Top Challenges of Writing a Dissertation (and How to Overcome Them)
So, you’ve reached your final year of university and the dissertation - that horned beast that stalks the nightmares of every undergraduate - is looming. Writing a dissertation is a brilliant opportunity to showcase your abilities and produce a genuinely original piece of work that reflects what you’ve learnt during your degree. But it’s not an easy task and you’ll inevitably come up against moments of creative crisis. Because the fact is that, yes, writing a dissertation is a creative process - in fact, it might well be the most overwhelmingly creative undertaking you’ve ever faced. And everybody has differing approaches when it comes to creativity. So, unfortunately, there really aren’t many hard and fast rules when it comes to writing a dissertation. However, if you’re sitting there wondering how on earth you’re going to produce a piece of work that lives up to all the expectation surrounding a dissertation, let us try and relieve your panic by offering you some solid general advice.
Picking a topic
Before you start your dissertation, perhaps the most daunting task facing you is choosing what to write about. You’ve spent at least two years mining the depths of this complex and layered subject, but now you’re expected to narrow it all down to just one topic! As worrying as this prospect may be, it’s important to understand that the decision will happen in stages. You don’t have to have chosen your topic, angle, argument, etc, all in one go. It’s a process and your topic will expand and grow, maybe even changing completely, throughout the course of the next few months. So, don’t panic. But there are a few things you should bear in mind while choosing that initial area to explore:
Firstly, write about something that truly fascinates you. This might sound obvious but many feel overwhelmed by this decision and end up going for a topic that they view as a safe bet rather than one they feel sincerely passionate about. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with this piece of writing - the last thing you want is to be bored by it. Plus, the less interest you have, the less depth you will go into in your research, endangering your chances of securing a high grade.
Secondly, try to choose something original. While it’s pretty tough to break entirely new ground as an undergraduate, exploring an area that isn’t as well-trodden as others will be to your advantage. Coming at your topic from a novel angle will make your dissertation not only a genuinely insightful piece of work, but infinitely more interesting to both read and write. You also won’t have to compete with as many existing studies of your topic - a great advantage when seeking originality.
Even once you’ve pinned down (roughly) what you’re going to write about, the research stage can also seem intimidating. It’s the longest part of the process, and it can be difficult to know whether you’re using your time in the most productive way. Depending on the subject you’re studying, there may be a specific structure for your dissertation to follow. Make sure you know exactly what kind of piece you’re expected to write as this will help a lot with ordering your research.
While researching, it’s important to cultivate a balance of freedom and structure. Experimentalism is important because the research stage is where most of your ideas will be generated. You must be prepared to be flexible on the areas you read about, explore material that you perhaps wouldn’t have expected to be useful, and maybe even watch your dissertation plan go in a completely new direction.
But it’s easy to get carried away by all the new ideas and possibilities that research brings, so make sure you integrate structure and organisation as well. Set yourself reading deadlines and always know where you are with your notes (you’d be surprised how often students lose track of the research areas they’ve covered and become completely lost). Combining these two elements will allow your argument to form and tighten, laying the foundations for a top-quality dissertation.
Students tend to idealise - or at least strongly build up - the dissertation in their minds, which is understandable. You want to be producing the best piece you possibly can. But, ironically, this can form a real obstacle to writing. It’s easy to become reluctant to actually put pen to paper due to the worry that what you write just won’t live up to your expectations. The best remedy for this is to bite the bullet and get writing early, even if you don’t feel you’ve done enough research. You might be tempted to shelter in the research stage for as long as possible but the earlier you start writing, the more time you’ll have to redraft and eventually produce a polished piece.
Discoveries made while writing can be just as important as those made while researching. Restructuring and rejigging your dissertation may well pave the way for breakthroughs you wouldn’t have reached otherwise. While planning is important, we can’t stress enough the importance of writing full sections as early in the process as possible. This will reveal gaps in your research in a way that simply planning out and bullet-pointing a structure will not. Constructing a sophisticated, original argument out of your mountain of research isn’t an easy task. You have to know what you’re working with in a lot of detail and throwing yourself into the writing process, as intimidating as it may be, is the best way to look at your raw material from multiple angles.
A vital part of structuring the dissertation comes in the form of daily time management. When you have so much time to complete a piece of work, it’s easy to lie back and allow yourself to go at a leisurely pace. But beware of this urge. Though producing a dissertation at first feels like a slow burner, time catches up with you quicker than you expect. Before you know it, the deadline will be just around the corner but you’ll still have gaping holes in your research. To avoid this, establish a consistent work routine early on. The pomodoro method is great for ensuring effective time management and helping to fight procrastination. (For those unfamiliar, the pomodoro method = 25 minutes of work + a 5 minute break. Repeat for the duration of the working day, with a slightly longer break for lunch).
If you approach the way you manage your time with the right level of self-awareness, you’ll be able to develop a thorough understanding of what you can fit into a day (which - sorry to break it to you - is rarely as much as you’d hope). This will be incredibly useful once the deadline draws closer and time starts slipping away. Learning how you work best - the conditions to seek out and the distractions to avoid - will serve you not only throughout the dissertation process but well beyond it too.
The final stretch
Finishing up your dissertation is such a crucial part of the process it really deserves a section in itself. Talk to anyone who has completed a dissertation and they will all have differing war stories regarding the final couple of weeks that they were working on it. Some may have breezed through it, having planned their time effectively, and spent this period calmly editing and proofreading at a leisurely pace. Knowing them, they probably completed hand-in a few days before the deadline, humming cheerfully as they went. However, others will have spent those last few days in a blind panic, carrying out frenzied rewrites of certain parts, and snatching a few hours’ sleep here and there. To avoid this unenviable situation, here’s what we advise:
Have a picture - and preferably a written out list - early on of exactly what steps you need to take before hand-in. This list might look like it mostly just consists of bitty taks, such as referencing and formatting, but these things have a habit of eating into your time far more than you expect. For example, however careful you may think you’ve been while writing, we guarantee proofreading will take longer than you think. And don’t underestimate the time it takes to come up with a focused, but catchy, title. Having someone to read over your draft can also be very helpful, so make sure you factor in time to make any changes they may suggest as well. With this checklist in mind, set yourself your own deadline to have finished writing that is well before the final hand-in date.
Hopefully we’ve managed to calm your nerves a little. Writing a dissertation can be a truly gratifying experience, and one that may even end up being transformative. But it’s undeniably challenging, so in order to prevent it from getting on top of you, follow our guidelines and always remember to ask for help if you need it. A little prior planning and organisation will go a long way in helping you produce the best possible piece of work.