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So, what’s it really like writing a dissertation?

It seems like an age ago now since I was a third year student. (It was actually no longer than 3 months ago, but that’s what working full time does to you!) Nevertheless, I can’t seem to escape discussions surrounding dissertations and final year even now. Whether it be via tweets or questions from friends who are heading in to their third years, conversations about being a student seem inescapable at the moment.

I guess this is what led me to answer the question : “what’s it really like writing a dissertation?”. I get a lot of messages from friends in the year below worrying about the dreaded D-word and the sleepless nights and library breakdowns that it promises to bring. Time and time again however I find myself reassuring these people with the same message that i’m going to record on here too: dissertations really aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be.

I wish someone would have told my second year self that. Who lost countless nights sleep due to the worry of what the next few months would bring. I even tried to write bits of my dissertation before third year was even underway. How I wish I could have told myself that it’s over-stated and dramatised beyond belief. (Oh, and to get some good nights worth of sleep as these diminish when you start working full time).

The dissertation (in my words)

What a dissertation is, is actually just a glorified study or assignment. Don’t let 10,000 words put you off because if you want to work in PR you’ll probably write double that each day (and don’t worry – you won’t even notice). Those 10,000 words are easily written when you combine all the different sections of your dissertation. The issue for me was actually cutting it down!

What I would say is start your dissertation early. Otherwise, this could be a different outcome all together. I made sure to chip away at sections of my dissertation come October/November time. As soon as I knew what I was doing really. I’m very grateful that I did that otherwise I do think that the work would have piled up. I guess the scare stories of uni drop outs and 4-day library sessions are from those who left it until the last minute. Your dissertation is a big chunk of work and needs to be taken seriously, so if you don’t give yourself enough time to work on it then you can subject yourself to those situations. I mean, don’t get me wrong if you’re accustomed to working under pressure then it is do-able, I know tons of people that started late and did fantastically. However, if you want my advice, i’d always recommend getting a head start.

While i’m on the topic, I may as well answer a few common questions about the dissertation. I’m pretty sure I asked all of these at some point during my final year so i’d have liked to have read the answers in a blog post 12 months ago too.

“What goes in to your dissertation?”

So, what does a dissertation include? Well I wish someone would have told me this before third year was underway. Though I had no real issues with writing it once i’d got the ball rolling, at some points I did think “what on earth am I supposed to do here?”. I mean, I didn’t even know what a literature review was in September!

Your dissertation is comprised of 7 main parts:

  1. Abstract and introduction – what your project is and why you’re doing it (here, you should be including a ‘gap in the research’ and how your dissertation aims to fill it in).
  2. Literature review – a review of the literature that already surrounds your topic. You should have around 20-25 different viewpoints from different authors. (If you can find conflicting opinions this often scores better points).
  3. Methodology – what you’re going to do and how (for example, what research methods are you using and why).
  4. Research and findings – this is your primary research (often a questionnaire, interview or case study). Findings are usually presented through charts and key words.
  5. Analysis of findings – in your analysis you’re looking at your primary research results and what they tell you.
  6. Recommendations – the recommendations sections is one of the most important parts of your dissertation as it gives it purpose. You should have around 7(ish) recommendations that solve the issue that your dissertation investigated.
  7. Conclusion – the conclusion draws together your primary and secondary research and allows you to ‘close the gap’ in the research’.

The content and headings will differ from project to project, but these titles form the main body of the dissertation.

“How long does it take?”

Honestly I can’t really remember how long it took as I wrote a bit each day. I remember reading that my boyfriend’s was meant to take well over 100 hours which I think is just ridiculous. Nowhere near that amount of time was spent on mine but I still got a good grade in it.

I think as long as the time you spend on your dissertation is focused and valuable, then it won’t take more than 50 hours, i’d say. (But you don’t really see it as 50 hours if you do a few hours here and there). Remember that you’ll need to prepare and conduct your research, as well as draft your dissertation and proof it. So, more does go in to the time than actually writing it up. Nevertheless, it didn’t take over my life and there’s absolutely no reason for it to take over anyones.

“How do you think of a dissertation title?”

Start with a broad idea. What do you want to write about? It’s well worth writing about something that you’re somewhat interested in as you’ll spend a lot of time researching it and writing about it. Don’t pick something you’re too passionate about either, as you’ll end up fully putting yourself off the topic.

I had some issues thinking of my dissertation title, mainly because I was apparently proposing work that was of a much higher level than dissertation standard. (I’m glad I found this out early on and never went with it!) I think the title was actually the hardest part of it all for me!

What I would say is brainstorm some ideas using key words. Then, try and use these keywords in to a title. Your dissertation should aim to answer a question, you can write your title in many formats to do this but I chose starting it with ‘an investigation in to…’

If you’re studying PR and are seriously struggling for title inspiration, then Stephen Waddington has put together a really helpful list of topics.

“What does your supervisor do?”

Your supervisor does exactly that – supervises.

They’re on hand to help direct your dissertation and give you helpful advice. Mine was particularly helpful in guiding my question as I struggled a lot with that initially. They’ll also check in and making sure you’re where you need to be and give you a bit of encouragement if you’re falling behind.

Some courses give you marks for your supervisor engagement – so it’s important to book in regular meetings. We didn’t get any marks for this on my course, but having my supervisor there still was really helpful.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that supervisors are not there to read through your dissertation. I don’t think they’re even allowed to do that. Your work should be your own and therefore external direction is not encouraged.

“How will I find people to complete my primary research?”

It depends on your topic. If you’re seeking general opinions then great! You can ask pretty much anybody to fill out your questionnaires or complete your interviews. My friend was seeking 200 respondents for her short survey so one afternoon we just asked everybody in the library to fill it out and filled every questionnaire in within 20 minutes. Everyone is in the same boat so there’s no harm in asking people.

If you’re looking for specific people to take part in your research, then social media is great for this. Using hashtags to reach out to industry specific people is the best way in which I found my respondents. If you’re targeting a niche area then it may be worth lowering your expectations for replies, but still – I got about 50 some questionnaires back for my dissertation which was more than enough despite the fact that it was very focused.

An after-note

I think the most important thing to take from this is that the dissertation doesn’t need to be scary. It’s just another piece of work if you start chipping away at it early enough. I mean, it can certainly get on top of you if you leave it too late but everyone I know seemed to make it through with minimal existential crises.

If anyone’s worried about the dissertation, or has any questions that I didn’t answer here then honestly please do message me. I’m happy to help out in any way I can at any time at all.

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Jessica Pardoe (1)

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