Sunday, 28 August 2011

Reader question: How to organise/write a dissertation


Recently EmmerLouise asked me to write a post on how to organise or write a dissertation/thesis. This is an important issue for students who are about to start their last year in university, and are facing this scary time.
    This post is going to be a list of tips which should help you organise yourself in writing your dissertation. I am not going to tell you how to actually write your dissertation, because each university, course and dissertation question will need a different way, which I can't summarise here. However, I think my tips should cover every type of dissertation, whether arts/sciences/humanities, undergraduate or postgraduate level, polytechnic or Oxbridge. This is because these are fundamental tips ALL students should use. Even if you're in last year of uni, it's best you learn them now, rather than after it was too late like I did. No-one told me these things and I had to learn them for myself. So please print this list out and think about how to use these tips to help you in your dissertation/thesis writing.
    I have to be honest, I didn't do very well in my dissertation. This is because I didn't follow the tips I am about to give you. Over the summer holiday, I've realised what I should have done to make my organisation better, and this is what I have listed here. I will be implementing these rules/tips when I am writing my MA dissertation over the next 12 months.
    I really hope these help you! If you think of any more, please write them in the comments, and I will add them to the list!
In no particular order:

  1. Start early! If you can, do some preliminary research during the preceding summer, or start early in the first term. Time goes quickly and soon you will have lots of other work to do, so get as much done as early as possible.
  2. Use the research and writing skills you have learnt throughout your course. 
  3. Make sure you have regular contact (meetings) with your dissertation supervisor.
  4. Make sure your dissertation/thesis question is one you can understand. I didn't, and it screwed me up for the whole research and writing. You can always change it early (ask your supervisor), but always make sure you understand it.
  5. There will be some specific things you have to do to format your dissertation- for example, a particular way to format the bibliography and pictures, specific chapters you need to write etc. Make sure you know about these early because doing them as you go along will save you a LOT of time just before you hand your dissertation in. 
  6. Make scheduled time to do your dissertation research every week. Once you have lots of other work to do in other modules, it's easily forgotten. 
  7. Write a diary listing what progress you have made so you can tell your supervisor when he asks at meetings. 
  8. Do your bibliography etc as you go along. This is the easiest way to make sure you haven't forgotten to list a specific book, and means you don't have to rush doing it at the end. Not doing this is what has made me late on so many essays!
  9. Very important: Keep your stuff organised, whether it's on your computer or on paper, or both. I had a folder full of articles. I decided not to staple the pages of individual articles together, because I thought I may need to lay the pages of the article across my desk to cross reference things, which I couldn't do if they were stapled. Because of this, when I put my articles together in a pile on my bed, and kept on flicking through them to find a particular page, everything got very mixed up and I had to spend my precious time sorting them all out again. Whether it's a folder full of articles like mine, or your own notes, or computer documents and folders, make sure you are organised. This is essential and invaluable!
  10. If you need books etc that may be popular and out of the library for a long time when you need them, make sure you request them (ask the librarian to recall them from the user) early so you can have access to them before it's too late. This is especially important when you need a book that your library doesn't have. You can use a system called Interlibrary Loan, where your library requests the book you need from another library, sometimes for a small fee. This can take a few days to a few weeks. When I was trying to order the massive list of books I needed that weren't available in my library, it was that April time when there were LOADS of bank holidays! So my books either came late or not at all! Always be careful of this!
  11. Set yourself deadlines. Your university may set you draft deadlines, but setting your own deadlines might keep your progress on track a bit more.
  12. Back your work up all the time! It would be a nightmare if you lost the only copy of your work (trust me, this has happened to me once!). Email it to yourself, buy a memory stick, back it up on the university central system. Print hard copies and put them somewhere safe.
  13. Ask you friends to read it through to see if it makes sense. Tell them to give you constructive criticism.
  14. Finish as early as possible, preferably about a week before the deadline- you need to check references etc, possibly change things etc. The most important reason you need to do this is that you need to get your dissertation printed and bound. It is chaotic trying to do this at the last minute- hundreds of other students are trying to do this at the same time as you! 
Good luck everyone!!



  1. This is a great post. Thank you! I'm returning to University to do my MSc (part-time) in October 13 years after having left my undergraduate university!! I have bookmarked this :)

  2. Thanks Babs! I'm going to print this out and put it on my wall so I keep myself organised this year during my MA!

  3. Great tips TPS! I will have to do a link post at some point and include this :-)

  4. Thank you for this. i'm just going into my third year so will print a copy off and put it in my boxfile ready. i have started my research and am really excited about starting it, as it's on a topic i'm really interested in. :)

  5. Backup, backup, backup! I lost my usb-drive just when I had finished my statistics, halfway into term. That was horrifying and embarrassing.

  6. Thank you for this, I'm writing my MA diss. at the moment. One question, how did you organize your research? Particularly how did you organize the quotes you wanted to use? Did you write them out on index cards? Type them up? Color coding with a high liter? Any advice would be most appreciated!

  7. Thank you for this, I'm writing my MA diss. at the moment. One question, how did you organize your research? Particularly how did you organize the quotes you wanted to use? Did you write them out on index cards? Type them up? Color coding with a high liter? Any advice would be most appreciated!