It was a long haul, but my dissertation has been finished, bound and delivered to the long suffering administrators of the uni philosophy department. There have been miles worth of pacing, beaten and hurt keyboards, as well as one or two sleepless nights; but in the end I did it.
Were I a sane human being, this would be the end of my university career. Three years on an undergraduate degree and one year of masters. Of course, if that were the case, I wouldn’t still be here, regaling you with stories of my success. You have to be a student to be a 301 intern. I am not a sane human being, so I will be beginning my PhD in a few days. Three more years of academic blood sweat and tears, this time with more part time work since degrees ain’t cheap. Four more years if I hit a sore spot and my progress stalls.
Since I’m here for the long haul, I thought I’d dispense some of the wisdom granted to me through four years of experience. The dissertation and general academic tips are things I think all students should bare in mind, at least to extent their humanities or social science papers. I can’t give much advice about doing experiments!
1. Plan, plan and plan again.
With a dissertation its easy to get complacent. Sure, its a big paper, but you have months to do it in! Yet your time is still extremely limited, and must be spent wisely, especially if you actually want a top mark. For Philosophers, we have to be original to get top marks, in arguments or analysis. This requires reading, and a lot of it, to get a grasp on what’s already been said and what themes you’ll need to touch on. Nobody expects you to do everything, but you do need to at least mention things that others in your field find important, even if its just to dismiss them.
Managing your time requires planning what to do each day, week and month. Set deadlines for yourself and keep them. Otherwise, its too easy to let work pile up, and that’s where your mental health begins to suffer. Delegate all that stress to the master plan, let present you take care of future you. It can always be changed, but doing this will make the entire experience easier. I set myself some clear targets. I wanted to have read a bunch of books in the first two weeks, enough to have a grasp on the arguments. Then, I made sure I’d have the basics of the core essay structure and explanation topics ready by week four. With the end of the first month, I should be ready to write everything up, and know what I wanted to write. The next month was just for writing, at least one section per week. The last month was for editing, trying to get my drafts through.
I hardly stressed, although there were a few emergencies where I had to re-write or re-structure part of the essay. My planning paid off and when others were spending all day, every day in the library, I was whistling my way to the bus stop, finished paper in hand.
2. Make your life easier by using relevant software
A good piece of software can change the way you work and make yourself a million times more productive. I found that I struggled to remember exactly what I had read, where relevant quotes were and where these papers were located. Some would prefer to record all of this in a notebook, but tis old-school method is hardly foolproof. Making the trip all the way to the IC only to forget your bibliography notebook is heart-breaking. The same can be said for traditional digital methods like USB sticks. You should always have backups, but the heart racing moments of losing a USB with your dissertation or other crucial notes is an all too common tale.
Instead, for essay heavy topics I recommend a piece of software called Mendeley. This is a free software which is already installed on the majority of university computers, and is available in the software suite otherwise. Essentially, it acts like cloud storage, a PDF editor and referencing system all-in-one. I created my reading list and no matter where I went, all I’d have to do is log-in and there it was. Looking for references and quotes was a doddle thanks to the fact that you can highlight sections of the PDF in-app. I’m absolutely amazed how few people know about this software, because it you have one hundred papers this sort of thing could save your literally days worth of labour-hours which could better be spent elsewhere. Learn to use this sort of software, whatever your preference, and when it comes to the dissertation you won’t waste time shuffling bits of paper around your already crowded desk.
3. Take advantage of what 301 has to offer
Its too easy to feel you’re all alone when doing something like this. Your academic career hinges on the right words coming to your mind, the right connections being drawn. It feels like a solitary task, and in many ways it is. But you’re paying money to come to this place, and we wouldn’t be one of the best universities in the country/world if we didn’t spend some of that money on services to make completing these tasks easier. Remember, the university does not want you to fail. Their reputation hinges on your success. So take advantage!
The 301 centre offers time management workshops to help you plan, advice on effective research methods, critical thinking, report writing, referencing etc. If you’re doing politics and find yourself looking through page after page of government statistics, we have people to help you understand them. These are all free, and all of them helpful. Do enough of them and you even get another qualification to add to the ol’ CV. How’s that for multi-tasking.
4. Writing anything is better than writing nothing. Perfection is a lie.
Its quite easy to get lost in pursuit of perfection. But nothing is perfect on first draft, everything needs editing, redrafting and rethinking. Sometimes its best to just write what you’re thinking, in a different word document if need be, and work on the problem through doing. Maybe you’ll wake up the next day and things will be clearer, with that argument or point becoming something more cohesive. Even if its worthless in the end, it was part of the process, so still had value which it contributed to the overall project. Looking at a blank screen gets you nowhere, whereas looking at a lot of words allows the visual part of the brain to start working on solving the problem.
But the pursuit of perfection isn’t just a barrier to progress, but also to your finished project as well. Even as the highest levels of academia, no book is perfect. There will always be a topic not addressed, a point not quite made as well as I could have been, or a typo near the end. This doesn’t spoil the work, far from it, it just proves we’re only human. I’ve seen friends struggling up until the last hour before the hand-in deadline making last minute changes. Often, this doesn’t help the work at all, only hinders it by making it less precise or cohesive. Something which tries to be totally perfect ens up being mediocre at everything. A paper can be precise and in depth or broad and shallow. Both are useful in their own right depending on your goals, but both can be criticised for not being the other.
Once you have something you’re happy with, keep it. In the bigger picture, the marker probably won’t even notice those minor errors you’re worried about. Your time is better spent on something other than nitpicking and worrying.
So, that about covers the lessons I’ve learnt writing my dissertation and from the other four years of academics. I hope that some of this information helps you in your own work. We at 301 are always here to support you, as is the rest of the university’s staff and your peers. You’ll make your way through this!