Your approach to one of the most important challenges of your academic career will determine the quality of your finished work - discover how to devise and stick to a work schedule
Devoting sufficient time to planning and structuring your written work while at university is important, but when it comes to that all-encompassing dissertation, it's essential that you prepare well.
From settling on a topic and coming up with a title, to the moment you hand it in, the process is guaranteed to give you feelings of excitement, self-doubt, panic and euphoria. See our 5 ways to manage student stress.
Irrespective of whether it's your undergraduate, Masters or PhD dissertation you're gearing up for, the following pointers should help keep you on track.
Choose your research topic carefully
It's vital that your research topic is something you find engaging and meaningful - perhaps an issue that fits with your career aspirations, and is important to the wider academic community, says Dr Alex Patel, learning development adviser at the University of Leicester's Learning Institute.
'Your dissertation is an opportunity to showcase your thoughts and ideas, investigate an area in greater depth and consolidate previous knowledge,' adds Michelle Schneider, learning adviser at the University of Leeds. 'Picking something you're genuinely interested in will keep you motivated.'
If you're struggling for ideas, you can research course materials, academic journals, newspapers and other media, to identify current issues that relate to your field and to find some inspiration for your dissertation subject.
Additionally, Alex recommends that you work with your supervisor to agree a clear focus or research question, benefitting from their understanding of the research area, appropriate methods, and what might be achievable within your time frame.
'Consider why it's important to tackle the topic you have chosen,' she says. Once you've summarised your findings, think about how they link back to your justification of why this is an important question or topic.
Check what's required of you
Christie Pritchard, learning development adviser at the University of Plymouth, recommends that you familiarise yourself with your faculty's ethics protocols, module handbooks and referencing style guides to prevent any silly, costly mistakes. Before you begin to plan, make sure you understand what's expected of you. You should find out:
- what academic writing looks like in your discipline
- the word count
- when and where you must submit your dissertation.
Alex advises students to ask questions of other dissertations or academic writing in their chosen discipline, including:
- how is a dissertation structured?
- what types of source are used?
- how are these sources used?
- what forms of analysis are perceived as appropriate?
Finally, Alex points out that you can consider developing a shared understanding of what a dissertation is, through discussion with your supervisor.
Have a clear goal and structure
Christie suggests that once you've settled on your topic, you're then ready to write a dissertation proposal. By demonstrating how your research area is relevant, your introduction, literature review and methodology will become easier to tackle. 'Your proposal outlines the purpose of your dissertation and how you intend to go about your research.'
Sticking closely to a plan will help you remain focused without getting too overambitious with your research, which increases your chances of developing a strong and coherent argument. Knowing where your ideas are headed will ensure that you remain on track and only relevant points are made.
If the direction does shift somewhat, there's no problem with adjusting your plan - but your title, headings and content will have to be revised accordingly. Talking through your revised dissertation plan or structure with your supervisor can help you stay focused on the research, and determine if it's logical.
As you consider what needs to be achieved by the submission deadline, Christie recommends that you factor in time for:
- reading and researching
- gathering and analysing data
- structuring and restructuring
- drafting and redrafting
- printing and binding.
This careful approach can be rewarded by the end result, suggests Alex, who also recommends Gantt charts as a useful tool for planning the research and writing process for some writers.
Write as you go
When you're ready to begin writing, aim for a suitable target - for example 1,000 words each week, as this can be both motivating and productive. 'Can you use a meeting with your supervisor as a useful deadline?' poses Alex.
Start writing straight away, and use the writing process as a tool to help you better understand the topic. Check that you've addressed everything you want to cover once a section is complete. Each should serve its own particular function, linking well with the rest of the content.
'Your writing helps you to make better sense of the topic as you try to develop the narrative, and as you understand it more, your analysis, interpretation and emphasis will change. Editing can be the beginning, not the endpoint of your writing,' says Alex.
You should frequently back up, make research notes and maintain a comprehensive list of your sources. 'Keeping track of what you've been reading and where it came from will save you hours of work later on,' says Christie. 'It can be extremely difficult to remember where ideas came from, particularly when you have books piled high and folders bursting with journal articles.'
Continue to question
Alex's colleague, Marta Ulanicka, also a learning development adviser at Leicester, stresses the importance of maintaining a questioning and critical mindset throughout the dissertation writing process - both in relation to your own work and findings, as well as those of others.
'Remember to ask yourself how strongly you're convinced by a particular explanation or interpretation and why, and whether there are any potentially valid alternatives,' says Marta.
You'll also need to explain your reasoning to the reader. 'As the author, you might think the justification for a particular point is obvious, but this might not be the case for someone coming across the concept for the first time. An assessor cannot give you the credit for forming a strong argument unless you provide evidence of how you reached a particular conclusion.'
As well as ensuring your bibliography contains plenty of references, make sure you've paid attention to the correct spelling of names and theories.
Don't underestimate the editing stage
A thorough editing process is vital to ensuring you produce a well-structured, coherent and polished piece of work. Leave yourself sufficient time to engage with your writing at a number of levels - from reassessing the logic of the whole piece, to proofreading, to checking you've paid attention to aspects such as the correct spelling of names and theories and the required referencing format.
The University of Leicester's The art of editing study guide suggests a five stage process to dissertation writing and provides further guidance on what might be involved at each stage.
In addition to ensuring your main argument is supported by relevant citations, also make it clear to the reader that you're aware of the contributions of the most influential theories and research within your topic - as not doing so might make a writer appear ill-informed.
Enjoy the achievement
If you've used your time efficiently and adhered to a plan, even if things don't go exactly how you envisaged, there's no need to panic. Remember, you've chosen your dissertation topic after careful consideration, so ignore any irrational thoughts about possibly starting again from scratch.
'Your dissertation is a chance to research, create knowledge and address an important issue within your discipline,' says Alex, so remain focused on your objective and you can be satisfied with your efforts.
Ultimately, your dissertation will become one of your greatest-ever achievements. 'Completing your dissertation will be difficult at times, but make the most of it and you'll look back with pride,' adds Christie.