I completed my dissertation on 28th August 2019. I don’t think I will ever forget this date.
My goodness! What a journey it was (without even moving out of my study table). I dreaded writing in academic structure, simply because I never had to write one until now. In my last master’s coursework, the dissertation was an option that I smoothly avoided by taking up two more extra subjects to study. So, I never had attempted writing such a long thesis before, and my current master’s program required me to write 15,000 words, with a leeway of plus or minus 10% (minus 10% was my goal, undoubtedly).
But with my internship and part-time simultaneously taking place, the pressure of writing for my dissertation was looming in the shadows. The beginning of a dissertation, for me, was the most difficult part. Plus, the more examples I saw, the more I got confused. Mind you, this blog post is no way going to give you any short cuts since there are none. This is a mere attempt to give you an idea of what a dissertation feels like if you have never written one.
Writing this dissertation has been eye-opening; the sheer amount of patience, planning and most importantly, the motivation that you require to go through this huge task is stressful. If you are a PhD student, please stop reading this – I salute you (seriously). Since this is the first time I have written and submitted successfully – let me give you the pleasure of reading my moments from the beginning until the end. Also for further reference, I have added the tools and software I used that helped me during my writing process in the end.
1 – Finding your topic of research
The more topics I saw, the more confused I got. Plus, I wasn’t looking forward to the idea of writing a dissertation in the first place, so finding a topic of research with a burning question was such a challenge. Thankfully, after panicking and discussing it with my mentor then (who sensed I was clueless where I should start), I had a rough structure that I could submit as my proposal. Her questions like – What are you interested in? Are there researches done related to your topic? What is the main objective of your dissertation or what do you want to find out? Remember, you will never get it right in the first go. If you see results and compare it with your first drafts – you will feel like crap.
2 – Understanding the purpose of the dissertation and the structure of presenting it in an academic language
I can’t stress enough on how much time it took me just to get a grasp of how to write a dissertation. There are guidebooks, online websites, dissertation handbook that is given by many universities before the start of the semester and so on. I think the word count was the most intimidating part. I chose a topic that I knew I would enjoy knowing more about, and I would easily get interviews and surveys done. But 15,000 words crippled me numb. Trust me, in this case – you need friends and peers to keep you motivated. DO NOT FLOAT IN THIS ANXIETY ALONE.
3 – Literature Review or Secondary Research
The amount of articles, journals, books and other materials you have to read to support your statements is insane. But what is more important is to analyse and add your viewpoints as well. When you have a rough idea of what you want to explain, do it with examples. Use quotes, arguments, perspectives, definitions, etc to support your statements. It necessarily does not have to be from your subject; for example, using theories from marketing helped me access the financial aspect of the magazine industry and helped me understand the sustainability of independent magazines in the United Kingdom.
4 – Look for finished thesis and their structures. Imitate and then modify it to your outline.
I was fortunate to have a professor who showed me examples of the finished dissertation done by students from previous years. Most of them have this:
Cover Page – Copyrights – Acknowledgements – Abstract – Table of Contents – Literature Review/ Primary Research divided into coherent chapters and sub-chapters – Research Methodology – Secondary Research – Analysis – Conclusion – References – Bibliography – Appendices.
5 – Do your Primary Research
Depending on your topic of research, primary research too can be done in many ways. This section is where you present your findings from your research. For my topic, I opted for interviews and online surveys for data collection. This takes time since it is dependent on interviewees and people who agree to participate in your data collection. So do this with ample of time ahead.
6 – Do not hesitate to ask for guidance
Friends, professors, PhD students, industry professionals, subject experts. Ask questions that will help you with your research. You will be surprised by the number of people who agree to help you. And no question is a stupid question (until you ask how to read a novel in your PhD class).
7 – START WRITING
Do I even need to say this? WRITE. Sprinting with your writing won’t work here when you are supposed to begin long ago. Your first drafts will turn draft number XYZ and then final draft. You don’t meet your final draft like love at first sight. Do not keep it until the last moment; write in small chunks, ask someone to help you with proofreading, save it under proper document with correct file name.
In conclusion, observe what works for you and use it to your advantage. Choose the workplace that helps you thrive (university library worked the best for me). Try eliminating other stressors as swiftly as possible (visa application, internship emails, job applications, part-time work were a few things that I had to deal with during that time). Life does not stop happening simply because you are focused on your dissertation. Be prepared to face it head-on. And talk to friends and family. Like my professor rightly noted before the beginning of our dissertation, the experience can be alienating – do not stop socialising with your peers and friends. You need it more than you think you might. Also eat healthy and take breaks. As tempting it may seem to skip your meals to write 800 words more, eating properly is easily overlooked during this time. Also, take breaks. Your mind can only function if it is well rested (I didn’t follow my last two suggestions and I regretted it.)
A dissertation is not only an examination of your intellectual skills – it also puts your organisational, interpersonal and computer literacy to test as well.
Like promised, here are the online tools I used during my writing process:
Grammarly – I specifically subscribed to Grammarly for a month to check plagiarism and refine my sentences. If you already use other plagiarism checker tools, you don’t need to subscribe to their plans.
Weava Highlighter – A google chrome extension tool, I downloaded this from google apps on my laptop to help me highlight whatever I read online.
Endnote – A bibliography and reference listing software, this takes a while to get the hang of it and use on MS Word. I simply did not want to deal with referencing in a particular style manually, so learning Endnote helped me to a great extent. If you prefer doing your citations manually, more power to you!
Microsoft OneDrive – Since my university uses OneDrive cloud storage, it was my go-to software for saving all my files and folders. Once saved, you can work from any computer (I would work on desktops in the library and then laptop at home). Other variants are Google Drive and Dropbox. Note – Save all your documents in different folders with appropriate names. It is super annoying when you have no clue what final draft 2.1.3 was about amongst other final drafts.
Excel – As a student who is a visual learner, segmenting my chapters and word count helped me keep a track of how close I was to my required word count. This was my way of charting through my progress. I learned Excel recently, so using it felt great (don’t judge me here). Let me share a screenshot.
Succeeding with Your Master’s Dissertation: Step-by-step Handbook, 4th Edition – I got this book recommended by one of my classmates and though I have not read the entire book, I would suggest it for helping you understand the structure of writing a dissertation in layman’s terms. No jargon whatsoever; explained well with examples.
Descript – I used Descript to transcribe interviews taken via phone or face-to-face. It is not 100% accurate, but it does the job of transcription quickly and all you need to do is proofread the text that has been transcribed. No more writing from scratch.
Sci Hub – This website in short works like torrents for downloading academic papers. All you need to do is find the research paper you want to read, copy paste the DOI (Digital Object Identifier), and hit open. You are welcome. Note – this website is like a torrent, and you know the issue with torrents is, they can be shut down. So if you can use the website, lucky you.
If you are in the midst of writing or will begin soon, may the force be with you!