How to get a head start on your dissertation

Managing assessments and essays towards the end of the academic year is super stressful. When you combine that with having to write a 10,000+ word dissertation, it can seem impossible. However, if you get started on your planning and research before the term even begins, you’ll save yourself a world of worry when the deadlines start to pile up.

First of all, you may think that the dissertation deadline is around the same time as your others. Well, for most courses that’s just not true. You can even expect the final submission date to be as early as March, as opposed to your other modules which may be more lenient with May/June deadlines. This means that ideally, your Semester A should be spent planning and potentially writing first drafts or getting feedback. Semester B, therefore, should be all about perfecting it – finishing your writing, taking on feedback constructively and completing the writing process. Remember, referencing and presentation alone is a big, and vital task, especially for courses such as English (trust me, been there, done that!).

Do your research in the summer

So, bearing in mind that the final deadline can come upon you pretty quickly, the first step to a successful head start is to do your research in the summer. This is a bit of a wild suggestion, as I know that the summer is pretty much the only time students don’t have assessments during a holiday. However, if you only do a little bit a day, sit outside with an iced coffee or sweet tea, put on some suncream – the research doesn’t even seem like much of a job. In fact, you’ll probably be doing a topic you enjoy, so it shouldn’t be too much of a burden! Additionally, try and set up a meeting with your supervisor as soon as you are assigned to them, as this way you can share your ideas for research and they can help you in the correct direction of study.

Efficiently document the process

By doing the majority of your research in the summer before the third year begins, you get the biggest job out of the way. The next step is to efficiently document the process alongside your research. I did this, and let me tell you, it saved me so much time. By documenting which sources you have read, who wrote them, where you found them, what date you accessed them and how useful they were, you can easily find great sources to use as a reference when writing. It saves you having to go back through old texts that you can not remember the context of, for that quote you desperately need. I got this advice from my older sister, and it genuinely was a lifesaver. Even if you don’t find the text useful, you might find later on that your argument spirals into a similar discussion, so make sure your document its general context and what it refers to. I did this on an Excel spreadsheet (mostly for ease, but also for the cool colour scheme…).

Colour code your research

The next helpful tip is to colour code your research. This may seem pretty basic, but it’s really helpful to download and colour code PDF versions of your sources where you can. You don’t even have to print them out, you can edit PDFs with virtual highlighters easily – just look for the highlight tool in the ‘mark up’ bar on a Mac, or use one of the main free options of PDF annotation for a windows computer. When you have PDF annotation set up, make sure to colour code useful quotes and sources for your different chapters and introduction. For example, in my research, I used green for ‘General information’ (the sources for the introduction), orange for sources in chapter 1 and pink for chapter 2. This way, when quickly scanning through sources for useful quotes during the writing process, you can automatically eliminate the sources that aren’t relevant for that chapter.

Jump straight into planning and writing in Semester A

Okay! So now you know some helpful tips to getting a head start on your research for your dissertation, you can jump straight into planning and writing in Semester A. Ensure that you make the most of every meeting with your supervisor and constructively take their advice. The most difficult step of any dissertation is the research process – it can be overwhelming, stressful and long. The best thing you can do, for your dissertation and for your own sanity, is get a jump start on the biggest part. This way, when it comes to planning, you only have to combine your points and criticism with your pre-collected sources, giving you plenty of time to write and edit your dissertation for the deadline.

Hopefully these tips which I have gathered over the course of my dissertation can assist you in yours! Stay safe, and stay calm!

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