Guide to University: The Dissertation

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.

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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.

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Guide to University: Coming Home

Home has always been my ultimate happy place. Spending time with family always lifts my mood, whether it’s slamming my head against the table because my Dad has made another terrible (but admittedly funny) joke or playing hide and seek with the dog. It’s where my Mum cooks the best food and I seem to have far fewer worries and concerns, probably because I don’t have to worry about mundane ‘adult’ things like what I’m going to eat or whether I need to go to the shops or if I can stretch out my toothpaste for another day.

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For now when I think of home, I think of the ocean and the pebbled beaches that the dog rolls on. I think of seagulls waking me up during the night and the Chinese supermarket that makes the best pad thai. Before me moved, home was the place of more cows than people and a large wood where I would always walk the dog, filled with memories of picnics with friends and climbing fallen trees after primary school. I find it strange that I don’t miss that place as much as I thought it would, and then I remember that it isn’t the physical place, but the people. It’s not the specific walls or floorboards that I miss, but the place where someone is always making cups of tea and where there is always a stash of biscuits. It’s not the rooms where I spent my childhood or the stains of memories on the carpet, but the hugs and warmth and laughter.

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And these reasons are why I find leaving home so difficult, even though I’ve done it countless times now. Having to leave my family at the train station, watching as the scenery changes from fields and houses to built up London blocks and cranes constantly building new things. I get back to my flat and flop onto the sofa, suddenly having to think again about buying some food and sorting out my things for the coming days. London is my home as well though, and it’s hard to always remember that when I’m coming back to it. But there is a familiarity with London, from the odd little shortcuts through the city to the riverside with an endless stream of tourists and selfie sticks. I start to see my friends and discover new haunts, or be reminded of old ones. University is in London, and as much stress as it causes me at times, it’s also where I get to learn about everything from Milton to weird mythology involving gods having liaisons with swans.

So, although I’m leaving one home, I’m coming back to another. And as much as I love them both, sometimes you need the act of leaving to remember why you love coming back.

Guide to University: Discussion

Not much of a guide, but rather an encouragement to people who are at university or people thinking about going to university. What I want to talk about is talking itself, which isn’t particularly articulate, but bear with me. (On a side note, it definitely is ‘bear with me’ and not ‘bare with me’, as one is asking for patience whilst the other is an invitation to undress. You’re welcome)

One of the things I loved about school, in terms of learning, were the moments in class where we had those huge discussions and debates. Now I’m not talking about a classroom of 15 year olds shouting over each other whilst the teacher lets out a sigh of defeat that the ‘friendly debate’ has descended into an all out war. No, I’m talking about those moments in class – usually they were in my later years, when I was doing A levels at 17/18 years old – where a topic would begin and we would all throw in our own ideas. As a humanities student especially, there’s nothing better than having a group of people explaining their own interpretations (because we all know that ‘the curtains were blue’ can mean several different things, not all of which we think of ourselves). Even having a group of people to help your own idea, as you throw it into the middle and watch as they all add bits to it, helping it grow – it’s literally like the metaphor of planting a seed in someone’s mind, only here it’s your other classmates that water it and add different fertilisers and whatever else you like.

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When I first started university, my lectures tried to bring in this element of discussion but, more often than not, it would fizzle out. Seminars were better, but again to start with I didn’t really throw myself into them. The thing I found really difficult about it was the fact that I no longer felt like an equal. In school I had been with the same group of people for seven years, besides the occasional people who joined the school later on. I knew them, felt comfortable around them and, most importantly, felt equal to them. Yes we were all from different backgrounds with varied privileges and different stories to tell, but we all took the same class, were all at the same level in our education. University was a completely different ball game. Here were people who had studied different things in school, some who went to private school or were several years older with another degree, having a head start that I couldn’t even process. It’s far easier to sit back and let those who knew, or thought they knew, better battle out their ideas.

I’m in my final year now, and it feels like I’ve only just rediscovered the joy of discussion. There are moments where I feel brilliant, having long discussions with my dissertation supervisor as we build up ideas, each of us throwing in new thoughts and material to use. Despite the vast gap in our knowledge (I do not have a PHD or a masters or even a degree yet, nor have I written countless papers and am a professor of my subject), it doesn’t feel like I am inferior. There are ideas and thoughts that I have, interpretations and links that I’ve made that they have not. And that is what I love about humanities – the creativity, the perspectives, the idea that it is unlikely to have the exact same conclusion as someone else.

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Equally, there are moments where I feel pretty inferior but just push that aside and jump in regardless. In my English classes especially, I’m at the point where I specialise more in Classical Studies and the knowledge and skill set that goes with it. This term I’m taking a class on sonnets, picked because I’ve never studied poetry at university and I wanted to. Everyone else knows the fancy language and the special ways in which to write about poetry in a formal, intelligent way. My first seminar, I joked about a point which in my Classics class would have been laughed at and accepted, whereas in English everyone just looked at me with a sort of blankness. Still, once I can get past the people who use a thesaurus for every word they use, I can contribute in a way they cannot. When we hit that sweet spot and are having a discussion of what certain words mean or how a certain sonnet can be interpreted a certain way, I’m reminded why I’m there.

At university, you’re there for the people as much as the learning. Yes, the lecturers are brilliant and learning new things from them is fantastic, but you need those classmates, those other people from different backgrounds who have different outlooks and perspectives to help you grow, and you just try to do the same for them. At the end of the day, it isn’t about who knows the most or can write the best essay in the world; it’s about those moments where everyone comes together, swap ideas, and just simply talk.

Guide to University: stress

Let’s talk stress.

The education system these days is built to be stressful, and my particularly secondary school excelled at creating the most stressful environment – and that was just for the end of year exams when we were 12, let along the actual GCSEs or A levels when we were 16-18. You could say that I’ve experienced a lot of stress, just as most people have, but when it comes to university it’s very different – at least, that’s what I’ve found.

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In secondary school, a lot of pressure was put on – and although I am talking from my own personal experience, from talking with people I’ve met it’s usually a guarantee that there is pressure. It was all about getting those GCSEs to get into a good sixth form, then getting good AS results to get university offers, then getting your actual A levels to get into university. There was a lot of pressure, talks about what you should be doing, and over-the-top comments about futures working at McDonalds if we didn’t revise trigonometry.

In university, I’ve found it to be very different. Instead of constant talks about exams and essays, they’re mentioned almost in passing. Oh yeah, you guys have an essay due soon, the essay titles are up online. Boom, that’s it, no more, move along, get to it. The stress isn’t put into you by others – no, instead, you are the one who will get stressed on your own. Personally, I worry about everything. Literally everything. I’m early, even when I’m late, and over-plan everything, double checking with friends about times and places and what’s happened and dress code and – god, it’s a stress just waking up sometimes (especially when I have 9ams). When it comes to exams and essays, I worry slightly in the run-up but the actual fear and anxiety doesn’t start to choke me until a month or so beforehand. It can be overwhelming, especially if you deal with anxiety on a daily basis. There isn’t any hand-holding at university, and dealing with everything on your own can be daunting. There’s no point lying and saying that really it’s all ok and you’ll be fine, because the truth is you need to work your arse off to even do average – at least, that’s how I am.

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The trick? Well, there isn’t one – and if there is a trick, then it’s different to everyone. Maybe you work better being in the library from dawn until dusk every day, or maybe you’re better at doing only half an hour every day for months upon end. I hate the library with a vengeance – even when I don’t have exams or essays coming up, just walking through the silent halls and creeping past people scribbling on paper or typing furiously at a computer freaks me out. I feel stressed whenever I try to work there, so normally I avoid it until I have to go to find books for said essays and exams.

My trick to combat stress? Take it one day at a time. I can’t work with timetables that map out my work for the next few weeks, it just makes me more stressed when I get behind schedule – and, trust me, I get behind schedule. I like to make a few lists of what I need to do for each subjects, and then each day I break them down. I pick one or two things to focus on each day. And if I don’t finish them? Not a problem, just finish it off the next day.

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Also use reward system – trust me, it’s a beautiful thing. You need restraint, yes, but if you set yourself achievable – let me just stress that again, achievable – goals that aren’t stupid like ‘write down the title’, then reward yourself at certain points. For example you could do so much as to say get halfway through an essay, or just write the introduction, yet for me I do it at the very end goal of finishing the essay. For exams it’s a more gradual process, so I of course celebrate when they’re over, but I also set mini goals throughout. Such as work through a set amount of lectures, or make all the notecards, or plan out as many practice questions as possible. Again, it’s taking one thing at a time.

I suppose university is only good for a certain mindset. If you need someone to tell you exactly what to do and when to do it, university probably isn’t for you. Hell, I’m at the end of my second year and I still haven’t been told how to write an essay. I’ve just been told not to write an ‘A level’ one, whatever that means.

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I’m not sure how helpful this guide can be, as really it’s just advice for a younger version of me as these are the tricks that work for me, but trust me when I say I can understand stress. I know how, well, stressful it is. It’s tiring just being stressed, and most days I just want to stay in bed and call in a sick day. But there’s no stopping time, no matter how hard you wish for the hands on the clock to just pause for a moment, so you just need to take it one step at a time. What’s that cliche phrase about how every marathon starts with a single step? You know the one. Think of that cliche whenever you’re stressed, and then laugh at yourself for being so cliche. Cheer yourself up with whatever cheers you up – whether that’s seeing your friends, eating copious amounts of chocolate, watching an episode of your favourite show, playing with your dog – and then tell yourself to just work a bit longer for that day. That’s all it takes. It’s a long haul, but in the end it’s worth it.

At least, I think it is. I’ll let you know next year.

Shit. Next year I finish university. Now I’m stressed. Again. Luckily I’ve just booked a trip home so I can play with my dog and take it one day at a time.

 

A Guide to University: the London edition

The time has come again when I have tons of reading to do, which means *drumroll* I’m going to write another blog post.

There are many claims on how you can have the ‘best university experience’; from advising to join as many societies as you can to going out partying as much as you can and, my personal favourite, making sure to attend every single lecture and seminar or you’ll fail without doubt. What I think is without a doubt true is that there are many different definitions of the word ‘succeed’ (Jeez, I sound like one of my essays) and, when it comes to uni, everyone is going to have a different opinion on what a successful university life is. Seeing as I’ve been at university now for a record-breaking four months, I’ve obviously got quite the authority on this subject. (If you can’t detect the sarcasm now, I’d be concerned)

So, from a completely naive fresher to the rest of the world, here is my advice on how to survive at university. Because really, although people care about succeeding, I think survival is the far better word for this guide in particular, so here we go – the London edition.

Now it might be because I’m a bit of a ‘goody-two shoes’ at times, but I think the first point that we should make here is to remind you all that if you are attending university, you’re paying flipping 9 grand for all this, and often for humanities degrees that can be for under 10 hours a week. On that note, Tip No. 1: ACTUALLY DO SOME WORK AT SOME POINT. There. I said it. Now we can move on.

Apparently what is deemed ‘Freshers Week’ by just about everyone, according to some, can make or break your uni life. Clearly a week notorious for parties and getting hammered will obviously dictate the rest of your university experience, like some grand Hunger Games style fight through the daily hangovers, (Once again, people, we have sarcasm. Keep up.) Now, Freshers week for me was pretty anticlimactic. Yes, there was drink and clubs and all that, but it wasn’t as ground breaking as everyone makes it out to be. What was good about that week was the fact that everyone made an effort to get to know you, whereas now – only just halfway through the first year – people can’t be bothered to make the effort to socialise outside the friends they’ve already made. Therefore, Tip No. 2: don’t get worked up over Freshers week. Just try to meet new people, have some fun, and enjoy the time where you won’t have any work to procrastinate over. (Just, be careful again about who you make friends with – don’t get your heart broken)

Next on the list is societies and ‘extra-curricular’ activities. In all honesty, I’ve only really been going to societies since the final few weeks of last term and that really hasn’t been an issue at all for me. At this point I’ve made friends from my accommodation and my course, settled into the standard London living and am now comfortable to go to whatever societies seem interesting. It can be pretty daunting in the first week to try to find your way to a room (seriously, my university literally has no reasoning behind where all the rooms are placed and the numbering doesn’t even work logically in most buildings) and be confident enough to just launch yourself into a group of people who probable know each other already. I’ve found that by joining societies now out of interest more than feeling a need to force myself to go, I enjoy them so much more. So, Tip No. 3: Join societies at your own time, whenever you want, and don’t worry about it. (They’re not for everyone, but you’re bound to find at least one you like).

At the moment, this is sounding more like a guide to HOW NOT TO PANIC at uni. Eh, oh well.

So we’ve covered academic life, Freshers week and societies. Next is even more socialising, so introverts brace yourselves. I’d like to start off with something short and sweet. Tip No 4: BE YOURSELF. Cliched beyond belief, this is a tip that pretty much makes me cringe each time, but it’s true so bloody hell, be yourself already! Everyone is going to want to socialise in different ways and, luckily for me, I’ve found that there are other people who don’t particularly like clubbing. (Seriously, a claustrophic’s nightmare with sweaty people crushing you from all sides jumping up and down to shitty music where you often get hit in the face – and we have to pay for it? How about no?)

There are plenty of people who enjoy baking (huzzah), going to the cinema, going out for a few drinks or just staying in to watch a movie/TV, eat ice cream and pizza. There is so much more to London than just clubbing, but if clubbing is your thing then there’s plenty of that too! Apps like YPlan have been so amazing to have, such as discounted tickets to go ice skating, go to cinemas and even theater tickets. There are also amazing websites that let you sign up to be TV show audiences, and so far I’ve had free tickets to see Live at The Apollo, It’ll be Alright on the Night, and, last week, I finally went to my favourite show of all time: The Graham Norton Show. So without further ado, Tip No. 5: Go out and see the world rather than choosing to get drunk at every free moment. I know for the everyday student that might not sound so great but, believe me, it’s worth it.

I think that’s a pretty good start to my Uni Survival Guide, so I hope you enjoyed it and maybe I’ll have an update for you at the end of the year. See you next time, Eleanor.