What’s the best way to organise your notes? How should you frame an argument? Is it normal to start hating your subject? We asked Guardian readers what lessons they learned from writing their postgrad dissertations – here are the results:
‘Start early, so you can still enjoy the summer’
Darren Mason says:
I should have started earlier, story of my university life! Although it’s finally finished, I do wish I’d started my dissertation earlier and been able to enjoy the summer a bit, rather than spending every day either at work or the library. If only I could turn back time…
‘Do the opposite of what I’ve done’
With less than a month to go, this dissertation is still in its infancy. My only saving grace has been SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries) giving me access to my hometown university’s library, and with it, the ability to actually get some work done.
Presumably like everyone else, I feel as though all the ideas are mapped out in my head but actually writing the damn thing is a whole different story.
It has taken me 19 years of education to realise that I work better in the morning; as soon as it hits 1pm, my mind goes blank. With the added pressure of trying to find a job worthy of the time, effort and money that has been put into this MA, everything seems pretty terrible at the moment.
My tip? Do the exact opposite of everything I have done thus far. I need to be more productive with my free time rather than making the excuse that I have too much work to do. The brain needs a rest, after all.
‘Remember the basics’
I was so focused on being original and creative that I didn’t focus on the simple things: format, method and theory. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, keep it simple and classic. I am now a university lecturer and I find the best dissertations are the ones that focus on one topic, one argument, one question.
‘Give yourself time out’
As all-consuming as a dissertation feels, you have to give yourself time off. I had a family wedding last weekend, with my deadline on 1 September, and while it felt like I was never going to get finished, taking that one day off was the best thing I could’ve done.
Also, using a programme like EndNote or Zotero is a lifesaver, it’s so much easier to have all your notes and references in one place.
That said, the last week was the most stressful time I’ve had, but when I handed it in on Thursday morning, it was the best feeling and the most accomplished I’ve ever felt. A whole summer of work and staring out of the window wishing it wasn’t hot and sunny was worth it for that.
‘Allow yourself to dislike what you are doing’
I’m about three weeks from handing in my dissertation on early English drama. I have to say it has been a much harder slog than I expected. It is certainly a massive jump from undergraduate work.
I have found the work over the summer especially challenging. Keeping myself motivated has been the real trial. This is especially true now that the actual writing is finished and I am trying to edit and proofread the work.
To anybody starting their master’s this year, I would say that the most important piece of advice is to allow yourself to dislike what you are doing at times. A year is a long time to be so entirely focused on one subject and so some frustration and a tiny bit of boredom is inevitable. Academia is presented as a career of passion, but we are all human.
Olivia Havercroft says:
Writing a dissertation takes a lot of introspection. Mine started to become a list of facts with no explanatory detail because I was so immersed in it I assumed the reader knew as much as I did. Make a point, give your evidence, explain. Be clear and constantly refer back to why your work is relevant. That’s the best advice I can give.
‘Have time to focus before your deadline’
I had to submit mine in July for my psychology conversion course. As I am working as well as studying, it meant I had to fit it in around work, so I spent the final weekend before submission writing it on a plane to New York.
I completed it in the hotel but it was a rush and my referencing looked terrible and I lost marks. If you are studying and working, take leave if you can in the weeks coming up to submission.
‘Have on days and off days’
I am 10,500 words into a 16,000-word text, which I’m quite chuffed about (but I am including the bibliography in that figure, which doesn’t count).
I haven’t had any disastrous episodes but my morale has certainly fluctuated. My advice, however, would be to have on days and off days – keep work and play separate. If you want to have a long day of work, go to the library. If you want to watch TV or go out with friends, definitely do so, because a bit of recreation will clear your head.
The important thing is to do one thing or the other; if you don’t, you may have many long days of sporadic concentration and mindless procrastination.