It’s likely to be the greatest academic challenge you’ll face as a student. Speak to a finalist working in the library at the moment and you’ll see from their gaunt and despairing facial expression that writing a thesis is not a fun thing to do.
These students take us through their hair-raising experiences - and share their tips for success.
I got the flu, and had to pull three all-nighters in a row
The dissertation was “a long, arduous process” for William Lloyd, a recent journalism graduate at Kingston University. “I caught the flu for the second time in my life, a week before it was due. That wasn’t ideal because I’d not really organised my time properly.
“True to form, I had left half of it to write with a few days left. I got a small extension due to the illness but had travel back to uni from home and do three all-nighters in a row at the library in order to get it done. Bloody hell, it took its toll.
“Whatever happens, my advice is not to panic. It was quite fun, in a way.”
My supervisor told me I was ‘not a scholar’
Cat Soave, a recent English literature graduate from the University of York, says: “I immediately encountered problems with my dissertation supervisor. They decided that I couldn’t write about the topic I had spent three years of education working up to. Their rationale was that I was “not a scholar” and would be unable to do adequate research for my topic.
“I was incredibly disappointed, and had to begin my research from scratch. In later meetings, I didn’t feel confident enough to be very vocal for fear of further criticism. I ended up completing my dissertation with next to no help or direction.”
What can we draw from Cat’s experience? It’s important to build a good relationship with your supervisor or try to find a different one if it clearly isn’t going to work.
Ten things I wish I'd known before starting my dissertation
Avoid unnecessary tinkering
Alys Key, a third-year English literature and language student at the University of Oxford, says: “The biggest problem I had with my dissertation was the final stages of drafting. The more I read it, the more it seemed to have problems, even if I’d been happier at an earlier stage.
“I think the key is to set yourself a cut-off point, at least a day or two before the deadline, and just limit yourself to proofreading. Everything seems bad when you’ve read it 100 times, so you have to have a bit of faith.”
I should have looked for more interesting research material
“Looking back, I should have researched more broadly,” says Emma Guest, an English literature and film studies graduate from Worcester University.
“I wrote my dissertation on two films by Guillermo del Toro. When I was looking for secondary reading to support my essay, I mainly focused on finding books on the topic. I think some people don’t realise that there are more interesting forms of secondary reading out there – such as archived papers, documentaries, and so on.”
Different tutors wanted different things - and some didn’t care
For Rupert McCallum, 21, a third-year biological sciences student at the University of Portsmouth, formatting his essay became an obstacle. “Different tutors within the department wanted different things - and some didn’t care,” he says.
“My advice would be to read up early on how to format your essay in case it becomes a pain closer to the deadline. Then double check, especially if the department is sending mixed messages. Although some of it may seem silly, sometimes it’s best just to jump through the hoops.”
Whatever happens, my advice is not to panic.William Lloyd
I found it was easy to get sidetracked
Jessica Shales studied Anglo Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge – a specialist subject that can be difficult to research. “I found it was quite easy to become sidetracked, and to start reading lots in detail about stuff that wasn’t directly related to my question. If I were to start again, I think I would want to keep my overall aim more clearly in mind,” she says.
“I would also start writing it later than I did. I think I panicked a bit and wanted to get something down on paper, and so my argument wasn’t properly formed when I started writing. I think I was a bit scared by the fact that the dissertation was longer than anything I’d written before.
“I suppose my advice is to do whatever you’d try to do in a shorter essay, which is to pose a question, use relevant evidence to discuss it, and arrive at a conclusion accordingly.”
Is your dissertation weirder than mine?
There’s nothing quite so soul-destroying as losing a page reference
Kate Wallis, 21, who studies arts and siences at University College London (UCL), learned the hard way to reference as she went along. “And I mean really reference, with page numbers. I cannot emphasise this enough.
“There’s nothing quite so soul-destroying as a stack of 20 books next to you that you have to go through to work out which elusive page your trifling statistic came from,” she says. “It’s advice that probably applies to all essay writing , but the dissertation is where it really comes to the fore.”
Top tip: don’t drink and dissertate
Don’t follow the example of William Buck, 21, who studied history at Cardiff University. “A desire to be in the pub let me down a bit. I was out at a night club about five times a week,” he says.
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
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