Dissertation Excellence Made Simple: What to say to your students as they get started

Neil Sutherland, having a chuckle

Today we have a guest post by Neil Sutherland, from UCL’s School of Management, in which he offers some excellent tips on shepherding students through the opening stages of a dissertation.

I have supervised Undergraduate and Postgraduate dissertation students for well over a decade, and have summarised my advice into a series of bitesize YouTube videos: The Dissertation Toolkit. These are mainly aimed at students, but in this post I thought it’d be useful to bring together some useful bits of guidance I have  given to students and offer it to you, as fellow supervisors.

The starting point here is that embarking on the dissertation journey is daunting, and it’s crucial to acknowledge the overwhelming feelings that students experience at various points along the way. As academics we’ve routinised the business of research so that these apprehensions dwindle (or perhaps we find a way to box them up and ignore them altogether!), but students are, in the communities of practice parlance, novices. 

To help them overcome this apprehension I try to help my students see this as not only a manageable and achievable process, but also one that is exciting and rewarding. By the end of this journey, I tell them, you will have expertise in a chosen field that very few others in the world will have! But that grand plan is only achieved through a series of more mundane moments, or, as our friend Vincent Van Gogh tells us: “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”.

So what follows is a set of exchanges between an imaginary student and me…

“There’s too much to do, and the word-count is imposing”

Being overwhelmed is completely normal at the start (or even during) your dissertation. It is likely that you haven’t written to this kind of wordcount before, so are figuring out the rules of the game. The number one trick here is to (a) get a structure mapped out, and (b) tackle the research and writing ‘little and often’. 

“But I want to start writing right now!”
When we are faced with uncertainty, it can seem easiest to just start writing – to begin to eat into that word-count. But pause. Your best approach is to use 1-2 sides of A4 to simply map out what will ‘happen’ in your work. What does the marking criteria ask of you? What chapters must you include? What do you know about the topic already that might be important to include? What advice have you been given by your tutors in taught sessions and handbooks? Collate this all in one place, and use it to create a numbered guide – almost a table of contents – that can help you to stay on track. 

“I just can’t stay focussed on the topic. I’m spending hours in the library but don’t seem to get anything done”
When you have your drafted structure, you can start to set specific goals and deadlines, when you want to hit certain markers, and work out when you will dedicate your time to the dissertation each week. Don’t be overambitious, but do treat it in the same way that you do any of your other timetabled classes, and even just a few non-negotiable hours a week will keep you focussed (yes – even more so than hours-upon-hours in the library without a clear goal). Don’t say “I want to complete XX hours in a week”, say “I will complete XX hours on Tuesday from 2-5pm”. That way, you can adopt the mindset that on Tuesday between 2-5pm you will be in dissertation mode, and at other times, you can put it to the side. 

“I’ve blocked out time, but when I sit down I can’t get ‘into’ my work and am easily distracted”

Of course, it is inevitable that on some days, you will not be feeling motivated. Don’t chase ‘inspiration’ (spoiler alert: it rarely comes when you want it to) and know that uninterrupted work time will inevitably get you in the flow. With any task that I am completing, I know that I will feel uninterested, uninspired and overwhelmed in the first 20minutes while I am recalibrating to the task. I keep reminding myself of all the other jobs I have to do, and how this one could just happen tomorrow instead. Ignore that voice. After that, something magic happens, my brain clicks into gear and time ceases all meaning. If I get interrupted during that initial stage, I go back to square one. Minimise your distractions and the flow will come. 

And… on the days that you are really not in the mood, you can focus on the ‘invisible work’: finding new sources, returning to the criteria, re-watching key lectures, or organising data. This is your back up to ensure that you are always moving forward, even when the conceptual work feels challenging (and more often than not, that invisible work is precisely what you need to kick-start your flow state)

“So… now I have blocked out my time, I can start my first draft now, yes?”

Not yet. Do not worry about starting to write the dissertation straight away, because at the start of the process, you simply have not got the knowledge to do so, and that’s ok! In the initial stages, to compliment the plan you have already created, you can just focus on reading, understanding and finding out new information about your topic (if you need guidance on finding literature, I have tips here and here), and making good quality notes to come back to later. 

The time to begin your drafting is when you feel like every piece of literature you read is telling you something you sort-of already know, or, ‘theoretical saturation’. This means that you’ve got a good sense of the field, the various subject-positions of scholars, previous work completed, and potential gaps. At this stage you might want to revise your initial structure (or even research questions) to reflect what you’ve found, and then you can confidently begin drafting. 

“But will this make for a better dissertation?”

Whilst it feels like this will make the whole process more laborious, and will be dealing with your friends telling you how many words they have written: Do not be fooled. Too many times I have seen students arrive to a meeting with thousands of words ‘finished’, only to discover that they are on the wrong track. Little and often, and dedicating non-negotiable specific time to the task, is the way forward. Don’t worry, the dissertation will steadily grow, and this will be driven by your background knowledge of the topic, not just the words you write on the page.

“What next?”

For further information and advice, subscribe to ‘Neil’s Common Room’, and do get in touch! Videos in The Dissertation Toolkit series include: 

  1. How to start your dissertation the easy way (11mins)
  2. How to make the most of your dissertation supervisor meetings (9mins)
  3. Storytelling: The secret behind all great dissertations (8mins)
  4. Overcoming obstacles in writing your dissertation (18mins)