Top tips for dissertations and theses

08 Jul

It’s right in the middle of dissertation season, and thousands of students will be hard at work putting together both undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations.  I work with many students  – including lots of people whose English isn’t their first language as well as native English speakers.  I love working with students – helping someone out at the beginning of their career, supporting them in their writing and helping them improve their English and writing skills (of course I’m careful not to help TOO much – see this post for how I avoid plagiarism!).

Over the years I’ve worked with almost a hundred students getting ready to submit dissertations and theses.  Although I didn’t end up completing my Library Master’s (I moved away from the population I was researching!), I supported my partner through his (and proof-read it; perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever proof-read.  Cognitive neuroscience!) and am working on my own research project at the moment. So I’ve called upon my experience and that of the “hive minds” of Facebook and Twitter to put together some top tips for getting that dissertation or thesis researched and written.  Thank you to everyone who contributed!

The start – reading, topics and supervisors

It’s vitally important to choose a topic you’re interested in and can commit to – even for a shorter undergraduate dissertation.  For a PhD, you have to almost be obsessed with your topic, otherwise, when the going gets tough, it’ll be easier to give up.  Meg1987 (via Twitter) agrees with this from an undergraduate perspective: “Start early and make sure it’s on a subject you don’t mind taking over your life!” and tutor and supervisor Gill Rose agrees: “Choose a topic you are really interested in.  Then, when you get completely demoralised, your interest will keep you going (oh yes it will).

The proposal can be an important part of the process; this isn’t usually needed at undergraduate level, but you’ll usually have to think up your own topic from Master’s level onwards.  Gill recommends keeping it simple: “Making it complicated does not show your superior knowledge, you usually just get tied up in knots”, and is more keen on the students showing that they can take a research methodology and apply it to a real-life situation than seeing intellectual fireworks.  And if the thing changes between proposal and writing up? Linda Bates, who recently gained a doctorate from Cambridge University, reassures us: “By the end of your first term or first year or whenever, your actual work won’t bear much resemblance to whatever is in your research proposal. But that’s the nature of research and not something to worry about (unless it’s so far away from the proposal that you have to send an entirely new proposal to your funding body in order to keep justifying their payments…)”

It’s worth having a look at some books on writing a thesis / dissertation.  I’ve personally found Gary Thomas’ “How to do your research project” (London: Sage, 2009) very helpful, although it’s more for the humanities/social sciences/education fields.  You’ll be based at a University – so use the library – subject specialists will have recommended purchases that they consider to be useful, and these books can give you a good base from which to start.

A word on supervisors.  Yours is usually chosen by their specialism as well as their teaching role, so they know something about your subject or its background.  Zoe Toft (via Twitter – playbythebook) stresses the importance of a good, honest relationship with your supervisor, right from the start, adding: “It’s important not to be afraid of criticism (as a student) or acknowledging areas where you’re not an expert if you’re a supervisor – which happens more often than supervisors like to admit!”

Concentration and keeping going

So, you’ve had a chat with your supervisor, you’ve submitted your proposal and had it accepted (or chosen your subject) – now what? How do you get down to the work?

Linda Bates acknowledges the need to maintain contact with the outside world: “The internet is a real friend/foe dichotomy: in subjects like English where you can spend 3-4 years working on a PhD without having to speak to a single person, it is valuable to use [social media] to interact with peers” but warns that it mustn’t be allowed to get out of control.  I tend to turn off Twitter, etc., if I’m really concentrating on something, with a half hour break at the end for chatting and catching up with emails.

When I’ve got a big project to concentrate on, I try to make myself just sit down and DO SOMETHING, whatever that something is, for a set amount of time.  Some people structure their time management around half hour blocks, some, such as Ali Noakes, suggest longer time periods (Ali’s just finished an Occupational Therapy degree):  “It helped me to set aside a block of time, such as a day, rather than jumping between assignments. I needed to become immersed in it. We occupational therapists call it occupational flow.”

And Laura Stevens simply says: “Set yourself deadlines and stick to them.”

Keeping records

I talked about referencing in another post.  It’s so important to make a note of the books, journal articles and websites you’ve referred to as you go along.  You can use specialised software for this or just keep a spreadsheet going – or even a notebook! This will solve a lot of problems when you come to write up.

Back up your work regularly, preferably onto a pen drive or an external hard disk (or you could email it to yourself if you’ve got enough bandwidth on your email account).  And keep control of the versions – if you make a lot of changes, number the versions of each chapter as you go along, so you know which is the most recent one.

Chaletfan says, via twitter, “don’t put a superbly edited print out in the bin. I’ve *totally* not just done this.”

Writing skills and writing up

So, it’s the end of the project, and it’s time to write it up.  Or is it? Should you write as you go? One thing I was always taught was that your introduction and conclusion, at least, should be written such that a reasonably intelligent and well-educated person can understand what you’re saying.  So keep it clear, explain the acronyms, and don’t make assumptions about the readers’ prior knowledge (this also means you can use a general proof-reader, like me, rather than someone very specific to your field, unless it’s something very highly specialised, like maths).

A dissertation or thesis will usually include the following sections: Introduction – Literature Review – Design and Methodology – Findings – Analysis and Discussion – Conclusion.  Gary Thomas, in his book referenced above, suggests allocating the following amount of the work to each section: Introduction 5% – Literature Review 30% – Design and Methodology 15% – Findings 15% – Analysis and Discussion 30% – Conclusion 5%.  Break your total target word count down in these proportions and you’ll have a guide to how much to write for each section.

Zoe Austin-Cope recommends (for a dissertation) “Start writing the thing at least three weeks before the deadline, not two.”  This certainly applies to making sure you’ve got all the text in the right places and that the document works as a whole, and in many cases you can work like this.

There’s also a case to be made for writing up as you go along. Arthur Lugtigheid told me how he did this:  “When you’re doing experimental work, write as you go along. It will save you so much work later. I find writing very difficult, almost like starting a painting – where do you put your first brush stroke? Once I get going I find it easier and easier and when you have something to work from as a first draft things get very easy. But you need to get there first. I start with a rough outline – and I find that for me, getting to a first draft requires ‘verbal diarrhoea’ stages, where I just write whatever comes up. I then structure this into a more coherent story. It’s a bit like polishing a gem piece by piece.”  He goes on to detail: “I always start with the methods while I’m actually working on the experiment. Then you write results. You might argue that the introduction is important to write first, but that’s not true at all. In practice, what you want to mention in the introduction largely depends on what you find in your results and how you write your methods. The discussion is always written last, but before your abstract.”  Gill Rose, working in a different discipline, agrees that it’s best to plan it out then fill in the sections in general before going into more detail: “If you have not been given a structure to work to, organise one of your own. Don’t feel you have to do one section before moving on to the next. Much better to do an initial plan, then fill out each section a bit, then get down to the detail; that way, you are better able to see what should go where.”

I agree, too – my research consists of a case study and then a questionnaire-based study.  I’m writing about my methodology as I formulate the theory behind it into the appropriate terms, as well as getting information for the case study in two halves: one half is already written up and the other is awaiting further input.  Meanwhile, I have a lot of the theoretical background of the main study done, and am able to do this while I’m waiting for the rest of my questionnaires to come in.  It’s good to know I am learning how to code up the questionnaire results before I actually have to do it!

Other tips

I would say this, I know – but do have someone read through your work before you submit it.  Even if you can do without a proofreader (really a copyeditor but it always seems to be called proofreading in this context: you all read the blog and know the difference, anyway), then have a friend or family member read it through for any glaring errors.  We all make mistakes and we all get tired, and this can prevent you from submitting a piece of work containing the sentence “More things that could be researched on this are more things” (real-life example, not drawn from any of my clients!)

Treat yourself! Save up supermarket rewards and treat yourself to a nice meal.  Studenthood often goes with poverty, so this can be a real bonus. Also, and I can’t stress this enough: look after yourself.  It can be a really frazzling experience writing a dissertation or thesis.  Make sure you get: Enough sleep.  Enough good food (not junk). Enough exercise.  Even though I’ve got a job, a business to run and a research project to work on, I always prioritise the gym and running. I see so many students, especially if they’re in a new country, grappling with a Master’s course, or they’re on the long haul of a PhD, running themselves into the ground, getting thinner and paler (or fatter and paler), short-tempered and wild-eyed. When someone gives me the final version of their precious chapters, I usually email them: “Now have a good meal and go to sleep!”  Pay special attention to good nutrition and having enough sleep.  You don’t need to turn into a gym bunny, but go for a walk – and do get out of the house at least once a day!

I hope these fairly general hints and tips, backed up with information from people who know about the process first hand, prove helpful. If you have more tips to offer, please do put them in the comments!

All my posts to do with students can be found here.


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9 responses to “Top tips for dissertations and theses

  1. Vikki

    January 13, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Thanks for the links via FB Liz :o)

    I think I may now know why I’m struggling…..the story I’m doing for my assignment…..I HATE it lol…….still too late now, it’s all written up in 1st draft lol

    I am treating myself to a cappuccino and then I’ll start 😉



  2. Liz at Libro

    January 14, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Vikki – hope this has been useful, anyway! Good luck with your writing!


    • Vikki

      January 14, 2012 at 7:15 pm

      Thanks hon, yes, very useful 😉



  3. Elmari Fouche - South Africa

    November 18, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Thanks so much for the advise! really appreciate it. Currently I am busy with my first article for my PhD – the obsession part is so true…otherwise you will not pull through…


    • Liz Dexter

      November 18, 2014 at 7:51 am

      I’m glad I could help – and good luck with the rest of your PhD!



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