Dissertations can be pretty intimidating for anyone. The fact that this is probably the first ‘big’ essay that you have written, and may even have to write, can also add to that big black cloud that seems to loom and follow over you for your third year. However, the dissertation needn’t be a daunting project at all, and towards the end you may even find it enjoyable! (Some people may completely disagree with that last statement!)
I found approaching my dissertation really difficult to begin with. I ended up changing my idea several times in Autumn term. Having completed the Dissertation Portfolio in second year, that really did help. Even though I didn’t end up using my original ideas, just the process of understanding how to research and construct the dissertation was really useful. In fact, my final dissertation idea came about from my Autumn term module ‘Death and Devotion in the Gothic Imagination.’ Having read a lot about the Sainte-Chapelle (and falling in love with it!), I began to look deeper into the scholarship to see if there were any gaps, or things that I thought differently on. And, well, the rest is history! (Pardon the pun) I came up with my tunnel of thought, and went from there.
Basically, I just want to let all the undergraduates out there who are beginning their approach to the dissertation know that your ideas will change, you will become interested in other things and this is just the process of an extended essay. There is no need to panic about it.
Therefore, I have (attempted) to devise a summary of some key points that I think are helpful, or at least were helpful for me, when starting and writing your dissertation!
Your Dissertation Supervisor
Having completed your Dissertation Training Module in second year, you will have spoken to one or two (or more!) tutors regarding any potential Dissertation ideas. From this, you would have identified one tutor to hopefully become your Dissertation supervisor. There are good and bad things about this. One, is that you have spoken to someone frequently, therefore, when it comes to third year when the Dissertation really needs focusing etc, you already have a great connection with your supervisor. However, sometimes this is not the case for some students. Sadly, tutors come and go in departments and so the person that you had anticipated to becoming your supervisor may not be around, and thus you get given another person, someone closely related to your chosen subject. This is not something to be worried about though! I know many people whose intended supervisor was either away for the year or left the department, and they ended up with other tutors. They still did well though! What it really comes down to is you. You need to make the effort to see your supervisor, to exchange ideas, update them on your thoughts and research. It is not their job to run after you to see what is going on. Many find this hard, but alas we are not at school anymore. No spoon-feeding to be found here.
Sometimes the odd student here or there may not get the supervisor that they want. This may be because they have significantly changed their subject choice throughout the summer, and therefore need to see a totally different tutor who specialises in a particular area. Or for other reasons. If this is the case, you must get in contact with the office ASAP. Do not leave it to the last-minute, because then you may not be able to change and you only have yourself to blame.
You should make the most of supervisor. They have read many dissertations in their time as lecturers etc, and they themselves will have written at least three! Supervisors really know what they are talking about, and so make sure you discuss with them what it is you intend to do. One other thing is that your dissertation supervisor truly loves what he/she does, otherwise they wouldn’t have become a tutor! So, if you make the most of their office hours and show an avid interest in your/their subject, it not only benefits you but is shows that you really want to do well and therefore they will put more effort into you – it shows them how serious you are taking your research. Make sure you’re not going all the time though! This is meant to be an independent piece of research, and also, your supervisor may get sick of seeing your face every day! I think the beginning and towards the end of terms are a good time to set up a meeting with them, as you can update them with the direction you want to take your research at the beginning, and then towards the end of term you can update them where you are up to etc.
My Dissertation Supervisor was awesome! (I don’t know if I am allowed to name, so I shan’t!) Because I made the time to see them, they made the time to encourage me to think outside the box and really strive to new directions within my research. Ultimately, you can learn a lot from your Dissertation Supervisor, and mine was and continues to be, truly inspirational.
Your Topic/Subject area
I’ll keep this brief as I am going to end up repeating what everyone else has surely said before. Make sure you write about something you actually enjoy! Before sticking to what my eventual dissertation was about, I had so many different ideas. The preliminary dissertation topic that I began doing I actually didn’t enjoy at all. It almost felt as if I was just doing this particular idea because I had to – that’s where I was wrong. No one was forcing me to choose this or that. I just needed to find something I was really interested in. This can stem from something you’ve read about or been studying in class.
I eventually changed and stuck to my final dissertation idea before Christmas. This lateness may be somewhat alarming, but this is what I really needed. By finally choosing something that really interested me, it made the whole process much easier! I guess the thing to do, is just to keep talking to your supervisor – they’re very good at indicating whether a particular subject area topic is manageable or not.
Ultimately, the thought of having to find a topic – something to write about – is incredibly daunting if you have no idea! However, the truth is you’re never really going to know what your final dissertation writing will be on as you haven’t researched it! I say, choose something you actually like researching and could see yourself writing about, and just go with the flow.
Beyond the books
When it comes to researching for your Dissertation, you don’t have to just confine yourself to books and articles. There may be seminars/lectures, conferences or exhibitions that you are able to attend. Make sure you check out the History of Art news bulletin page for all the updated list of events (http://www.york.ac.uk/history-of-art/news-and-events/events/). Also, check out this page (http://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/events/public-lectures/), it’s for the entire University and therefore has many interdisciplinary events taking place that may not have been advertised on the History of Art website.
Additionally, look at various other universities to see what lectures may be going on. A lot of the time you do not need to be a student or affiliated there, so can pop along – plus it’s a great opportunity to meet and speak to other people who may be able to provide you with particular answers, insights and additional information.
Galleries and museums also often hold events which may be of interest for you personally, or for your chosen subject. So do not forget to have a look on their websites either!
If you go to any of these events, make sure you bring a pen and paper to make notes of anything that you think will be useful, and have a chat with the speaker at the end! This not only shows gratitude and appreciation for the lecturer, but they also may be able to enlighten you regarding particular things. A win-win situation.
When it comes to note keeping and taking, everyone is different, so what worked for me doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the best solution for you. Whilst researching for my dissertation I had a folder that contained any photocopied articles/chapters etc. and I had a lined paper book that I would constantly write in. The lined book contained my spontaneous thoughts – so when ever I had an idea that I thought would be good, or perhaps I thought of something that I must look at, I took note of it there and then. I think that is very important, because many times I have randomly had a great idea and then forgotten it because I didn’t make a note of it.
In this book, I also planned various ways of structuring my dissertation, breaking it into five sections – Introduction, Chapters 1 to 3, and conclusion.
I may have said this in a previous blog post, but regarding my reading of the subject topic, I always completed on the computer. So, for each text I was reading I would have a separate word document where I would note any important quotes, ideas etc, and in another colour I would annotate underneath as to why I thought this particular phrase was important and how it related to my subject. This is also imperative as when it comes to bringing all your information and research together, it will be easy to understand why you made a note of it in the first place! One thing that I always do is above a section of quotes is make a sub-title – summarising what the quotes/ paragraph below relates to.
Make sure that you include page numbers and scholars if someone else is quoting. This is VERY important, and will save you so much time having to crawl through pages to find out which page it was on just for your footnotes.
When it came to sifting through all my notes, having them on the computer made life a whole lot easier. As I previously mentioned, this may be helpful for some but this may also not be very productive for others. It’s finding that technique that works for you. But I can definitely assure you that using your computer to make notes is helpful, as you will have to write your dissertation up anyway and so accessing information is much quicker.
PLEASE NOTE: One important thing to remember about taking your notes on the computer is BACKING UP! I have an external hard drive, so would always back up my work every or other day, or especially when I had made a lot of notes. If something happens to your laptop/computer, the department cannot help and so it is up to you. I also email myself a lot – that way you can access notes anywhere. Online storage like Google Drive is also a good place to back your work onto, and also so you can access your information/notes when you are away from your main laptop.
Writing the Dissertation
Where to write
People may think that this is a weird section, but everyone works better in particular places. I did a lot of my research during the Spring term within Kings Manor. I really loved this library because it was always pretty empty, which meant less distractions. Plus, it’s a beautiful place to find inspiration.
However, I did write the majority of my dissertation at home (home, home). Being in my family home, with my parents provided me with a pretty good set up – I had a routine, proper cooked meals (something I neglect to care for when working), and just familial comfort. This is just personal, but if you’re like me and think you could work well at home, think about it.
Recording your self speaking
This may sound weird, but sometimes I find it easier to say my ideas and thoughts out loud and to people than actually writing them down. So, for one or two of my chapters, I recorded myself talking and explaining what I was hoping to achieve in a particular section. Once recorded, I then listened (and cringed) to what I had just said, writing it all down on my document. That way, you are able to write exactly what you were trying to articulate, and because it’s spoken, it should be more coherent.
Another technique may be getting someone to ask you questions about the chapter – a Q and A so to speak. I did this and it really helped. By explaining to someone what you were trying to write, it gave them the opportunity to tell you whether they understood or not. This is important, as overall you want your dissertation to be understood. So get someone who isn’t shy, or feels like they have an obligation to help – eg. Mum!
With regards to footnotes, just do yourself a favour a footnote from the very beginning. Once you do this, it just becomes a part of your writing style. When ever I write academic essays etc, I never have to think twice about footnoting because it has become so natural to me. If you really cannot be bothered to footnote properly from the beginning, all you need to do instead is footnote and just make sure to write the author, the book and the page. When you’ve finished all your writing or are stuck for inspiration, go back through your document and tidy up the footnotes. It really cannot be easier.
I’m not going to tell you how many words I had written once I felt that I had finished my first proper draft – it’s too embarrassing and may cause worry for you. Lets just say I was well over double the amount of words allowed (remember that my word limit was 8,000 so that will give you an idea of roughly how many I wrote). This is because when I write essays, I normally just write what I want to say and then edit like mad. This is not to say that this is the ‘correct’ way to write at all, everyone is different and I know many people who write and edit as they go along. You’ll find your own grove once you get stuck in.
However, the editing part is long and some time tedious. I would often interchange between printing my particular chapter that I was editing; and go mad with various coloured pencils, scribbling here, there and everywhere; or I would use the review setting that comes with Word, allowing you to track your changes as you go along.
Editing is hard, but also very rewarding. It is hard in the sense that it takes a lot of time (especially if you write like I do), and re-reading the same things over and over again can make you feel somewhat crazy. One of the main things to remember is, What is my argument? What am I actually trying to say? Do I say it? – The dissertation needs to flow. So it may be worth reading it as a whole without editing, and then again – marking particular areas that don’t work or need to be edited in order for it to actually be coherent.
Then I would go over each chapter on its own, once again keeping those three key questions in mind whilst going through them. It may be useful for each chapter to write one or two sentences which sum up what you are wanting to say – and then, when you’re going through it, did you say it?
Additionally, although really you should be in the practice of doing this as you write, make sure to check footnoting as you check your argument. Whether you’re directly quoting someone, or referencing to an idea – FOOTNOTE! Your footnotes can add something extra to what you’re saying in the essay itself.
You may think at times that there are not enough hours in the day, and you’ll never finish your writing. But in reality, it can be done. Many students have the high hopes of beginning their writing during the Easter Holiday, and sometimes this just is not a reality. But do not stress. The best thing that I did was work backwards from the deadline. So for example, the two weeks before the dissertation is due should be the time when you are editing any tweaks or just checking through your footnotes, images etc. This is not the time to be writing, or thinking of a new argument. Just polish up your work! Aim to have everything written up before then.
Here is a brief timeline of how I completed writing mine:
Easter half term – March – April: Finish any additional research. Make sure I have proper plans of each of my chapters – what I want to include etc.
April – May: I ended up giving myself a whole month dedicated to writing (April – May), and then the rest of the time to making edits and tidying up my work.
June: With the deadline looming, I used this time just to make sure everything was in order.
This may just be a personal thing, but when possible, I tried to avoid talking about my dissertation with fellow students. This isn’t for some paranoid reason, but solely because doing such can sometimes cause panic to set in. It really doesn’t matter how much so-and-so has written (or not), or whether this person has used this many sources, or this person is using this book or disagrees with you. In the nicest way possible, they do not matter. All you need to do is work how you work, and not worry about what other people are up to. Sometimes you find that others pretend that they’ve written lots or written nothing (when it is the exact opposite). Such declarations only serve to make that personal individual feel better about themselves, so just nod along and move the conversation onto something different!
The Guardian published some articles regarding all things Dissertation that you may also find helpful.
Wow, what a rambling and extremely long blog post! (Nearly as long as my actual Dissertation…) I know that the stigma that comes with the Dissertation is hard to shake off, but it really is not that bad. I found it really tough to begin with because I had so many ideas and it’s really hard to pin point them down. But once you find something that genuinely interests you and that you really want to read more of, then you know you have found the right choice.
The best advice I can give is not to worry about it (which is easier to say/type than act out. Trust me, I know). I remember something that our Head of Department, Professor Liz Prettejohn, said to us at the beginning of third year: If you can already see exactly what you’re going to write word for word for your dissertation, then you’re doing it wrong. (At least I think she said something like that!), which I translate as: If we all knew what we would write down, then it wouldn’t be a dissertation. This BA dissertation is a time for us to explore and change what we think and want to write about. By this ever changing nature of the research towards a dissertation, this means that fresh ideas are constantly being produced and that what you will end up writing will be original and innovative. Plus, it will reflect how you have changed your frame of thought throughout the process. The dissertation is a journey. A long one at that.