We’re around one month into the first semester and I’m guessing, if you’re like me, you’re already stressing about your assignments and feeling behind. Trust me, the feeling of dread always creeps up around this time and you’re not the only one.
However, whether you’re in your first, second or last year of your BA I’m sure you’ve thought about your dissertation. Because no matter how many exams and essays you hand in, most of them are not even close to the level of work you have to put in for your dissertation.
The thing about dissertations is that it relies on how you’ve been working the last three years leading up to it. If you’re a chronic procrastinator, like me, you won’t magically get your shit together for your dissertation, that’s not how it works. Also, life doesn’t stop to give you some peace to work once it’s dissertation time, you still might have commitments in other parts of your life too.
For my dissertation it seemed like the world was against me. The data I’d applied for to use was denied one month after asking, making me have to scramble to find something else that could do the same job for my topic. And because I always spread myself too thinly on several topics the weeks before it was due I was exhausted. So there I was, 5 days before the due date, with only 2000 out of 10 000 words written down. Yet, I locked myself into my room and manged to hand it in on time and received, against all odds, an A as my final grade.
For me to manage this is not because I’m secretly a time traveler who could travel back in time to write it. But I’ve built up some good habits for my uni work these last three years. So, why not share those habits and tips with you all:
1. Find your topics early:
Now, I don’t mean your dissertation topic. I mean finding the topics withing your subjects that interest you the most. For me, it was the connection between media and democracy. Every semester paper or exam that would allow me to write about this I did. That way you’ll increase your knowledge greatly on these topics, meaning you know a lot of the theories and sources to use once you start on your dissertation.
2. Read news about your topics
Dissertations often have to be based on current issues and topics. Make sure you read news or follow social media accounts about your subject topics. That way, when it’s time to choose your dissertation topic you’ll know what is relevant at the moment, which also makes your dissertation even more interesting.
3. Read the recommended literature
This goes for every topic, for every year. Read, read, read. If you’re at a lecture and you don’t understand, most likely it’s because you haven’t read. Know that the subjects you have and the recommended literature is there to prepare you for your dissertation and actually make you able to use the degree you are paying to get.
+ bonus tip: read popular science on your topics that are not on your reading list. Many times they are easier to digest and will give you loads of good information and ideas.
4. Practice searching for sources
The way you search for academic sources in your first year is way different than during second year. The way you search for academic sources in your third year should also be way different than in second year. Take time to properly learn how to find valid and relevant academic sources. Using an article from Buzzfeed in your dissertations (or any academic text) should only be if the article is an example, not an actual source for your argument. Once you’ve found a lot of useful sources, save them in a folder for your dissertation.
5. Notes are your best friend
I’m a bit of a note-nerd. Every time I read for uni I take notes, usually by hand. What I then do is I rewrite my notes into a word document. I’ve been doing this since first year, meaning I’ve now got a shit long word document with notes (in categories) from my last 3 years. Instead of having to remember which book I read what, I’ll go into that document, look at the different topics and find what I’m looking for and in what book I got it from. Despite it taking some time to create this document, it’s saved me endless of time afterwards.
6. Keep in contact with your dissertation supervisor
Listen, your dissertation supervisor is chosen for you because they’re one of the best within your topic at your uni. Why would you not keep in close contact with them? Mine was a saving angel and I cannot think of how many hours I wasted by not just messaging them first when I had some difficulties.
+ bonus tip: if you’re not happy with your supervisor, ask to change. I cannot press this enough.
7. Always have it in the back of your head
Yes, breaks are important. But you’re not going to be writing your BA dissertation for 1 year. It’s, in reality, a short amount of time. Take the breaks you need from writing (like I did for several weeks), but while you’re not writing you should still think about the different arguments you want to raise and use. Keeping myself in a dissertation “zone” while not physically working on it made it easier for me to know what I was going to write once I sat down.
8. Write, write, write!
The more you write during your three years at uni, and during your free time, the more comfortable you will be with writing academic texts in less time than people who don’t spend time on this. Writing any kind of text takes skill, and to gain skill you need to practice, even if it’s just 300-500 words a week.
9. Don’t follow my example
Listen, I know I was being stupid when I sat down with five days two write 8000 good academic words. No one should take that risk and I’ll never recommend anyone to take that risk. Work on building good habits from the first year. Find the topics you are most interesting and do the damn work. There is no magic way of getting good grades, most of us just have to put in the effort.
Good luck you guys, no matter if you’ve got an essay, report, exam or dissertation coming soon!