It has come to my attention that it has been a hot minute since I have written any university content, which is a shame because it is one of my favourite things to read about on other people's blogs. I am currently in my final year of my English and History degree and the end is near, which means the undergraduate dissertation is looming. This post is basically a few pointers on how to write your dissertation, from someone who is going through a similar thing. If you have to write a dissertation this year, you should have already started researching if not writing, but this might still be of use to you. And for students in their first and second years, this may help you too! I'll talk a bit about where I am with mine too, so if you're not at uni but are just nosy and are interested in that, I cater for you too! But I've got an inkling that this will be a loooong post, so you'll be in it for the long haul I'm afraid.
For those of you who maybe aren't British or don't know what an undergraduate dissertation is, it is basically a long essay on a subject of your choosing within your degree subject (within reason, of course). At my uni, because I do a combined degree of English Literature and History, I could either not do a dissertation and instead make up the credits with additional modules, choose to write my dissertation in either English Literature or History, or write two, one in each subject. Now, I was warned against making up the credits with additional modules, as you may think you have less work but you are actually probably writing the equivalent number of words, if not more, than a dissertation student. And I obviously wasn't going to write two LOL. So I had to choose whether to write one in English Literature or History. For me, it was an easy choice. I am better at History, and thought it would be easier to write an original take on something in History rather than Literature. This was a choice that I made waaay back in Second year. History dissertations at my uni are 10,000 words, whereas English dissertations are only 8,000, but include an earlier assignment that is basically a 2,000 word proposal form that is weighted at 20%. I knew I didn't want to do that, so History it was. So I then had to choose what to do it on. Despite not being able to write a single dissertation in English and History, I knew that I wanted to somehow combine the two fields. After speaking to my personal tutor (a tutor that we get assigned in First year that basically meets up with us once a semester and checks on our grades/ attendance/ if we need any help), again back in Second year, I decided to do a History dissertation on something to do with journalism, as it is the industry that I think I would like to go into once I graduate. At the end of Second year I made the decision that I wanted to write on British female journalists during the Second World War, and whether the war meant that there were more opportunities for women, and whether they merely assimilated with the men or wanted to change the industry. So that's what my dissertation is on. It's current working title (it will probably change another 98765456 times) is:
Women, Genre and the Second World War: Did British female journalists assimilate within the journalism trade or did they seek to change it?
Now onto some pointers about how to actually write your dissertation:
It all begins with research. Before you've even set your heart on a topic yet, you need to research, because your first idea will almost always be shaped and changed, made smaller etc. My first thought was basically the entire history of British female journalists from about the 1800s to the 2000s, including bloggers etc, but obviously that was waaaay too broad, so after researching and having help from my supervisor, I was able to narrow it down to a smaller and more niche subject.
Once you have chosen your topic and had it approved by your supervisor, the research gets even more intense. The library, Google Scholar and Jstor will become your new best friends. Ooh and Google Books (a life saver for pretending you've read more books than you actually have - shh.)
To get a decent grade in any humanities dissertation, but especially History, you have to use a balance of primary and secondary sources, and at Bath Spa they encourage all History dissertation students to visit archives to gain access to these. Getting access into archives is a BALL ACHE. The rules are different for every one, and some you need to apply through a form, some through email. You need copies of this form and that form, this email and your ID and student ID and basically every piece of important documentation you have ever received. Ever. OK - slight exaggeration, but it is still a lot of hard work, but worth it for me. To date, I have attended the British Library Archives in London once, and the London School of Economics Women's Library Archives in London twice. I have also been in correspondence with an archivist from New York, as while I was researching I found that an archive that would be a fantastic source of primary documents was all the way in America, and I don't have the budget for that. Thankfully though, she is sending me over scans of the documents that I would like to use, which is amazing!
For me, I also find it easier to research as I go along so that I know the gaps in my knowledge and can fill them as I am writing, but obviously different approaches work for different people, so if you like compiling all of your research before you start, then go for it. I also feel like I have accomplished more if I have actually started writing an essay, especially one the size of this, but again - that's just me. You do you, boo. (Gross, I promise I will never say anything like that again.)
OK, so you've started (or finished) researching. Now it is time to plan. Again, everyone writes essays differently but I urge you to write a plan for your dissertation, even if you don't usually for normal course essays. I'm not a massive fan of planning for normal essays, but I knew that because I'd be writing this piece of work over a much longer period of time, in order to keep my dissertation coherent, I'd need a plan. I found that the best way for me was to start with a small, basic skeleton plan which literally stated the chapter structure and a couple of bullet points about what I was thinking of including in them. I then built up this skeleton plan until it had more and more information on it, using my ongoing research to pad it out. I then took this plan to my dissertation supervisor for his comments.
The best advice I can give you here is to just start writing. Even if it is utter bollocks when you first start, it is a lot easier to be productive when you're not staring at a blank word document. The first day I started, I wrote 350 words. I was super proud of this, until I strutted downstairs and announced it to my Dad, to which he sarcastically replied "well done, you've written 3.5%. Only another 96.5% to go. And that 3.5% will probably have to be reworded." Cheers for the support, Dad. But, when I looked at it again the following week, I was able to smash out a lot more work, just because there were already a few hundred words on the page. Remember, a small start is still a start, and you're one step (or in my case, 3.5%) closer to the end result. Being a humanities student, I was also advised, by numerous people including my supervisor and fitness and lifestyle vlogger @GraceFitUK (if you haven't discovered her Youtube channel go and check it out the SECOND you finish reading this blog post because she is an incredible boss of a human being that manages to smash out Oxford University standard essays and dissertations left, right and bloody centre), to leave the introduction until I am ready to write the conclusion, because my ideas haven't fully formulated yet. Which I think is fab advice, for me. But obviously this depends on your degree subject. My flatmate, Ellie, does a Psychology degree and so relies on experiments done on other people to calculate results, and so she needs to start with her introduction otherwise she'd have nothing written until probably 3 weeks before the due date (not advisable.)
Utilise your supervisor as much as you can! I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH! I am really lucky in the fact that, for History, there is no cap on the amount of hours you can spend chewing your supervisor's ear off. Lucky because I know that in other subjects at my uni, such as Drama and English Literature, they are capped at a certain number of hours across the whole year that they can spend with their supervisor. Which I think is silly. That is literally why they are there. To supervise. To help. To stop you crying when you (inevitably) are 3 weeks away from the deadline and are having an existential crisis and wanting to scrap your entire dissertation and change topics last minute (again, not advisable.) But I meet up with my supervisor at least once a month for a half an hour meeting, whether it be to go over ideas, a plan, a chapter, or just for some guidance. Literally, use them as much as you can. They are, probably, the only other person at the university who will end up knowing as much about your dissertation topic as you do. Mine even finds research for me sometimes. He is an ANGEL. (Love u, Cliff)
Where I'm at!
So my dissertation due date is actually the 17th of May 2019. But because I am a combined student and we are, as a uni, transferring from terms to semesters, and Easter is so blooming late this year, all deadlines and other uni dates have been moved to suit these changes. So, I actually return home from an English Literature trip to Berlin and Poland (we are visiting Auschwitz and places similar for our 'Literature and Evil' module) on the 17th of May, and so have to submit my dissertation the same day as the English Literature students, which is the 7th of May. TEN DAYS LESS TIME. I know, scary. But if I haven't finished at least writing it by 10 days before it's due, then God knows what grade I'll get. I need that time to proofread, get my friends/ family/ boyfriend to proofread, and proofread again!
The History course at Bath Spa also set 3 smaller formative assignments (assignments that don't count) throughout the year, to make sure we are up to date. The first one was a small proposal form, that was due in October. The second, a 2,000 word 'Sources essay' (like a literature review), that was due in November. And the final one is a draft chapter, due in March.
So far, I have written a skeleton plan, and bulked it out with research. I took it to my supervisor, who said it could make a "quite good" dissertation, but was concerned that it was too broad and would end up thinly spread. So I went away, used this information to help narrow down my plan. Having been to one archive already, I rewrote the plan, again bulked it out, and have now started writing. I haven't yet been to my supervisor, because we have had 3 weeks off for research/ reading weeks and I haven't actually returned back yet! I have now written my first chapter, and am up to 2,500 words, and visited the second archive twice. I am planning on skipping my second chapter for the time being and moving onto starting to write my final chapter this week, as I think it will be easier. I'm still not 100% sure whether more archival research needs to go into my second chapter, so that is why I will leave writing it until just before I write my introduction and conclusion. And so far, I'm kind of loving writing it. Yeah it can be a bit tedious, and trekking all the way to London 3 times (and making my dad drive me) has been annoying, but I'm loving researching and writing about a topic that I am so passionate about!
So if you are writing your undergraduate dissertation this year, or will be in the near future, I wish you the best of luck! Work hard and put the effort in, and I'm sure you'll get a grade to be proud of! My one final comment is to try and enjoy the process as much as you can! It's not often that someone can say that they are *basically* an expert in a field of their choice! So be proud! And when it's all over, you'll have a copy on your bookcase to show off to everyone that happens to venture into a near proximity of it (or at least your parents will show it off if you don't!)
And if you're not writing your undergraduate dissertation, lucky you! Hopefully you'll be aware of the work that third years across the country (and world) go through every day in order to pass their degree! (Not bitter about all you people at all.)
Phew, that was a long one! Well done and first class honours to everyone who made it this far! Thank you so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed the post, or even found it a bit helpful!
With love, Chloe x