Thoughtful Thursday – The Dreaded Dissertation…

Before you can don your graduation gown and leave with an expensive piece of paper certifying that you have graduated in English Literature, you have one final hurdle… The dissertation. Now, as anticlimactic as this may be, I actually enjoyed doing my dissertation. It was stressful at times, but overall I loved doing the research and working on my own project. I even managed to submit my dissertation five days early too. 

As my Top Five Friday was all about how to survive your Literature degree, I thought I would share how I approached my dissertation to help any final year Literature students who may be worried about the year ahead. This is a bit of a long one, so grab a coffee or a tea and get cozy!

Creating a concept

Personally, I found this the most difficult part of the entire process. I had so many bits of ideas but nothing concrete to write about for 10,000 words. I spoke to my personal tutor and she said that for a dissertation proposal you just need to be general in terms of time period and texts so they know who to assign as your dissertation advisor. 

Once I was assigned my dissertation advisor, it was much easier to come up with an idea talking through my proposal and interests with someone who could guide me. I ultimately came up with the title of The Impact of Gender, Setting and Time on Psychological Survival in Dystopian Societies. Since then I’ve thought of more ideas that I could have done which would probably be more interesting, but that’s the best I could do at the time. 

Final, bound, draft of my dissertation.

Finding a work space

Before my placement year I would do all of my work at my desk in my room. It was just comfortable and quiet, although I can’t say that I was the most productive all the time because of it! As I’d been working in London I got used to doing a ‘9-5’ as it were. So, I thought it would be best to try a similar approach when it came to my dissertation. 

At first I did think about going to the library, which had a lot of different places where you could work either in quiet or total silence. However, it was always busy and you could spend ages looking for the right spot to work, only to find you’ve wasted quite a bit of time.

So, instead, I decided to use my department’s common room. The room was barely used outside of small networking events and presentations, so it was the perfect place to go. It was quiet as not many people would be in there (there were many times when I was the only one) and if you had friends with you, you could quietly chat every now and then without people getting too annoyed with you. 

Setting up a routine to get me out of the house and into a different working location really helped me be productive when it came to writing and editing. There was also the odd occasion where I got free food too, which is always a bonus! 

My favourite spot in the common room.

Organising my research

Research is probably the most important part of the dissertation process, if you don’t do enough research or if you don’t do good research then you will struggle when it comes to actually writing your dissertation. Now, when it comes to research, I split my focus into three main sections:

  • Quotes from the book and analysis 
  • Supporting and conflicting arguments from critics/journals
  • Quotes from theorists

In my Introduction to Dissertation lecture, we were all told of the importance of properly organising our notes and ensuring that it was all done in a way that made sense to us. Now, I did a placement year before my final year of university and during that time I discovered that I loved spreadsheets. 

So, that’s what I did. I compiled all of my research onto a hefty spreadsheet. I separated each of the three areas onto a different sheet and then had columns identifying what book the quote related to; what theme it was related to; any comments or analysis I had; the strength and weaknesses of the theory or critic and what chapter of my dissertation it would be best in. 

By doing it on a spreadsheet I was able to easily filter all of the information I wanted on a particular text or theme, which was really useful for when it came to actually writing the dissertation. I wouldn’t have to spend ages flicking through notes until I found what I was looking for.

And, of course, it was all colour coded.

A screenshot of my hefty dissertation research spreadsheet!

Drafting the dissertation

My first draft, for any chapter, would always be incredibly rough. I always find the actual writing process difficult to begin, and it’s always much easier to edit than write. I also find it much easier to write things with pen and paper when I’m trying to organise my thoughts. So, in order to make this work for me, I had a thick A4 notebook with dividers where I would write my first drafts. 

Now, when I say first drafts, I mean the very bare bones of a draft. It would mainly be my own ideas with random “[use x reference here]” or “[full analysis of x book quote looking at x theme]”. This way I found that my writing, and my thoughts, weren’t interrupted to look for the quote that I was looking for as I knew I could always come back to it later. 

When it came to typing up my scrawlings, I would edit as I went along and add in all of the bits that I skipped over whilst handwriting it. For me, this made the writing process far less daunting as it was broken up into chunks. In the end I lost track of the amount of drafts per chapter that I had written and edited. 

One of the biggest fears of all university students is losing all of their dissertation through some kind of technical error. As great as technology is, sometimes errors do occur or it fails us (although, this is not common). In an attempt to combat this I wrote each chapter on a separate word document, saved those documents to google drive, emailed them to myself (and to my parents) and saved them on an external hard drive. You may think this is going overboard but trust me, you can never have too many copies of your dissertation in safe places!


Self-Reflection

Now, as part of your dissertation you may need to write a self-reflection in order to explain how your dissertation and research developed. If you do need to do this then it’s important not to save all of it until the end. Of course, you can’t write this until you have completely finished (or mostly finished) your dissertation but it is important you maintain awareness of this aspect throughout the dissertation process. 

What was recommended to us, which I found extremely helpful, and also a great way to organise my thoughts better, was to keep a dissertation journal. It didn’t have to be anything formal but the idea was that whenever you were forming a new idea or argument, or found that your research was taking you in a different direction or you just wanted to express difficulties you were having or something you felt proud of. Having a journal as something to refer back to really helps by the time you come to start writing your self-reflection, as too much would have happened to remember!


Remember to have fun!

Okay, so I know I sound like I’m repeating myself from my last university post but this is important. Yes, your dissertation is important and it may feel overwhelming when you first undertake this. But your dissertation is your chance to research books and a topic that you’re passionate about!

This went on for way longer than I expected it to, so if you made it to the very end I really appreciate it! I hope this was helpful and, if you’re undertaking your dissertation this year – good luck!

Do you have any tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

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