It’s dissertation time. I have exactly five weeks (and counting) left until I hand in my dissertation. I have approximately 9,000 words completed and am starting to feel ‘the fear’ creeping in. Right now I’m in the super-efficient stage of the fear, feeling very focused and spending the majority of my spare time in the library. The battle is to keep from teetering over into panic and doubt – it’s about focus, perseverance and determination. It’s also really important to not put too much pressure on yourself, as well as look after yourself so that you’re healthy and happy.
I am confident that if I keep up an even pace, I will not slip into that all-too-familiar trap. So far I’m enjoying my work – I have never been so immersed in a topic – and believe this is the key to an enjoyable dissertation period. One of the biggest challenges for me has been keeping a narrow focus on my research question, and not drifting off into interesting, yet irrelevant, territory.
Starting the research early has been crucial. As a part-time student studying a master’s over two years, I have had plenty of time to think about my topic. However, recently I’ve had to do a lot of juggling as I have been working full time for the last two months – three days a week paid work for a charity and two days a week work experience for an MP – so I mainly study in the evenings and weekends. Although this has been difficult at times, I have had no regrets. Combining study and work experience will hopefully ease the job search following the dissertation hand-in.
I started researching for my dissertation in April before the exam period started, allowing myself a month off for revision and an additional week to recover. Clearly defining when and what I would be studying has helped me to keep focused. I also try and plan social events a week or so in advance so I can manage my study timetable accordingly. This may sound a little tedious but studying for a master’s is a great opportunity and it’s important to make the most of it.
As the hours and days go by, I have a building sense of both nervousness and excitement. It feels like there’s still a way to go, but I’m determined to do the best I can. I’m looking forward to handing in a piece of work I’m proud of, and then I will be more than ready to celebrate.
I am a student pursuing an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages. My dissertation is a questionnaire-based study, which means it will take a lot of time to design, hand out, collect my data, and analyse it. I prepared my questionnaire design in April and used the entire month of May to collect data from my participants. At the same time, I was studying the third-term modules and doing the assignments for each class. Following the third term, I travelled to Norway in order to clear my mind and relax; it is important to approach the dissertation with a level head. Currently, I am analysing my research data and writing my dissertation. Overall a well-planned schedule is really useful for a smooth dissertation period, and may help you avoid suffering to complete your work too close to the deadline!
Today’s entry is about staying balanced, while maintaining focus, during the dissertation period. This discussion couldn’t be more fitting for this time of year: we’re in mid-July now, which means there’s only a month and a half to go! Summertime in London creates an interesting predicament for MA students who need to stay atop our research, while also enjoying the rarity of a sunny afternoon.
In the dissertation period I’ve realised that it’s very easy to dip in and out of productivity, and unfortunately I’ve experienced it firsthand. I had a strong couple of weeks researching in the middle of June but, rather than keeping up the momentum, I found myself neglecting my responsibilities as I subconsciously felt justified in taking a long break. The problem for me is that I also work full-time. I had a pretty big reality check last week as I noted my August rota and came to realise how little time I have left before my dissertation is due.
The million pound question is then how do we successfully balance work and study? First and foremost, be honest with yourself and your capabilities. If you’re planning to be employed during dissertation time it’s important for you to make yourself a realistic research schedule. Outside of my “relaxation period” I’ve made weekly goals of either reaching a specific word count or finishing a subsection. I try not to push myself too far and make individual goals catered around what my life is like each week, as I feel it’s important to avoid feeling discouraged by failure of not achieving those goals.
The second important thing is to make some time for your friends. Yes, they will be there when you finish, and yes there will be social events after your dissertation deadline, but it’s important to stay sane during this intense period. Reward yourself for meeting your goals by allowing yourself a cheeky day or night out with your friends to unwind and give your brain a break. As it stands, I research after work and typically allocate all of my days off work to research as well, but give myself one to two nights a week after work to socialise. I have found this to be the best way of maintaining research alongside employment and friends (assuming I make the most out of my days off)!
While writing your master’s dissertation at King’s (and almost every other university in the U.K.), everyone else is enjoying their summer holiday on vacation or doing other things to enjoy their break from school or work. Therefore, I have discovered some things to help me keep motivated and efficient throughout the dissertation period. Here are my tips:
- Organize: From the very beginning of your dissertation period after the examination period in May, start to plan your summer. Maybe divide the time before the dissertation deadline into different parts with specific goals for each chunk of time. This will all help you to keep the bigger picture in mind, and help you structure your days. It will also keep you calm, because you are following a track you know will end with you being done.
- Break: Take a break after the examination period, even if it is just a few days; it will make the transition to writing your dissertation much easier. It will also help your mind prepare to produce your best work yet, all during one summer. And, after the exams, you deserve a break from school!
- Plan the fun: Plan fun activities all throughout the summer, so you always have something to look forward to. This helps to keep motivated and efficient when you are working.
- Study together: the library is significantly emptier in the summer months than during the year. As a result, it can feel quite lonely and demotivating to study alone each day. Therefore, I choose to often go with friends to the library, so we can have break together and talk about things that do not involve the dissertation or school at all.
This dedicated work space with two computer screens is the secret to my dissertation. I use one for conducting research (left) and one for the write-up (right). Having this setup has proved so useful to me as I can really immerse myself in the dissertation and push forward with it.
I am a part-time master’s student so I effectively had 2 years to prepare and implement my dissertation. However, because I work full-time, it was still a challenge. My advice? Plan, plan, and plan some more. Ensure you know your topic before you even start your master’s and make sure it is something you are passionate about! That is so important. And ensure to contact your supervisor as quickly as possible and build up that very important relationship with them in order to have their support. The more the supervisor knows about your circumstances the more they can help you. The next stage after that is to get your ethical approval as quickly as possible; this allows you to get on with the all important research and interviews.
Research & write-up
I always believe that you can never stop researching your dissertation topic, so I don’t like to put a deadline for research. For instance, I researched for two months which allowed enough time to understand where I want to go with the project. You should treat research and writing as parallel, not necessarily sequential. I have listed few points below that I experienced during my journey:
- Feeling overwhelmed. After writing the first thousand words I realized I had 15 times that amount left to write in the next 5 months, atop working full time and having a wife and baby girl I need to take care of. I became very overwhelmed, but I took a deep breath and reminded myself my mother did her PhD with four children and a full-time job. The moral of the story is that there are thousands of students just like me who endure harder situations, and yet have managed great successes in their dissertations. So just carry on working, and it will be done.
- My supervisor gave me a good pointer: Thinking is research too. That means when you are thinking about your dissertation but not on the computer, that is still time well spent. Also, closing your computer when you have writer’s block isn’t a bad thing. Go for a walk, read a book, or simply sit there and think about it. This allows you to understand your research more. In my case I played with my daughter while thinking about what I should include. This helped me cover a lot and push through that writer’s block.
- Utilizing the resources available. There are dissertation seminars that provide you with a good understanding as well as your supervisor. Furthermore if you really don’t know where to start, follow this library link.* This is your one stop shop for academic literature on your subject. The interface is straightforward and there’s an excellent help file there.
*Click on ‘find databases’. Type in ‘IBSS’. Follow the link to International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (for social science subjects).