Navigating the dissertation process: my tips for final years

Posted in: academic skills, academic writing, dissertations, student experience

Imagine for a moment... After months of hard work and research on a topic you're passionate about, the time has finally come to click the 'Submit' button on your dissertation. You've just completed your longest project to date as part of your undergraduate degree. The weight of your efforts suddenly lifts, and a deep sense of freedom washes over you.

Submitting your dissertation at the end of your undergraduate degree is a rollercoaster of emotions that ends with a sense of relief, anticipation, and accomplishment. However, getting to this point requires adopting the right approach and mindset.

Here are my personal tips to help you through the process.

1. Choose a topic you’re interested in

A cartoon drawing of a person looking at abstract shapes.

Remember, your dissertation isn’t only a requirement for graduation, but also a chance to explore a topic that inspires you.

Choosing a dissertation topic that interests you will increase your motivation and lead to better-quality work. When you're invested in the topic, writing becomes more enjoyable and easier to understand, which will help you produce work with greater care and attention to detail.

Choosing a dissertation topic that aligns with your career goals can also be a great way to prepare for your post-graduation career. It can help you to develop your skills and knowledge in your field, build a portfolio of work that potential employers will be interested in, and expand your professional network by connecting with researchers and discovering new opportunities for career advancement in your field.

When selecting a research topic, consider the transferable skills you can gain, such as critical thinking, conducting interviews and focus groups, and data analysis. Even if your topic doesn't directly relate to your career goals, choose a research method that allows you to improve those transferable skills that align with your career aspirations.

Read more about choosing your dissertation topic in this blog.

2. Start early

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The earlier you start, the more time you will have to develop a topic, conduct research, and write your dissertation, which will, in turn, reduce your stress levels and make the writing process more enjoyable.

To stay organised, consider creating a timeline. Break the dissertation writing process into smaller tasks and allocate a specific timeline for each task. This will help you to keep on track and ensure that you're making steady progress.

Set realistic goals and focus on one task at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

3. Don’t ignore your supervisor

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It's important to speak regularly with your supervisor. They can provide guidance on choosing a suitable topic, developing a research plan, finding relevant resources, and can give you feedback on your work as you go along.

Remember, the chances are your supervisor will have marked many dissertations in the past, so they know exactly what makes a successful project.

It's important to take a proactive approach with your supervisor by scheduling regular catch-ups during which you can be honest about your strengths, weaknesses, and any challenges you may be facing. To respect their time, make sure that you come prepared and are efficient in your communications. Above all, showing appreciation for their support with a simple thank you can go a long way!

4. Keep writing

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At all stages of your research, it’s important to write your thoughts down. Even if it’s verbal diarrhoea to start with, you'll find it very useful in the later stages of the dissertation!

During your free time, you might stumble upon a fascinating news article, conduct an interview, or engage in a conversation with a stranger that could provide valuable insights for your argument. It's always best to be prepared by having a piece of paper, a notebook, or a notes app on your phone readily available when you're on the go.

Writing things out, whether it’s brainstorming or outlining your next section, makes the write-up less intimidating. You can then combine these thoughts into a cohesive section of the dissertation and edit for better flow and a more academic tone.

Always keep in mind that your first draft is only the beginning and not the finished product. Don't worry if your sentences aren’t flawless or your argument isn’t fully developed to start with. Revising and rewriting are vital components of the writing process, so begin writing and continue refining your work with each draft.

5. Save your work

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When working on your dissertation, it's crucial to save and back up your work to avoid losing it due to technical problems like computer crashes.

Save your progress frequently, ideally every 15-30 minutes or more often if you're making significant changes.

It's also wise to save your work in multiple locations, such as your computer's hard drive and a cloud storage service like OneDrive, Google Drive, or Dropbox, which will provide a backup in case your computer crashes or gets lost. You can use file.bath to store your work securely on the University's servers.

While it may seem like paranoia, regularly backing up your work gives you an extra layer of protection to prevent the stress of recreating lost work. It’ll also increase productivity, and allow you to easily access previous versions to improve the quality of your dissertation.

6. Keep your files organised

A cartoon drawing of a person sitting at a desk and organising files on the desktop of their laptop.

Having a system when it comes to organising your files helps you stay on track, find the information you need quickly and easily, and avoid losing important data.

To organise your files effectively, consider creating a logical file structure such as using separate folders for each chapter, research notes, and citations. It's also a good idea to use descriptive file names that accurately reflect the contents of each file which makes it easy to identify the information contained within.

Keeping your files organised can also improve your work by providing a clearer overview of your dissertation. To keep track of your sources and citations, it's recommended that you use a reference manager like Zotero, Mendeley, and Endnote.

Consistency is key when it comes to organisation!

7. Take a moment to ground yourself

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At some point, you may experience a moment of realisation that your argument lacks coherence, a sense of being lost, or a feeling of your dissertation research being pointless. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there, including myself a week before the deadline.

The best thing to do in this case, is to take a moment to look over your progress so far: your literature review, methodology, results, and discussion. Identify the key points and reflect upon them. Keep in mind that if your dissertation lacks significance, your supervisor would have told you.

As a visual learner, I discovered that writing key points on individual post-it notes, sticking them on a wall, and arranging them helps me to develop and strengthen my argument. By doing so, I’m able to see a summarised version of my work all in one place, which eases any feelings of being overwhelmed and clearly shows me the direction my argument is taking.

Another way to ground yourself is to discuss your progress with your supervisor, friend, or family member. Talking through the main points can help clarify your thoughts. Be sure to take note of everything discussed. Alternatively, you could write about your progress. If you find yourself thinking too quickly to write, consider recording yourself discussing it.

We all have different learning and coping styles, so take the time to find what works best for you to stay grounded.

8. Use available resources

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Apart from your supervisor and your department’s dissertation workshops, there are other resources you can make use of.

You can improve your academic writing with the Skills Centre. Book a skills enrichment workshop on a range of topics, a one-to-one tutorial to get support and feedback on your writing, find a range of quick resources to develop your academic skills independently, and read these dissertation-related blogs.

The University of Bath Library offers a range of useful resources on conducting your research and writing up your dissertation. Find further literature on a topic by using resources selected by professional library staff and access the referencing guide to avoid plagiarism in your dissertation.

9. Take care of yourself

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Writing a dissertation is a demanding task, and it’s important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Not only will this prevent burnout, but it will also help you be productive and produce high-quality work.

Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising regularly, taking breaks, and staying connected with loved ones are ways to prioritise self-care to boost productivity and maintain positivity.

10. Visualise the end of it all

A cartoon drawing of a person standing in front of fireworks, celebrating.

As I said at the start, visualise that moment when you click that 'Submit' button.

It can be hard finding the motivation to finish your dissertation to a high-quality standard. I found it useful to visualise how I would feel after submitting my work and how I would celebrate.

All of that hard work wasn’t for nothing, and you should feel proud of it.

So visualise that moment of relief and pride, and get to work!

If you’ve got any more dissertation tips, please share them in the comments.


Posted in: academic skills, academic writing, dissertations, student experience

My final year survival guide


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