Planning a dissertation: the dos and don’ts
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
Your professor has told you that you must write a dissertation to complete your degree. At this point, you may begin to panic. What is a dissertation? It sounds difficult, or like a massive project that is going to require considerable organisation. For the typical undergraduate, who may be prone to procrastination, a dissertation requires not only the creation of a large piece of writing, but it also may require research to be conducted, data to be analysed, and an extensive bibliography to be compiled. That's why being thorough with your dissertation plan is essential. Starting with the initial phases of the dissertation and working through to the final stages of proofreading, this post should offer you a few tips and tricks for success along with some common mistakes to avoid.
Why do I need to do a dissertation?
The whole point of a dissertation is to convince your professor that you are a competent researcher. This can be challenging, because it is likely that this is your first real experience with research and the first time you will have to attempt a piece of research to this scale of magnitude. Becoming a competent researcher means you have to demonstrate proficiency in each of the phases of your dissertation. The following tale represents the typical path of the "Dissertation Life Cycle."
To complete the various stages of the Dissertation Life Cycle you are going to need to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in all of these skills. You should know that while on paper, this life cycle follows a straightforward path; such is rarely the case in real life. Although you may think your dissertation plan is thorough and comprehensive, you should be prepared to modify and change your plans as challenges arise. There will also be the need to go back and modify previous parts. For example, while you might write the literature review first, this will likely require modification after you complete the data analysis for your study.
Managing your time and staying organised
An essential component of producing a great dissertation plan is good time management. You must be able to manage your time effectively. This can be done through the adoption of two specific time management strategies: the macro-management of time, and the micro-management of time. Macro-management equates to the bigger picture; you should be able to make well-informed estimates about how long it is going to take you to complete each section. Basically, to do this, you need to work backwards from the final submission date, creating a time framework. No dissertation is the same, so the amount of time that you spend on each section will vary from that of your peers. This is contrasted with micro-management, which examines the finer details of the dissertation, for example through the division of a chapter into subsections. As an example, you might allow yourself four weeks to write the literature review using the macro approach to time management. The micro approach would mean that your literature review might be divided into four subsections, a week devoted to each of those.
Time management goes hand in hand with organisation and you are going to require excellent organisational skills as you work to complete your dissertation. Organisation is not just about the writing. You are initially going to need to organise a number of meetings with your supervisor as you begin the dissertation process. As your dissertation is going to be different than that of your peers, it is your responsibility to come to the meeting with a plan in mind so that you can use the time you have effectively and efficiently.
"You must be able to manage your time effectively. But if you do fall behind schedule, do not despair. At the undergraduate level there are usually ample opportunities for you to make up time."
In addition to meetings with your supervisor, you are also going to have to arrange meetings and/or other activities with your participants. This might include the scheduling of interviews, the arrangement of observations, etc. You may also need to account for time that you will spend attending the library, searching for sources, and reading key materials. All of this requires you to be organised and to act in a methodical way.
If you do fall behind schedule, do not despair. At the undergraduate level there are usually ample opportunities for you to make up time. The project is rarely long enough for you to go completely off the rails. If you know that you are not a particularly organised person or that you struggle with time management skills, you may benefit from the use of a professional project management tool such as Trello or Asana.
Listen up: be social
To produce the best dissertation plan possible, there are other key skills that you are going to need to employ. Two that are going to be essential at the start are your listening and social skills. Listening skills come into play as you begin to work with your supervisor. At the undergraduate level, they are likely going to be somehow involved in the assessment of your written work, so if you can identify what exactly they are expecting of you, you are going to be in a better position to succeed. This includes making sure that you not only understand the directions, but that you take into consideration any feedback they are providing you as you progress throughout your project.
When your professor makes a suggestion about your work, they are typically expecting you to change it to align with their requests. You should attempt to do this in all possible cases, and if you want to disagree, you must have an appropriate justification as to why you wish to do so. In addition to listening, you need to be able to get on well with others. This means that you will need to employ appropriate strategies during both email and oral communication. This is a skill that is not only necessary when speaking with your professor, but also relates to working with other students, with your participants, and with administrators.
What other skills will I need?
Below is a list of skills and qualities that you might need to adopt in order to complete your dissertation well:
Meetings with your supervisor
Now that you have a basic understanding of the skills you need, we can consider the finer points of your dissertation. One of these is understanding how to take advantage of the meetings you have with your supervisor.
Preparing for the meetings
Meetings that are well crafted generally offer better opportunities for you to advance with your dissertation. It is very common (and something you want to avoid) for students to arrive at the first meeting with the supervisor with no real idea about what they want to study. Instead, they ask the supervisor for ideas or inspiration on what they might do. This generally sets a bad impression; your supervisor can help you shape your initial ideas, but ultimately you want the ideas to be yours. In some instances, your supervisor may provide you with a topic or title, but this approach (which you may like in the beginning) can be difficult at later stages when you realise that your understanding of the topic is limited. Going back to the skills and qualities described above, if you fail to understand the topic, you are less likely to be motivated and confident when completing the work.
"Take advantage of the meetings you have with your supervisor. Meetings that are well crafted generally offer better opportunities for you to advance with your dissertation."
After you have scheduled your first meeting with your supervisor, ensure that you attend the meeting well equipped with both questions and a means to record the responses (e.g. laptop or pen & paper). In this initial meeting, you should be able to clearly state your area of study, overall aim, your objectives (related to the aim), and a rationale for the topic you have selected. You may also wish to call up some preliminary research studies related to your topic in order to demonstrate that you have taken the notion of this research project seriously and truly understand what it is you want to do.
During this first meeting, your supervisor is looking for the intended focus of your research, clarity of your objectives and that the objectives are achievable within the timescale. You should be posing these questions to your supervisor (e.g. are my objectives clear?).
This is also true for future meetings. It is important that you send your supervisor your work in progress prior to the meeting that you have scheduled. You can do this by email. Ensure that your email is properly formatted with detailed information and instructions that you would like your supervisor to consider. Make sure that you identify who you are, what the new work is that you are submitting, and what you would like the supervisor to do with it. Avoid sending the work at the last minute. Your supervisor is likely to have many different things on the go and so sending them work only 24 hours in advance is not appropriate. If you are unsure about how much in advance to send the information, you should clarify this with your supervisor.
Maximising the benefits of the meetings
A supervisory session should be more than just a question and answer session where your supervisor asks you questions and you answer them. This would constitute two monologues, but does not achieve the dialogue that is needed for effective communication. Your supervisor is looking to determine how your work is moving forward and to address any issues that s/he thinks are arising as a result of your project. It may be helpful for you to begin with a summary of what you have achieved followed by any issues that are currently concerning you. These meetings should be seen as opportunities to gauge how your supervisor is feeling about your work and as a way to seek corrective action when necessary. Any feedback that you get from your supervisor can be turned into additional marks and grades. Building a rapport with your supervisor is essential and is best achieved when you arrive prepared.
What to avoid
There are a few things that you are going to want to avoid during supervisions. The first is missing the meeting entirely. If you cannot make a meeting with your supervisor, make sure that you email them as soon as you can. In that email make sure that you include a reason and request to make another appointment immediately. Your reasoning for cancelling a meeting should not be due to the fact that you are considerably behind. Putting off the inevitable is never a good thing and you are better off facing the music. Obviously all of this is just considered good manners, so keep this in mind.
Finally, you are going to want to avoid walking into a meeting and uttering the phrase “I can’t find anything on this subject!” The first thing that your professor is likely to do is to plug your topic into Google and come back with thousands of hits on what you just said did not exist. Professors hear this phrase every year, and generally they tend to equate it with laziness on the part of the student and a lack of serious commitment.
"You become the content expert, while your supervisor becomes a guide to keep you on the right track. It requires effort on both parties, but it puts you in the driving seat."
Most students, at least upon first encounter with their supervisor, lack the ability to focus and to ‘run’ the meeting. Remember that your supervisor may not be as passionate about the topic as you are and thus, you may have done more reading than they have on your topic. Through this, you become the content expert, while your supervisor becomes a guide to keep you on the right track. It requires effort on both parties, but it puts you in the driving seat. This might be a new feeling for you, as you may have always felt like the supervisor is the one in charge. Making this transition will better prepare you for graduate school or any future research work that you may wish to undertake.
Where do I find resources and what is considered scholarly?
Finding the literature to become that content expert can be a challenge, especially if you don’t know where to look. It is in your best interest to use your school library to its full advantage. This includes not only borrowing books, but also using the ample online resources that are provided to you through your institution. The material you require is not simply going to appear in front of you. You are going to have to look for it. It may be easier for you to begin with a more random or general search. This can be done using sites such as Google Scholar (scholar.google.com). Remember, however that not everything that Google Scholar finds is of the same quality and if you choose to use this site, you must consider what is scholarly and what is not.
Defining scholarly is, perhaps, a somewhat challenging thing to do, as it is a sort of grey area. Generally, in an academic sense, if an article is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it is typically considered to be scholarly. That does not mean that anything else is ‘not scholarly’, but you must use your own judgement to make that determination. In addition, you must be able to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. While both types of sources are likely to be appropriate at the undergraduate level, you are better off to use more primary than secondary sources. Primary sources are classified as original documents with first hand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Things you read in a scholarly book or journal article directly would be primary, as are interviews, fieldwork, communications by email, and empirical studies. Secondary sources describe or discuss the primary sources. Typically, these include things like newspaper articles, popular magazines, book reviews, or articles in journals that discuss someone else’s work. While both are useful, it is up to you to decide which are most appropriate.
Think critically and consider all your options
Finding sources is sort of like being a detective. In this case, you begin with some questions (in this case research questions or research objectives) that you want answered. You then search for clues as to how to answer these questions within the literature. You then get rid of any information that is irrelevant and use the information that you do find to lead you to other sources. This can be done by using the references of one article to lead you to the next one. Once you have enough ‘clues’ you can then construct a case based on evidence and explain the points as you see them. One way that you can get help with this whole process is by utilising your school librarian. Often there are librarians within the institution that specialise in the subject matter that you are studying. By approaching these librarians, you can often find better ways to search or strategies to locate sources that end up being key components in your research. Check out what your library has to offer and what resources are available.
How many sources should I use?
There is no corresponding number of sources that should appear in your dissertation. Obviously, your list will be extensive, but it also must be balanced. If you use too few sources, your argument may not appear convincing; if you use too many, your argument may be lost because there is no room for you to insert any of your own thoughts or demonstration of criticality. It is up to you to find that balance. In addition, the quality of the sources that you use matters. Using research from decades ago may not be beneficial in the current times, especially if you are focusing on an area that has rapidly changed (e.g. technology, education, etc.).
The literature review
It’s important to consider your reader as you craft your literature review. It may be beneficial for you to start by reminding the audience of your research objectives. That way, the reader is then better able to understand how it relates to your project. One common mistake that students often make is just jumping from one study they have read to the next - without warning. Providing your reader with an outline at the beginning of the chapter and including your own critical thought shows the reader that you are on the right track and gives them an idea about what to expect.
The common mistake described above often occurs because there has been a lack of planning. Students typically just sit down to write the literature review and find the material as they go. This then offers a very fragmented chapter. While creating a detailed outline is essential, so is the organisation of the literature. As suggested above, perhaps you have a literature review with four sections. You may, in a separate document want to collate and keep track of the useful sources you have found for each section. In these notes, you should maintain the citation of the source, a few notes on the summary, and how it might be useful.
It may also be beneficial to colour code these citations to the section to which they pertain. An example might look like:
Organising your notes and research
How you organise your notes is completely up to you. It really depends on what type of person you are. Some people like to organise their notes in a linear way; others want to organise by colour. Some people write detailed notes, others write very scarce notes and go back to the original article. Regardless of the type of person you are, some sort of organisation is going to be essential. Try a few different strategies to begin and see what works best for you.
Organisation of your sources and good citation is going to be important in the note taking process because you will need to cite these sources within your paper. Learn (if you do not know already) which referencing style is expected within your academic discipline. The above example uses APA, but there are many other referencing styles. You should apply this style throughout your paper. In the actual paper, you are usually going to require page numbers when you employ direct quotes, and sometimes when you paraphrase/summarize. Keep this in mind as you are taking your notes. For example, you could write ‘particularly useful quote on p. 166 about student mistakes in the dissertation.’ Then, you would know where to look in the original article to find the quote. Remember that quotes are only useful in moderation - you don’t want a dissertation filled with them. It is also essential that you provide critical insight into the quote you are using, so quotes should never appear at the end of a paragraph.
At the same time that you are writing about your literature, or possibly just after you have finished, you are going to need to consider planning for your primary research. The dissertation is usually under a fairly tight timeline and so getting these aspects organised early on can save you some struggles as you progress through the dissertation.
You are initially going to need to come up with a research strategy. This strategy is a description of how you are going to implement the research within your own study. It's an essential component of your project, but not something that is going to require a detailed review of general research strategies. This is a common mistake by students who often spend a lot of time discussing all research strategies, rather than focusing on the one that they have chosen and the justification for this choice.
Once you have established a research strategy, you are going to need to consider what types of research instruments you are going to need to use - and how those research instruments are going to come about (i.e. are you going to create one, or are you going to use one that has been used in previous research). If you are creating a questionnaire for example, and you decide to create your own, you are likely going to need to pilot the questionnaire to determine whether or not your questions make sense. This can add additional time to the dissertation process, and so should be factored into your plan. Questionnaires, while a common tool among students, are generally not enough to stand alone as a research instrument. Quite commonly, students will use two or more research instruments.
Another common instrument is the interview. Planning for interviews has several challenges:
First, you must find a time and a location to hold the interview. Generally, this space is a quiet one, like an office or library study room. As an undergraduate student, you may not have access to these spaces at all times and so coordinating your interview participant with time available can be logistically challenging. Once you have secured a location and time for your interview, you must also be aware that other challenges may arise. Interviewees may cancel at the last minute or they may run late. It is your job, as a researcher, to try your best to accommodate their situations, as it is likely they are volunteering to participate in your study. You want to set your interviews up well in advance, but perhaps not too far in advance that people will forget. A reminder email or phone call to your interview subjects can be particularly beneficial in getting them there on time and to the correct location.
The home straight: editing and proofreading
The logistics of planning your research can be challenging; from finding the right sources to scheduling interviews, there are many things to consider. One aspect of the writing process that students often fail to consider is the editing and proofreading process. Editing occurs when you need to make considerable changes to parts of your dissertation because they are no longer relevant, or because you need to add/remove words. Sometimes, when students write, the editing process can be a real challenge because it is difficult to cut out words that you have spent considerable time writing. Remember, however, that it is the final mark that counts and having irrelevant information in the dissertation is going to harm you more than it is going to benefit you.
Proofreading is also essential. This is the final stage in your dissertation and considers aspects of grammar, spelling and punctuation. It often takes much longer than you initially anticipate because it is best to do it in short chunks, so you don’t get distracted. There are also additional difficulties with the proofreading process; often because you are so familiar with the work itself, you skip over errors. For example, errors such as using ‘form’ instead of ‘from’ or using the wrong version of ‘there/their/they’re’ can make your work seem unpolished, but it is easy to do.
For some students, it is better to get someone else to proofread your work. Not only can a third party comment on spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but they can also identify areas that come across as unclear. You may need to pay for a proofreading service - that is unless you have a parent or friend who is willing and able to help you out. When selecting a proofreading service, ensure that you pick one that is reputable - this is your final opportunity to make changes and you want the best possible outcome.
Remember that dissertation writing is a challenging part of your undergraduate degree but with the right planning and strategies, you can be very successful. It is essential that you select a topic that is interesting to you from the outset, as long as it is related to your academic discipline. Further, you must ensure that you make a good first impression with your supervisor and that you utilize all the resources that you have available to you.
By reading this post, you are starting out well. Learn to develop the time-management, organisational and confidence-based skills for dissertation writing in your quest for success!