your plan each chapter. Planning is a key part of the writing process since it dictates how smoothly the chapter will go. Whilst researching, take clear and concise notes from the articles and other sources you use, including all the information you will need for referencing. It is best to keep all your notes in a file, in order not to lose them, or worse, lose a single page on which all of your page numbers were kept (speaking from experience, this was not fun…).
Write in whichever manner allows you to be comfortable, in the library, at home, with food, with coffee, maybe even in a group. Every person learns and writes differently, I don’t have a secret recipe for how to study super efficiently, all I can do is tell you that you can do this, and that you should take regular breaks away from your desk, eat properly (you’ve gotta feed that brain), and to not stress if you are having an unproductive day. If that is the case, do what you can before stopping and doing something else, as students it’s likely that there is other work to be done, but relaxing is another good option. If you’re not focusing on work, and it is really worrying you, the best tactic can be to try and clear the mind, breathing exercises, especially the simple three deep breaths, can help with this. Another thing to do is to go for a walk with your phone or to listen to some music. There are also various apps and books that offer advice on how to declutter your mind and to help with your focus.
Now you have written everything, it is time to make sure everything makes sense. Proof-reading is essential for this, as someone who has several learning differences, I know how easy it is for words that you think you have written to disappear, so that what you have written reads very strangely; but this can happen to anyone, and is why proof-reading is so important. Get your friends to proof-read yours whilst you do theirs, your parents or guardians are probably interested to see what you are up to at uni, and proof-reading is one way of doing that. One of the best ways to proof-read is to speak out loud whilst following the text with your finger or a pencil, this helps to point out syntax errors, as well as really wordy bits, and areas where your argument could be improved.
Your supervisor will also offer help with structuring your argument, and you should take advantage of their expertise as often as you need, they are there for you.
A dissertation often has to be printed and bound before being handed in, and this can be stressful for a lot of reasons. The print shop may take ages when the deadline is looming, it’s expensive, and some universities don’t have print shops that bind on campus. I discovered it is much cheaper to print the whole dissertation either at home or on campus and then just pay for binding at the shop. And again, I need to emphasise the importance of proof-reading! Don’t do what I did, which was print and bind it several days before the deadline, then endure a stress dream on the day of the hand in, in which your future-self tells you all the errors in your dissertation. That was a stressy morning as I rushed around trying to fix it…
I think I’ve covered everything, though if you feel you have something to add, please contact me and I will see to adding it in, as it is important that this is covered so everyone can do well and complete their dissertations with as little stress as possible. I really hope this helps, as I have said before, feel free to contact me if you have anything you want to add.
This post is part of a series, Study Guides