As part of many bachelor’s degrees, students are expected to write a final thesis on a topic related to their degree. The thesis, or dissertation, is usually around 10 000 words and has a different format than the ordinary university essays written throughout the program. It can be a very daunting task to complete such a project and many students struggle with knowing how to work efficiently towards a deadline at the end of their final year. I hope to give everyone an insight into the dos and don’ts of writing a dissertation for students doing a bachelors degree.
How I learnt about dissertation dos and don’ts
I wrote a dissertation as a final project in my bachelors degree and I figured some things out along way. I have now compiled a list of things I wish I had understood earlier on, but also strategies I used that helped me throughout. If you are preparing to write your own dissertation in the upcoming academic year or have just began university, these may be helpful to you in learning the dissertation dos and don’ts.
The perfect project doesn’t exist
Let’s begin with setting this straight. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about your dissertation topic or how well prepared you are for the work ahead, it will most likely never be perfect. Let me explain why. Your bachelor degree dissertation will (most likely) be the first project of this kind you’ll ever write. And when you do something for the first time, you need to adjust your expectations accordingly. Just like everything else we try for the first time, it will not be perfect on the first try.
The first essay you ever wrote was probably not a master piece, so why would you expect that from your dissertation? Don’t get me wrong, having big aspirations on the quality and the grade you’ll receive is great. However, if you go into the project with the expectation that you will produce a master piece, you will set yourself up to failure. Why? Because you will be so afraid of failure that you will miss out on learning opportunities from the possible feedback received from experienced supervisors or from your peers. More on this down below.
Although very similar, a dissertation is still not an essay
Before you begin writing anything, first understand what a dissertation is on an undergraduate level, or what it should consist of. You should also learn the dos and the don’t when you are writing a dissertation. A good place to start is reading example dissertations from the university and ask your supervisor if they have an example they think fit what you want to do. This was a huge help in writing my own dissertation (when applying for a bachelors degree), both in terms of structure and understanding what was expected of me. Make it easy for yourself and follow their composition, you can then change it as you see fit.
Although it is more than an essay, understand the scope’s limitations
Any original dissertation project can most likely be expanded into a full PhD thesis. But this is not your goal, so make sure that you understand the scope’s limitations. First, outline what you would like to observe and then second, carefully select readings as specific or relevant as possible to your topic. I struggled with this part a lot. My brain wanted to keep expanding the scope the more I read, but in the end I had to exclude a big chunk of interesting findings and perspectives, because there were simply not enough space for it. On the other hand, this selection is a crucial part of the assessment process and demonstrates your ability to bring forward the most relevant and interesting part of both prior, and your own, research about dissertation dos and don’ts if you are looking to apply for a bachelors degree.
Don’t leave it to the last minute
This one you’ve heard before, but let me explain what I mean in terms of the dissertation. Throughout the year, you will most likely have other modules with earlier deadlines demanding your attention. The final dissertation deadline seems so far away when you begin your final year, that you will want to prioritize them first. That is okay, these are needed to be finished first. However, if you don’t take a look at the project early on, you will easily feel overwhelmed by the amount of work later on.
Therefore, you might as well sit down and outline your work ahead. Jot down all the deadlines for each module and what kind of assessments are to be completed for them. Do you have a long essay due just days before the dissertation deadline or will you have time after the final essay deadline to focus on the dissertation? Perhaps you have a month with fewer deadlines, which you can dedicate most of your time to the dissertation. Sometimes you will write more intensely than at other times. The process is far from linear.
Get absorbed, but also invite others for feedback
In the final weeks before the deadline, I felt as if I was living and breathing my dissertation topic. I am thankful for my partner and friends who put up with the highs and lows and endless chatter about it. However, I wish I would have invited them to read it prior to the submission. I told them they would get to read it once it was finished. I wouldn’t have to be completely done, in order for them to give me small things to improve.
What held me back was those expectations I mentioned earlier. I put up too high expectations on myself and in hindsight, I wish I would have made use of their feedback, instead of avoiding it. They all want you to succeed, so they will surely be honest about your work. My tip is therefore to invite a couple of people you trust, be honest about your hesitations or limitations and ask them for feedback. If you know that your grammar is flawed, either ask them to look extra carefully at that, or ask them to skip that part for now and focus more on the content. Trust me, you will be better off that way.
Ask for help and if not available, demand support in some way
Supervisors, personal tutors and other teachers, they may have varying degrees of time available. However, they are all expected to guide you through your work. Ask questions and more questions. Even the silly ones. Trust me, it will save you so much time in the long run. The amount of support offered to students vary greatly between universities. There is a reason why the top universities demand high results from their applicants. They want to know that you as a student is worth investing time and money in to succeed. The supervisors have more time and resources to allocate to each student, reading drafts and constantly reviewing papers.
While I was writing my dissertation, my supervisor guided 30 other students, while carrying out her own research as well. There was not the same amount of time for guidance. Yet she did her best to help me thorough the process. She also gave good tips on the dos and don’ts while writing my dissertation.
Two handy tips to facilitate the work itself
Finally, I would like to finish off this post by providing two handy tips that can help you push through a big project like this. If you are someone who struggles to focus on one task or even on one thought at a time. Or perhaps your brain suddenly jumps from one place to another mid-sentence. Then there are ways to cope with it.
Firstly, if you get easily distracted by the change of noise, I would recommend listening to brown noise. Like white noise, it can help you stay focused and not get distracted by other sounds or even your own thoughts! I find it very helpful when reading. Secondly, try to find the time slots of the day when you are the most productive. Don’t force yourself to get up and sit at your desk at 9am if it is very unlikely that you will produce anything worthwhile at that time of day. I never even tried to do any work before 2pm. This is because my brain wanted to do other things, such as household chores or go to the gym. Sometimes I would get plenty of inspiration at 3am. Don’t fight it, instead try to work with it.
Every dissertation is unique and one’s work can vary greatly from another’s. Choose what you find exciting and pitch your ideas to our teachers in the department. This is a challenging project that requires commitment and humility. You will not get your first draft right, but as you keep going your project will become better and better. Give it an honest attempt. Ask for help along the way. And finally try to enjoy the freedom of choosing your own topic.
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