How to Handle Your Dissertation.

I realise the hideous irony of this, but I wrote this post to put off having to read the pile of academic papers related my own dissertation. But as Gillian Jacobs said, ‘Inspiration strikes at very funny times’.

On the whole, my final year project has been a pleasant experience, I’ve been given the opportunity to work in a prestigious laboratory with some wonderful people. Half the reason dissertations always seem to be mentioned in that very particular tone of voice usually reserved for speaking about death or a trying family member, is the supervisor you are assigned to, or the lab equipment you are expected to use. However, I strongly believe that the other half is to do with personal motivation and long term planning.

Here are the steps I took, to minimise stress. Hope they help a little!

  1. The first thing I did, was to prepare myself. I acquired a lab book, a couple of waterproof pens, both for my book and for my test tubes, and a lab coat.
  2. In your new lab book/notebook, write down the title of your dissertation, create an index at the front, and a meeting log at the back. Every time you fill in a new page, or go to a meeting with your supervisor, update these pages. This will help you remember things along the way, and will also be really helpful towards the end of your project, when you may be required to talk about project management.
  3. Book all your training sessions quickly. Chances are, if you require a lab to do your research, they’re not going to just let you in whenever you feel like it, so check to see whether there are any lab inductions or training sessions you need to attend. In my case, even after I was given access to the lab, I wasn’t allowed to start working until I had written and received approval for my CosHH forms and risk assessments.
  4. Once you have received your brief, sit down and break your project into sections. I like to start by writing the contents page of my report early on, because I see the different chapters as my ‘to-do’ list. Also, by doing this, you can be sure that you haven’t missed anything on the marking criteria eg. the introduction, or discussion section.
  5. Work little and often on your research and writing. I don’t need to tell you that if you let it pile up, you’ll have a very stressful couple of weeks before the deadline. I suggest keeping a loose plan of what you want to achieve, but don’t beat yourself up about it if you start running a little bit behind. Half of my research project involves growing cells, and because I didn’t know that they took a week to defrost, and the Easter holidays were coming up, I ended up being a whole month behind schedule. I also suggest being pleasant to anyone helping you, whether that be your supervisor, a lab partner, a PhD student or a postgraduate researcher. They aren’t obliged to give you hours of their time, but they often will because they want to help. Be respectful and polite – don’t assume they’ve got nothing better to do than to supervise you.
  6. If you need to do a literature review, I really recommend downloading a programme like Mendeley. This allows to to search for papers relevant to your research, and store them all in one place. You can even sort them into files to make your reading list look a little more manageable.
  7. Make sure you reference everything. Can’t stress this enough.
  8. Leave a little time for formatting. For my interim report, I did ok in terms of getting my writing done, but I didn’t quite realise how long it would take to format and print the damn thing! Caption boxes started floating away from their respective diagrams, my numbering system seemed to have a mind of it’s own and adding the smallest amount of text would send my pictures halfway across the page. Given an infinite amount of time, I could have dealt with this calmly, but in reality there were 2 hours to go before the deadline. So I resorted to screaming at the screen and sobbing down the phone to beg my techy boyfriend to come and fix it. Need I say more?
  9.  I understand that the point at which you finish writing your dissertation is completely dependent on when you manage to finish your research, and as an engineer or scientist, it’s normally impossible to predict. However, I think aiming to finish a week or so before the deadline makes life so much easier. You can skip the printing and binding queues, avoid annoying your local print shop, and detach yourself completely from the panicking masses that will inevitably be all around you on hand-in day.

So there are my tips. If you’re in the same position as me, best of luck with your writing!


Feature photo by Sean MacEntee, Flickr


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