To help me give you these dissertation writing and planning tips I was going to dig out my two dissertations from the vault (aka the garage) but was quickly dissuaded as I Iooked into the landfill abyss of Amazon boxes and things I’ve never gotten around to selling. But, completing a dissertation tends to stick in the memory, so here goes…
To this day, I do not know what possessed me to write not one but two dissertations (undergraduate + post-graduate) on former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. That’s 50,000 words and combined about a year of my life!
I passed both times but I don’t look back on my dissertations with a sense of accomplishment; actually with a tinge of embarrassment and I’m cringing as I write this. Why? Because I know I didn’t do any of the things I’m about to share with you when I started. I didn’t even get better after the first one. The good news is, I was able to learn from these mistakes and apply them to projects I’ve carried out and future courses.
You need to look at the checklist below in order. If you don’t do every one of these you’ll get stuck somewhere. For example, there’s no point setting up a work schedule if your scope is too big. Make sense?
Pick a topic – you may instinctively know what you want to do. But, more commonly, you may not. So, what previous study did you enjoy? What personal interests or experience do you have? Is there a topic related to a career aspiration you have? What’s in the news? Are there any unresolved questions you jotted down from two-years of lectures?
Once, you have some ideas; work up your opinion first. Explore your view before immersing yourself in everyone else’s. My top piece of advice is to Choose the one you are most excited about. (Apparently, for me this was an Iraqi Dictator!) I cannot stress how much time and energy will go into writing your dissertation. Your interest in the subject, when you have a wobble that it’s crap or you think you’ve chosen the wrong question, will carry you through.
Sketch-out the end first. Think of yourself working your way to a conclusion you already think and are testing as you go along
Now, use the experts! Agree on your scope with your tutor and maybe find someone who’s got experience writing a dissertation in or near to your topic.
“Fail to Plan: Plan to Fail” Even if you’re super-organised you need a method and tools right from the start to keep you on track. Your brain will tell you “Hey, I’ve got ages.” But, don’t underestimate the time it will take to complete as you’re just storing up stress for the end. Read my ‘Four top tips for getting and staying organised’ blog for more advice.
So, you’ve planned your research time into a busy diary. The trick now is don’t get overwhelmed with research or hide in it as I did! Keep a track of notes and references as you go along.
And, when you start. Don’t get put off by the competition or ask friends how much work they’ve done already. It’s a bit like when you come out of an exam and someone grills you about what you’ve put for every answer to the point you think you’ve failed. Well, ‘Dissertation Guy’ will tell you their topic is ground-breaking and should be written, checked and bound in a fortnight. Not helpful.
If you’re starting a dissertation or if you’re right in the middle, remember, you can write well otherwise you wouldn’t be there. Go back, and look at what you wrote in your first year. Look how far you’ve come. You’ve got this! Also, check out my resources pages for even more help.
As always, I love to hear your views and if you found these tips useful. Drop me an email or DM at elizabeth_britpolitics on Instagram.
p.s. Saddam Hussein left to the mercies of Word spellchecker is Sadist Hussey (could have been soooooooo bad if I’d clicked ‘change all’ and not ‘ignore all’ at 2:00 am)
I love it when a plan comes together! You’re starting a sparkly brand new course or moving into the next phase. Either way, it’s a fresh start; a new timetable; and a chance to say “Right, this year, no ifs, no buts, I am going to plan and be organised!”
Here are a few top tips on how to nail your organisation this year. In full disclosure, some of the links are Amazon affiliate links, which means at no cost to you I receive a small commission to put back into the site. I only ever recommend products I believe will be helpful to you.
Schedule a meeting with yourself.
We turn up to lots of things, including things we don’t want to. Classes, seminars, dates or appointments. And, why do we turn up? Because they’re at set times and because we’ve deemed them to be important. But, when it comes to setting study time we don’t always do this. Some of it may be fear and procrastination, we get distracted, and time ticks on. But, before you know it another academic week has shot past!
Be realistic and schedule definite times when you can’t study or do not wish to study. Also, when are you most productive? I never schedule anything on a Saturday afternoon – I don’t know why but I’m just useless. Nothing goes into my brain and nothing remotely creative comes out. It’s just a mental block from school times. My brain is saying “go and do something else because this ain’t happening?”
Create clarity and distinctiveness.
First, have a good de-clutter. It’s hard to create a system that will stand you in good stead to being organised if there’s stuff, including last year’s notes everywhere. File them somewhere and, if you’re completing a longer course, make sure they’re in great shape for when you need them to revise.
Be honest, and review what worked for you in previous courses and what went a bit wrong. Set realistic changes for yourself that are actionable and measurable. For example, I’m going to download my electronic diary onto my phone so I can update it in real-time. Then, when it’s done; it’s done.
Not everything needs to be electronic (see tip four) – Are you a visual person Do you need a diary or an academic planner. Perhaps, a wall planner could work for you? There are lots of cheap ones where everything falls off or the pens don’t work. I have used this one for several years; It gives me a whole year perspective but in this link, you can find lots of wall planners set by academic year too. (paid link)
A friendly note: If you’re at university (or at home) make sure you know the rules about blue-tac and pinning first (or it may be bye-bye deposit) : (
Think about your system first, how you will divide your learning into manageable sections so you don’t get overwhelmed. This will tell you how many sets of flashcards, notepads or multi-coloured post-its you need.
Create a structure to your electronic notes and files
Do not have twenty files saying
Firstly, it’s completely uninspiring and overwhelming. Secondly, when you come back to it a year from now it will mean nothing!
Use dates, times, course numbers or specific themes such as your essay title.
I use Dropbox (also my file insurance policy) and create folders within it. Much easier than having one long list of documents
Set up a note in your phone to match each course heading or titles that mean something to you. Here you can add little bits of information as you go along. Make sure notes is switched on to back up to a cloud.
If you think of something important, and it’s chunky, send an email to yourself with a good subject line to help you recall what the email was about. Your inbox will set up its filing system. All you need to do is create a filter using your name and press search.
As always, I’d love to know how you stay organised and if you found these tips useful. Drop me an email or DM at elizabeth_britpolitics on Instagram.
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