Writing a dissertation can be a deeply rewarding experience, but it can sometimes feel like a confusing and solitary process. If you’re feeling a bit lost in the ‘messy middle’ of the project, these tips may help.
Understand that this is normal
We all have different circumstances and respond differently to challenges, but writing a dissertation isn’t easy for anyone. It isn’t just a question of working hard either. It’s also about dealing with setbacks, keeping yourself motivated and pushing on through uncertainty and self-doubt.
Ask for help
Working autonomously doesn’t mean doing everything alone and never reaching out for help. Far from it! It means making effective use of your support network and besides your supervisor, there are plenty of people on hand to help throughout the summer:
- The Skills Centre is running one-to-one writing tutorials until 31 August and you can contact the Statistics Advisory Service for help with data analysis.
- The Library’s experienced staff are available in person and online to help you with all things information-related, from finding literature to referencing.
- Student Support offer daily drop-in sessions as well as a phone and email service. You can talk to a Wellbeing Adviser about anything – emotional or practical.
Get your project management hat on
A dissertation is a complex piece of work and you’ll feel much more in control if you've got a clear action plan. It's also a great opportunity to hone project management skills that will be hugely useful throughout your career.
Calculate how much time you’ve got until the deadline, draw up a to-do list with all your separate tasks and identify your priorities. Figure out which tasks are dependent on others and which can be done in parallel. It's often a good idea to keep your schedule fairly flexible but to set some 'milestones' – dates when major tasks need to be completed. You could record your tasks and milestones in an Excel spreadsheet or use a free online tool like Trello or Asana.
For more project management tips, read Writing your dissertation - making an action plan. You’ll feel so much better when you can see the way ahead clearly and track your progress.
Set manageable goals
Setting overambitious goals is a sure path to demotivation and writer’s block. Breaking tasks down into small, manageable sub-tasks will help you end each working day with a sense of achievement.
Avoid setting goals like ‘write literature review’. Instead, simply aim to create an outline. Your next goal can be to add subheadings. Then you can start identifying sources to discuss in each section. Soon, you’ll be ready to start writing up one of the sections. Gradually, it’ll start looking more and more like a literature review until, one day, you realise it’s finished.
Go with the flow
If you’re lucky, every so often, you’ll experience that almost magical state known as ‘flow’ – when you become so absorbed in writing that you lose all track of time. These focused sessions can really propel your dissertation forward, so if you know what triggers flow for you, plan your day accordingly. For instance, maybe it’s more likely to happen in the morning or when you’re in the library.
When you’re in the zone and doing useful work, make the most of it! But flow won’t kick in all the time and you can’t force it. If you’re having an off day and just can’t face writing, choose something less mentally taxing to do instead. Tweak a graph, work on your reference list or compile your appendices. It’s all getting you closer to the finish line.
Give it time
Original, insightful ideas rarely emerge straight away. Structuring a literature review, interpreting research data, crafting an impactful concluding sentence – these things all need time and mental processing.
If you’re struggling in vain with a tricky problem, it can often help to step away from the laptop and come back to it later. The subconscious mind is a mysterious thing and solutions can often pop into your head when you least expect it. Keep a notebook or your phone handy so that you can capture flashes of inspiration whenever they strike!
Stay focused on the big picture
With large amounts of literature and data to deal with, it can be confusing to know what to include and what not to. That’s why it’s helpful to keep going back to those fundamental questions:
- Why did I do this research?
- What did I do (and why did I do it that way)?
- What did I find out?
- What do my findings mean?
If any part of your dissertation isn’t helping you answer these questions for your reader, ask yourself whether it needs to be there.
If anyone makes dissertation-writing sound like a breeze, be suspicious. It isn’t and it's not supposed to be! In fact, it might be the most challenging piece of work you ever do. But that's also what makes it worthwhile. You’re doing real research, creating new knowledge and making an original contribution to your field.
What's more, once this is all over, you’ll emerge on the other side stronger, wiser and with some really valuable transferable skills.
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