So you’ve finally made it to (what is most likely) your final year of university. You’re struck with a mixture of excitement, panic, awe, fear, anxiety, pure terror, and just a general feeling of being overwhelmed. If you’re in a career-guided degree, like Medicine or Engineering, then you won’t have to deal with one of the more larger pressures that everyone else goes through (aka what the hell am I going to do when I get out of here, how do I find jobs, how do I get interviews, someone please just help me etc), so enjoy that. However, what most people will have to suffer through, most of the time out of choice, is The Dissertation.
No one really knows what The Dissertation actually is – even halfway through writing it some people still don’t understand what it is – but essentially, or rather ‘for the most part’, it is a large essay which is seen as the main project of your final year. Although for most of us The Dissertation counts for just as much as some of our other modules, employers often ask about your mark for The Dissertation as it’s one of the only essays you’ll write which is entirely dependent on your own work. Sure, no one writes your essays for you (unless you are a cheat in which case you’re not welcome here), but there is a lot of work done for you and usually other people writing on the same thing. When it comes to The Dissertation, not only do you have to think of your own niche subject to write about (no vague or broad titles allowed), you have to do 100% of the research. Your title will likely change two, three, or even five times over the whole course of The Dissertation – sometimes just a few mere weeks before the deadline.
As someone who has only just handed in their Dissertation, I think I can safely say, now that it’s over, I’m glad I ended up writing one. A Dissertation allows you to write about what you find interesting, and sometimes is more enjoyable than your other subjects as you choose which bits to focus on, again, because it’s all your choice and preference. However, that does not mean that it’s not one giant ball of stress that weighs you down over the whole course of your year. So here are a few tips from one student to another on how to survive The Dissertation.
First of all, once your penultimate year is over, you’ll have the whole Summer free ahead of you, and you’ll probably be planning a nice long break – and you deserve it. However, make Future You grateful by doing some reading in this break. I know, I know, it sucks, but just do a bit. Even if it’s just one or two books, or a few articles, that’s one or two books/articles less that Future You will have to do later. What truly helped me was actually figuring out exactly what I wanted to write about over the summer. I did my Dissertation on the presentation of Ancient Heroes by Modern Female Writers, and it was over the course of the Summer that I found out which books I did, and most definitely did not, want to focus on. A lot of people entered their final year having no clue what to write about, so it’s helpful to get that out of the way. And, above all, make sure you pick something that you like. Yeah, maybe you’ll lose some love for it over the course of the year, but you don’t want to be stuck working on something that bores you out of your mind.
Secondly, organise your time. Yeah, sounds simple, but do people always do it? Nope. If I could go back, I would definitely do things differently. At the start of the year, the April/May deadline seems like a long, long way away, so it’s easy to not think about The Dissertation that much. And then you start working and doing other essays, so it takes a backseat. I had the general plan of writing three chapters overall with an introduction and conclusion, so the first chapter was aimed to be finished by Christmas, the second after February Reading Week/Half Term, and the third by the end of term (which was two or three weeks before the deadline). However, what you don’t take into account is the simple fact that the first draft will not be your final draft. Sure, if you’re like me, you can finish a chapter by Christmas, but not actually finish it. I lucked out with a great supervisor, and when he sent back my first draft with a gazillion annotations and corrections, I came to the realisation that – even though I felt organised – I was already behind. In February I was still trying to redo the first chapter whilst doing the second, and when the second was sent back to me I was rewriting two chapters whilst trying to start my initial research for the third. So please, to save yourself, think ahead and organise your time. This is why employers like The Dissertation – it’s physical proof of your own proactivity and self-motivation.
Third, and I think three tips will probably be enough for you to start digesting, try not to forget about everything else. To the outside world, The Dissertation, although sounding scary, is just that – a dissertation. But in actuality, you’re not only writing a Dissertation, but are also working for several different modules, juggling various essays, and trying to keep on top of revision for your upcoming exams – not to mention trying to have a social life. So, do yourself a favour, and try to manage your time – basically a reputation of point two. Make sure you don’t let The Dissertation take over, and it will try to on multiple occasions. Set aside some time each week to work at it, and if you’ve done the first thing right and actually picked something you enjoy working on, you won’t mind researching your Dissertation instead of something else. You just have to keep chipping away at it, and sooner or later it will be a week before your deadline and, if you’ve done as I’ve recommended, you can sit back and relax whilst sipping a martini whilst everyone arounds you panics.
Then I recommend dropping that martini because, final point to make, even though your Dissertation is over, that doesn’t always mark the end of your university career. If you’re like me, you’ll still have other essays to deal with and exams to think about. So go forth, conquer your fears of The Dissertation, and good luck my friends (you’re gonna need it).
And enjoy the unending hunt for jobs, those of you who aren’t in career-focused degrees. The fun just never ends.