12 Key Tips to help you complete that dissertation: Guest Post by Urszula

Written by Urszula

with contribution from other students (Edited by Shannon)

While many people today are getting there #Ucas results, ready to start university—good luck everyone and congratulations to @lilymay23024 on her results— many other students are preparing for their dissertation.

So with the help of Urszula and others, we have created a post to help anyone with dissertation nerves.

Here’s Urszula’s 12 tips on:

How to write your dissertation and not lose the common sense you got left!

One of the key words associated with your whole university experience is dissertation. The moment you place your first steps into your uni building, you’re more than likely to hear about it. It may have other names. Independent Study, Research Project or something similar but you can guarantee that they all mean the same thing: one massive piece of course work.

It then, hangs above you like a doom until you reached your third year and finally have deal with it. I am not going to lie, it will involve hard work and a lot of time but once you know what you’re doing it is not as scary as it sounds.

After talking to a few people who have just graduated and using my own personal experience, here are some, hopefully useful, tips to complete your (yes that word again) dissertation.

1. Make sure you’re satisfied with who you supervisor is:

You need to feel comfortable to talk to them and trust them to guide you well on your chosen topic of research. Independent study will take a lot of your time and effort, it is a good percentage of your grade and you need to know that you can turn to them for support.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if you unhappy with the person who has been chosen to oversee your studies. This is for your own personal benefit. Don’t complain, just get a dialogue going to resolve the issue. Everyone wants the best for you.

2. Keep in regular contact with your supervisor.

This is to ensure that you’re not deviating much from your initial plan and are staying on track. It may sometimes happen without you even realising it and they are there to guide you. They cannot help you much if you’re not updating them on your progress. Your supervisor also may provide inside for the areas you might or have overlooked. Stay on track, keep in touch with your supervisor, and use their help to your advantage.

3. Choose something you’re really interested and passionate about

 For the love of God – do something you would be interested even if you weren’t doing dissertation. If you’re worried about how you can research it, don’t. As soon as you start it, opportunities will present themselves. It’s really important that you do something you’re passionate about  –Alex McDaid: a recent graduate of Creative Writing

Nearly everyone who I’ve asked  has mentioned this point.

Seems to be obvious? Well you could be surprised how many people pick something that they are less interested in but think it might be easier to research and later on regret it (in this scenario, saying ‘better be late than sorry’ might not be the case).

If you pick something you love, you’ll be twice as motivated and not give up despite the difficulties that may arise.

I’d advice for dissertation writing, write something you know you’re passionate about – for example, my piece was something I’d wanted to write for years and I knew this was as best an opportunity to get advice and feedback for free (well, within the reason) on something I still hope to develop further in future. The feedback had been helpful. Kyle Simms: a recent graduate of Creative Writing and Music

Well to summit it up: don’t just do it, be passionate about it!

4. Start writing straight away!

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Yes, research is important and key to your grade but you have chosen the topic, so unless you ignore tip #3 it is something you are passionate about. This means you have a general idea of what you want to write or say, so write it. Get something dow before you start to actually do the research.

Why is this?

Well, sometimes the actual task of writing a certain amount of words or a certain amount of pages seems more scarier than digging your nose deeper and deeper into the pages of a book. For quiet awhile, you will claim you are doing this for research and yes, part of that will be true but it will also be true that this research method is your way of procrastinating. It’s what I call the research hole and what I too have been subject to.

Get something down, at least a good starting point and then start the research.

5. ORGANISATION!

Yes, it is that important. Everyone organises differently, but is one thing that can save you a lot of time. Organise your resources straight away.

Use an app such as One Note or Evernote that lets you make sections and pages. Get Revising and Quizlet are also good tools.

List the books you have read in the sections and any useful quotes in the pages (it is probably better that you have a separate e-notebook for each module).

Create reading /source list: describe the book, article, etc. briefly then write quotations that might be useful for you later and page number next to them. This way you reduce the last minute hassle of finding those resources you wanted for your bibliography. It also prevents the  situation where you knew a great source to back up your point but for the love of God you cannot find it and have to settle for something less good as pressed on time to finish your work.

So you have the quotes, you have the pages. Great. And the best thing is that they are stored on the cloud (if you do use any of the suggested apps and websites above that is) ready to sync all your devices.

You can also use Microsoft Word’s “references” system to create your bibliography as you research.

References> Citations>settings>citation source manager

This will save you a heap of time, it will reference your resources alphabetically and can easily be added to the end of your piece by going into:

References>Bibliography>built in bibliography

This will only take you few seconds and later on it’ll save you hours of hassle of frantically looking for the right source and creating reference list in the right order.

Note: that this feature may not be available on older Microsoft Word Versions but the uni does give you 2016 for free.

6. Review and adapt.

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Are you meeting goals you set for yourself? If yes,  perfect, well done you, you’re on your way to finishing your dissertation on time.

However, if not then you need change to something. Are you giving yourself enough time? Being systematic? Or are you being stuck at the dead end? Is it intimidating?

Dissertations are a bunch of trial and errors, but if one of the things that is stopping you is the intimidation of the project, have a look at creating a gantt chart in Excel—this is a list of  tasks you have set yourself to complete by a certain week in your study. It breaks the tasks up, makes them less intimidating and can really get your head screwed on straight.

Especially as you can see what you have to do week by week rather than as a whole. Gantt charts even colour code to let you know if you are behind or not, with different shades for different colours.

But maybe it isn’t the amount of work you have to do. Maybe new and unforeseen circumstances have stopped you progressing such as a new part-time job, change in health or family circumstances. Remember your tutors are there to help.

Try to reflect on what’s stopping you from producing work, and for heaven’s sake don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re find yourself struggling.

Most importantly, keep at it!

7. Plan out your research.

There can never be too much research —Rebecca Yeomans: a recent graduate in Creative Writing

It can also fall under organisation. I believe good organisation is a key to successful and perhaps less stressful dissertation writing. Know what it is you are researching. Ask the right questions.

Our lecturer once asked us to research whether Freshers Flu exists. We all were asking the big question but we forgot to ask the smaller ones: Who can we ask, how can we research, is it only students that get the flu?

So, make sure you ask the bigger question but also ask the smaller questions.

One way of doing this is by creating mind maps by either drawing, using apps like Cmaps or M-maps or similars. You can create bullet points or anything else, it is your notes so as long as you can understand it, that’s what matters.

Just find what helps you organise your thoughts.

Review your dissertation plan, add topics you want present in you work as you progress with your research.

Maybe write your thoughts and conclusion before and after your research. It could provide a helpful insight on how your perception has changed and if it did through your studies; also this will give you opportunity to be more self-analytic in you final conclusion.

8. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Just because you think one of your friends may be further in their dissertation than you does not mean that you are behind.

The best way to track your progress it to set yourself small tasks and goals through your study. Have a look at the gantt chart suggested in #6 or create a task list using Wunderlist, Omnifocus, Myhomework or Google Keep.

You don’t need a gantt chart to do this. You can plan on word or the other apps suggested. Make sure you plan when you want to finish writing that literature review, or how many words you want to write a day, researching resources, finishing drafts and complete experiments or similar.

What’s more important is to give yourself reasonable time to complete each task. Also, do the task which is the easiest to measure first. You can measure a word count but it is hard to measure the amount of research you allocate yourself. This way you’ll know exactly whether or not you’re behind in your dissertation, regardless of how much your friends have done.

It is also important that you remember that your friend is doing something different to you, even if it has similarities. Its not a competition, they didn’t chose an easier subject and they’re not in front. That’s not how dissertations work.

my advice would be to split up your whole dissertation into smaller tasks, for example, what evidence you need to prove your case, writing introduction and conclusion. Once you have all your sections/tasks split up, you allow yourself time for them, this way you end up having dissertation timeline/timetable. —Mark Bostock:

9. Be systematic and manage your time. 

No one really cares if you get up at 8am to finish writing your report or reading. Don’t plan to do it, if you know there is no force in the world to make you get up at this hour. You’re dedicating yourself time for your studies, time you won’t use it. This way you actively sabotaging yourself; you’re allowing to have less time to complete the task.

Everyone works differently so find out what works for you. If it is making a schedule and sticking to it, great! There are many apps and websites out there that can help you create one: Google Sheets, Get Revising, omni-focus, Google Keeps.  If it works for you, go for it.

However, if you work better in the small hours of the morning, also great. You know what works for you from previous module assessments, this is no different. Do it the way that works best for you, don’t change your working schedule because of feeling intimidated by the dissertation.

Don’t try and get it all done straight away. You more likely do more work in a week if you spend few hours every day than working in 7-10 hours just on one day in a week.

10. BACKUPS! BACKUPS! BACKUPS!

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You know that situation you’ve been in in previous years, you didn’t save your work on a memory stick OR you saved it on a memory stick and ONLY the memory stick. Then you come to get to the file and you find it has vanished or is corrupted. You can’t access it. That 1500 word essay is gone, never to be seen again.

It’s bad enough when it is just 1500 words but imagine how bad you will feel if it happens when it’s 2000 words, 5000 words, 10,000 words.  40 pages! 

I’ve had a friend who would come to me every now and again—being the tech-savvy friend. Their memory stick went compute and a copy wasn’t on the computer.  Then they started saving on their computer but not the memory stick and the hard drive went combust (this was one unlucky friend) and yes, one of the saved works was the dissertation —Shannon

You don’t want to have to do all of that again, it will be enough to make you want to snap, give up.

I nearly gave up on an essay when I lost 2000 words! So I’d have hated the idea of losing 30 pages of my 60 page screenplay. —Shannon

So,  BACK UP YOUR GOD DAMN WORK!

Our lecturer once told us:

If there is one copy, it doesn’t exist. Three copies and it still doesn’t exist. Five copies and it might exist.

So, not only should you back up your work but you should back up in SEVERAL places. Google Drive, One Drive, Drop Box, a memory stick, 2 memory sticks, heck, get an external hard drive to back-up to too.

Use one (say the one on your computer) as the master copy then sync it to all your back-ups with version names.

You cannot have too many back-ups, only too little. Don’t risk it, back it up!

11. Don’t panic and try to change your topic of dissertation far into your studies.

If you feel like you’re stuck at the dead end talk to your tutor.

They’re here to help advice and guide you, so speak to them. More than likely you’re just spending too much time on it and perhaps need a fresh eye to look at it.

Talk to your tutor, tell them about your concerns, they might redirect you or just tell you to get some sleep. However, unless advised and discussed with your supervisor, don’t change your whole research topic.

12. Take care of yourself and your health.

Sleep and eat well. Take a break.  You won’t be doing yourself any favours if you end up unwell. It might not feel like it but having sleep or a proper meal will make a difference.


Well that’s from the top of my head but if you got any questions to ask please don’t be shy. Ask for help if you need it and stay healthy. —Urzsula

adorable animal bed bedroom
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hope you enjoyed reading this post and that you found the tips helpful, sign-up to the BLOG newsletter for more student-help posts that will come in the future.

You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook

~Shannon~

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4 replies

  1. As someone who works in a university library, I cannot emphasize point 9 and 10 enough.

    We had one student come to us and ask if we had audio to text transcribing software installed as an interview he had recorded he couldn’t hear everything what was being said and he needed it for his dissertation. This was Saturday afternoon with the dissertation being due on Monday.

    HNGGGGGGGGGGGG.

    And the number of students who come to us in a panic because they have forgotten their memory stick/can’t open their memory stick/can’t find their memory stick…… For goodness sake, you can get free cloud storage and emails that are free! You have NO excuse not to save your work in multiple places.

    I feel slightly worried just thinking about working like that. Why do students do this to themselves? Why?

    Liked by 1 person

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