Starting to write your dissertation

Peter Hancox, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science and PGR Lead for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, gives his advice to those for whom the lockdown means starting to tackle your thesis…

That day has come.  You can put it off no longer.  You can’t even go into the lab under the pretence that you just need to do a little more work.

A laptop, coffee, cola, notes and books.
Photo credit: Rasmus Larsen

You must start to write your dissertation.

The experience of writing a dissertation can be lonely.  After all, it is your dissertation and no one else can (or should) write it for you.  It’s a bit like being at a social distance from your colleagues.

To get started, the first thing to do is to decide to start.  The next (and harder) thing is to tell someone – your supervisor (obviously) and one or two of your friends and colleagues – pick those who will support you and who don’t get bored when you tell them that you’ve written two pages or 200 words a day or whatever.  If two or more of you are writing up together, you can start a WhatsApp group to keep in touch, encourage, console and pass on helpful hints.

Your next activity should be to read the requirements for a dissertation.  The University Graduate School has guidance on formatting your dissertation and many other topics.  Bookmark this page now because you will want to check something later.

Where to start?  You could start with the title page (reading the formatting guidance just mentioned) and add contents pages etc.  Then you can look at it and dream of the day when all the later pages are completed and you’re collecting your degree in the Great Hall.  Then you need a plan: how many chapters?  What do you have to cover?  What order do you write them in?  Your supervisor can help you with the first two questions.  The last chapter to be written is usually the introduction and the penultimate chapter is the conclusion.

So, you have your plan and you’ve formed a self-help group.  This is where panic sets in.  You now have a blank screen in front of you and you have to fill it with words.  The best strategy is to plan each chapter in detail, so you know the section headings and the subsection headings (and the sub-sub… – you get the idea).  Put your plan away for 48 hours, then review it, add the bits you forgot, rearrange it (if necessary) and then start writing each section, subsection ….

Perhaps your sense of panic comes from a feeling that you can’t get the dissertation finished.  First: think about the research students you know who have already graduated.  Were they all so much better than you?  If they can do it, why not you?  When you were offered your place to study, the tutors thought you would be able to complete.  Second: spend a day adding to your skill set.  Library Services run a very useful Summer Writing School.  You can use last year’s.  There are sections on putting your dissertation together, writing skills and something else.  I like these sessions for two main reasons: they emphasise structure (all dissertations must have a tight structure) and they discuss how to structure a paragraph – which is a skill that needs practice.

What about that something else?  There is a recording of a panel discussion featuring research students who had recently completed.  You can listen to what other students find difficult and realise you are not alone and how what seems like obstacles can be overcome.

There’s no hiding that writing a dissertation can be hard work.  Really, you don’t want it to be any other way because you can look back on your achievement for the rest of your life and be amazed at what you have done.  I can remember the experience of writing, day-after-day, seeing the pile of paper grow (electronically).  Then, one morning, I got up and knew I could finish the dissertation.  From that point on, it was suddenly so much easier.  It turns out that’s a common experience.  I hope it happens to you.

Then you have to submit your thesis, but that’s for next time.

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Helen Kara

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