What we tell our dissertation students

via scienceblogs.com

We don’t usually write about dissertations on this site, partly because it’s not obviously an area ripe for discussions of active learning, and partly because we’re doing so many other things.

However, a capstone dissertation is often the single most important piece of work that a student undertakes: an opportunity to explore the subject as they see best, producing something (hopefully) akin to a research output.

Put like that, it’s obviously an instance of active learning, because they drive the entire process, with us taking a ‘supervisory’ role.

Now that I’m back in the ranks after my stint as Associate Dean, I’m getting to do more of this supervision, and it’s been a good refresher of what the most useful advice I can give might be.

Perhaps tellingly, I’m finding that this advice is largely level-independent: I’ve said much the same to undergraduates, Masters students, doctoral candidates and even a post-doc. Indeed, I’m also reflecting on it being good practice for my own research: it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that one is above such things, when one is not.

So what are these key points?

  1. Keep it focused. Typically, a student arrives at a dissertation and thinks “that’s a huge word limit!” and then tries to cover some huge topic: “I’m writing about gender and politics.” My most consistent experience in supervision is trying to this cut down to something that is manageable. Oen useful way of doing this is to say that the big questions can be tackled, but through the lens of a very specific instance. Hence, a project coding content and framing of tweets from the candidates for US President will tell us about the role of social media in modern campaigning, policy preferences, political communication and voter engagement;
  2. Take a position. A dissertation is not a murder-mystery: we’re not supposed to get the last page and find out what the answer is. Instead, dissertations work much better if there is an argument that is made on the first page, followed through each section, until being restated on the last page. Even if the student doesn’t fully agree with the position personally, taking a side helps to sharpen up the writing and evidence base, as well as allowing for more structured engagement with other positions. It can also point towards a methodology;
  3. Make the literature review work for you. Too often, I see students who think a literature review is just a case of summarising some thing they’ve read, before moving on to the ‘proper work’. Instead, they need to see it as a scouring of what’s out there to provide insights into what they might expect to find with their own research: a first, best guess. That means at the end of the review you should have a set of hypotheses, which helps to drive the rest of the work;
  4. Write early and often. Writing is the heart of a dissertation, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll find what you don’t know or don’t understand. Especially if you’ve not tried to produce an extended piece of academic writing, practice is vital. As a PhD student, I stuck to a 500 word-a-day regime for a year (after two years of messing about): sometimes those 500 words were rubbish (plus ça change), but it got my into the habit of writing and testing my ideas;
  5. Ask for help. This is the most difficult one for people, by a long shot. The natural temptation if you’re stuck as a student is to try and sort it out, so you can present a solution to your supervisor. That means you avoid having conversations with the supervisor, who probably has a bunch of other things to do, so assumes you’re doing fine. However, it’s exactly when you’re stuck that your supervisor can help most. I’m going to guess we’ve all had the accidental conversation with the student in the corridor, when they say they don’t want to show what they’ve done because “it’s not very good.” Whatever state work is in, there is always something more that can be done to it, so biting the bullet early is in everyone’s interest.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. I’d love to hear what you offer in the way of advice about dissertations to students, if only to know whether we say even vaguely similar things. Looking forward to reading your comments.

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