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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dissertation Thoughts

Two years ago, student Maddy Potts posted her top-10 tips for future generations to help them through the great rite of passage of the British undergraduate degree: the storied dissertation. Reading through them, I think there was a degree of tongue-in-cheek, but also some sound advice.

Today was my "D-Day," the day when the previous several year's work is submitted for the scrutiny of academics who have seen it all before - the good, the bad and (hopefully not too often) the ugly. I thought I would put together my own thoughts on her top-10 tips. Here goes:
  1. If your dissertation supervisor isn't a good match, get another one.

    Not a problem for me, mine was a perfect fit and was very interested in my project. However, without the occasional guidance, steer in the right direction and advice on footnotes from a good supervisor, my dissertation would not have been anywhere near as easy.

  2. People you meet will be disappointed by your topic or feign interest when you tell them about it.

    My view (perhaps a little snobbish) is that maybe you should find some other people to talk to. There is, however, a serious point here. Academic history can often seem shut off from the rest of the world and one of the great challenges is to find a way to make your research relevant to the general public. In my case, I tried to find the historical roots of a recent shift in Jewish views towards Stephen Harper's Conservative government, thus grounding my work in a subject of interest to people today.

  3. Follow-up questions are for courtesy only.

    Ditto my comments for #2.

  4. Don't ask others how much work they have done.

    Good advice. In my case, I was usually ahead, but you must set your own timetable to meet the deadline.

  5. Panicking and questioning the whole dissertation.

    Yes! Well, not really panicking, but plenty of walks to and from campus trying to mull through ideas only to come up with ten more possibilities. This is where supervisors are especially useful. In my case, I changed the title to better reflect my research findings in a coherent way. A simple title change made my whole thought-process much clearer.

  6. Much of your work will never make it into the final product.

    Incredibly true, both during research and then writing. I probably used less than 10% of my total research in the write-up (there might be a lesson about more concise research) and then had to cull over 2,000 words from the final version.

  7. Lots of printing.

    Yes, but I print a lot anyway. (If any big tech companies are reading this, if you can make some sort of tablet with the abilities of an iPad and the absolute glare-free screen of a Kindle, academics would be very happy) For archival research, I took digital photos, which I then renamed to match the archival record number. That way, I could quickly find an image of the particular document. Top tip: Adobe Bridge turned out to be a great piece of software for this work. Not only does it allow you to rename the image while you are looking at it, but you can zoom in fullscreen with a very straightfurward user interface to guide you.

  8. Your dissertation will become the core of your life.

    Partially true, but this is probably more of an issue if you aren't a workaholic like me. It was my life anyway. Biscuits should not become their own food group. If you let your diet slip, so will your work. The time spent making and eating healthy food will be repaid in better concentration and work time.

  9. Time will disappear even for the super-organized.

    This really depends on how much time you can spend during the summer working on research. In my case, I spent over three weeks doing research and then organizing the research to make it usable. Come the start of the fall term, I was ready to write and spent one day a week writing. By the end, I had over a month to spare and edit my dissertation carefully. Guilt when not working is a real problem and leads to stress and, in some cases, burnout. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a good solution to this.

  10. The finished product is a triumph and something you should be proud of.

    I must admit that I felt very little emotion when it was all over. Mind you, I was balancing a book manuscript at the same time and, while an academic dissertation and a book for a general audience are two different things, the two fed off each other a great deal. The dissertation helped with the research for my book, and the book helped with my academic writing. Am I proud of my work? Probably, but I feel that my chosen topic needs further scrutiny and I finished up wanting more, which bodes well for potential future research endeavours.
There you have it, Guardian-published advice remixed by me, just for the shear hell of it. I might even eventually write another piece on my actual dissertation topic, rather than just spouting abstract notions.

*I have perhaps jinxed the entire dissertation process. It might turn out that my work is entirely flawed, in which case please ignore all my above advice. Only time will tell.

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