A Dissertation Survival Guide

Spring term is here and many are about to properly start their dissertations. As I’m working on my graduate film project this term, I wrote my dissertation last term and handed it in on the last day of November, so I thought I’d share some of my own tips of surviving it.

A quick reminder before is that
1. Everyone has their own way of researching and writing, these are just my tips that worked really well for me.
2. My dissertation was for a bachelor of arts (i Sverige motsvarar det en fil.kand) and the structure of your dissertation may differ depending on what kind of degree you’re doing, your university and the country you’re studying in.

Start early

It’s quite self-evident and most people don’t stick to it (I barely did), but it’s so much worth it. It’s already January now and if your deadline is by around April/May/June, this tip is a bit shit, but if you’re writing it during the Autumn term or next Spring term, start a bit during the summer/winter break. At least get a broad view of what you’re going to write about and if you’re analysing books, film or similar – have a list of which books/films you need to support your argument(s). As I started as early as April 2017 with mine, I had my films (the two film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and an idea of what I wanted to write about (comparing the depiction of Lisbeth Salander) by mid-June.

The question

The more narrow and obscure your dissertation is, the more your marker(s) will love it. I decided to write about men’s violence against women in film, I narrowed it down to two films adapted from the same book and focused on only three scenes, whereas the first scene was paid quite a little attention to in comparison to the other two.

The other important thing is to (obviously) pick something that you’re interested in, or at least enough to write 10 000 words on. I hadn’t planned at all to write about what I wrote about – all I knew was that I wanted to write about women in Scandinavian film – nor had I read the books or seen the films before. But after a talk with my personal advisor about it back in March 2017, I decided that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the best option as it wasn’t too close to my heart (so by picking the film apart, I wouldn’t risk hating something I once loved) but it was close enough to make myself excited about the topic (set in Stockholm where I’m from and it raised questions about men, violence and feminism).

It’s okay to change your question during the writing process; I actually changed it just a few days before hand-in to make it narrower and to make the conclusion (hopefully) answer the question.

Decide on when to work on it

A bachelor degree’s dissertation is worth 30 UK credits which is equivalent to 15 ECTS (the system the rest of Europe use) which means it’s half a term worth of full-time studies. Depending on your degree, university and country, some do work on it full-time for half a term and some work on it during the whole term alongside other courses. This means (unless you’re my friend Jake who wrote his in about a week) you need to spend a lot of time on it and to structure your time because you’re going to have other work alongside and have time to have fun sometimes.

With a deadline of 30th of November, I think I properly started doing research around mid-October (I had previously written 2000 words but most of it got cut in the end) and from the beginning of November, I sat almost non-stop with it with the exception for two weeks when I was doing a directing project. Because I’m the worst morning person ever, unlike my friend and housemate Flora who is up and at the library at 08:30 every weekday morning, I usually got to the library between 10-12:00 and sat there until about 20-22:00 if I didn’t have class. For me, this worked the best as I like to sleep in a bit and I don’t mind too much coming home later. No matter what routine you choose, the important thing is to stick to it.

Write your introduction first

Every university professor will say the opposite; they always tell you to write it second-last, just before your conclusion. I found it easier to write it first as I could always go back to it and make sure that I was actually writing about what I had described in the introduction. It did change over time, including my question and hypothesis, but that’s okay. What I mean is that it was good to have something to lean back on in times of doubt. In your introduction, you also write why you write your dissertation – what new thoughts will it bring to your field? – which worked as a goal for me.

Research will come and go

My research folder contains 74 articles and that’s excluding websites and the physical books and the films I used. In the end, I ended up with about 55 references excluding films. You will read several articles and take notes for them but then to discover that you don’t need them at all, and while it feels like wasted time, it still helped you with knowledge about the topic and maybe you’ll find, in the very end, that something may have been useful. Better to read too much than too little. The same goes with writing – I probably wrote 15 000 words in total and ended up with just little under 9 500.

Write, write and write

Once you’ve done enough research that will at least generate a few thousand words; write, write and write. Try to not edit too much as you write, you’ll feel that you’re not getting anywhere and that word count never goes up. It’s just better to try and get it all out and then edit. As it’s quite a long piece, I wrote it chapter per chapter and edited after I’d written each chapter. If your chapters themselves aren’t coherent, it will be a lot harder to edit the full piece.

Your dissertation is only as strong as your conclusion

You’ve just written thousands of words, it’s only the conclusion left and I hope you’ve given yourself lots of time to write it. For me, the conclusion was the hardest to write as that’s basically the piece that will make it or break it. Spend a lot of time on writing the shortest section of your dissertation – my conclusion was about 650 words and for 10 000 words piece and I personally don’t think you should spend more than like 800 words on it. The conclusion should briefly summarise your research, findings and answer (or question) your research question and to raise any other potential questions you’ve found.

Final checks

Never. Edit. Your. Dissertation. By. Yourself. Always ask someone else (preferably several people) to read it as well. You will have missed things, typos, referencing and things that are clear to you who have: 1. Read it several times 2. Have knowledge about the topic, won’t necessarily be clear to someone else. If your friend doesn’t understand something, it’s likely that your marker won’t either.

Make sure that your references in-text/footnotes and bibliography are on point. Referencing often stands for around 10% of your mark and it makes the difference between two grades. Check your department’s/university’s style guide (which referencing system you should use) and when in doubt – ask someone else. I had the luck of getting the very last appointment with a librarian who helped me check my bibliography, which especially helped as I had several legislations mentioned that I didn’t know how to reference to.

Word (and probably other writing programmes) have an automated way to make a table of contents – use it. It will be a pain to manually do it and with this; you only need to make sure you spell your headings correctly and then Word will sort it out for you in the table of contents.

And finally; come up with a great title. It can be short or extremely long – many of my friends had quite long titles, but as long as it sounds interesting and relates to your question, it will be a good title. I named mine “A pursuit of sexual pleasure or men who hate women? – A visual and narrative comparison between two adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” which identifies the question discussed and the films I analysed. Your supervisor is going to tell you that they want a title when you’ve barely started your research but honestly, you don’t have to stick to it anyway – a good title requires the entire dissertation journey.

Other general tips

Find a good place to study
I found the library the best place for me to study. I would rather spend 10-12 hours there and eat pasta out of a tupperware instead of risking falling asleep at home or getting distracted by things. By being in the library I would also see other people study which helped me to focus. But this is very individual, like my housemate works really well at home and some can find their focus in a café. No matter where you find it easiest to study, it’s good to be in a place that has food and water.

Good things to help you:
Grammarly – Not just a spell checker but also picks up on grammar mistakes
Thesaurus – Look up synonyms, literally a life saviour when I’d run out of ways to say penis
Cite This For Me – Basically does your bibliography for you (I haven’t used this but many of my friends do)
Tomato Timer/Pomodoro – An app on the web and on your phone that helps you schedule your breaks. You study for 25 mins, break for 5 mins, 25 mins + 5min, 25 mins + 5 mins and then 25 mins and a longer 10/15 mins break.
RainyMood – Literally the sound of rain in the background, works really well for me to relax and focus
Good old water, hand cream & vaseline – Because your throat, hands and lips will get dry

Get a study buddy
My friend Bella and I were friends before we started our dissertations but it was through our mutual suffering in the library that we became so much closer. We would message each other in the mornings saying if and when we were going to the library, we took breaks and went for dinners together, tagged each other in study-dying-memes together and just generally encouraged each other. Because most people in the UK write their dissertations in the spring term, it was basically just us film students whose were due in the autumn term and it can sometimes feel lonely. So go and get a friend who’s also writing theirs because you really need a friend to not go mad.

Your health
When I was writing my dissertation, I was almost always stressed, I got really bad rashes due to the stress and I basically lived on pasta pesto or tortellini because I felt too stressed to cook anything properly. This was definitely not a healthy way and I do think it’s ridiculous that students are put under so much pressure to the extent that it affects our physical and mental health. As I did have so much to do, I couldn’t take off a full weekend do things – there was simply not enough time for me to do that. Instead, I tried to do small things every now and then, such as spending an hour or so down in the kitchen with my housemates, having tea and biscuit breaks with my classmates in the library and one evening I binge watched season 2 of Stranger Things – 
take breaks. Your dissertation is not worth sacrificing your health.

 

As said earlier, every person will have their own ways of studying that works best for them but I hope this was to some help at least.

Pia x