This semester I’ve been writing my dissertation, and I thought there was no better time for me to record a few tips for people doing their dissertation in the future. There are a few disclaimers to be had: firstly, I’m a history student, so some of these tips will probably only be relevant to fellow history students; second, all the time I spent researching and working on my dissertation was during a global pandemic so there was much less material available to me, this will (hopefully!!!) be different for students in the future; and finally, this is all based on my own experience and every student’s experience of their dissertation will be completely unique. So, although not everything I say will be relevant to everyone, I hope this is still an entertaining and helpful post.
My first tip would be to start researching and thinking about your dissertation early – but not too early! Trying to judge this right is quite difficult. There’s nothing wrong with doing a little bit of research during your second or third year, or having a vague idea of what you want to do your dissertation on, but if you do all your research too early or get too hung up on a particular topic before you’ve even met your supervisor, this could hinder your work later on. I’d recommend doing a chunk of research between your third and fourth year so you can develop your ideas right before meeting with your supervisor for the first time. Of course, I’d probably think about what you want to do your dissertation on throughout third year, but there’s no need to act on it really until the summer.
Next would be picking the right supervisor! If you have a topic or theme that you’re really passionate about and you’ve done modules on it during your time at uni so far, the lecturer who convened those modules is probably the obvious option. However, if they aren’t available or they don’t think they’d be the right supervisor for you, you’ve got to be open to other options. Make sure you feel comfortable with your supervisor and that you can work well with them as they’re your main contact throughout the process and they’re there to help you with any minor or major queries.
Linked to that, I’d recommend keeping in contact with your supervisor throughout and asking them for help when you need it. Lecturers are obviously very intelligent people but they aren’t mind readers! If you’re struggling with something or just aren’t entirely sure if you’re doing something the right way, a quick email is definitely the easiest way to solve your problems. Supervisors are also usually very keen to have meetings (for me they were over MS Teams) to track your progress, but also give you space when you need it. At the end of the day, it’s your dissertation and you can determine how much support and guidance you take.
The ‘resources‘ pages, and especially the subject guides, on the UoD library website will become your best friend! Especially with History, sometimes it’s quite hard to find primary sources. The History resources page gives you a list of websites that provide digitised primary sources, which was absolutely key for me due to not being able to visit archives. If you have a look through those pages, you’re sure to find something of use for your dissertation.
Have each chapter in a different word document at first. Eventually, you’ll have to put them all together, but while you’re working on it it’s much easier to have each chapter separated. If you don’t, you’ll forget where something is and be far more likely to make mistakes! I’ve even put my bibliography in a separate document so I don’t have to do one at the bottom of every chapter. Similarly, have a document for quotes you’ve taken when reading articles. This way, you can just take the quotes and forget about where they’ll fit in in your dissertation – you can worry about that later. I find this little step makes me concentrate a lot more on what I’m reading because I’m not concerned about where it’ll go in my dissertation.
My final tip would be to avoid comparing!! Everyone does their dissertation in their own way. If my tips have made you think ‘oh… I haven’t done mine like that’ don’t worry! These are just my tips from my experience and things that I found helped me – they might not actually help you that much. The best thing to do is to work at your own pace and don’t think about what others are doing. If anyone has any tips for you that you think would work then of course you can try them out, but if someone has written 5000 words and you haven’t started writing yet, that doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. It just means you work completely differently!
Good luck to everyone writing their dissertation right now, and I hope this post has helped in some small way!