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Tackling your undergraduate dissertation

Home / Student blogs / Katherine Simpson / Tackling Your Undergraduate Dissertation

Published: July 19, 2018

For any university student, summer is a time to relax, have fun and make some great, hopefully, sun-filled memories. However, returning students moving into their final year may want to spend the summer thinking about, planning or reading for their undergraduate dissertation. The undergraduate dissertation is a significant part of your overall degree and although many people may tell you horror stories about it or brag about how easy it was for them, it’s important to remember that everybody’s circumstances are different and with the right planning and preparation, the dissertation can begin on a good foot.

For those of you who are unaware, a dissertation is one module which is covered within an undergraduate course. Depending on the course, these can range from research or library studies to practical pieces. Each course is different and will require something different from the dissertation. Regarding modules, most of these are worth double credits, making them rather important to overall third year grades. So, what can you do to give yourself the best chance of getting good grades when it comes to your own personal dissertation? The following tips might just help!

1) Talk to your lecturers

If you have a particular lecturer you feel comfortable talking to, have a chat with them and just ask a few basic questions and find out how most students carry out their dissertations. Is it an extended literature review? Qualitative or quantitative research study? Practical piece? Something else? Once you have a rough idea of what you are expected to do, you can start to consider what ideas may or may not gel with that method of writing or creating. It’s totally okay if you don’t have ideas at this point, just get a basic idea of what you can and can’t do, for example, if you have to do a qualitative research study just consider that you may not be ethically approved to carry out primary research with people talking about sensitive topics. That in itself will eliminate or help develop some ideas for you.

2) Consider your topic carefully

This one usually tends to stump a few people to begin with. Throughout your degree, you will have covered a massive amount of information, touched on topics lightly or gone into depth with them. You may have also covered topics from other subjects, for example in Sociology some modules cover criminology, health and social care, law and such but the dissertation itself must take a heavy sociological interest in the topic you choose.

Something that may help when trying to find what topics you like is collecting together your old files and folders and having a flick through to see which modules you have really enjoyed so far, that can give you a refresher on some topics and renew some interest. Make a list of any topics that you haven't fully covered and any topics that you would like to have been covered in modules. If you can get an idea of any area, group of people, period of time, that is not written about very much then maybe that might be a topic for you to cover.

The absolute most important thing to keep in mind though is that you need to be interested in whatever topic you choose. Put bluntly, you will be working on this dissertation for a full academic year so unless you enjoy the topic you’ll find it pretty easy to get bored, distracted and demotivated about it, and nobody wants to be writing a 10,000 word dissertation (if that is what is required of you) the night before it is due!

3) Meet with your preferred supervisor

You will be given a supervisor for the duration of your dissertation and you can meet with them as much as you need – as long as you’re both available – but you can always send an email. Once you’ve got a rough idea of your topic/s or an area you might want to look into, make an appointment with whichever lecturer you would prefer to be your supervisor, you often get to choose which supervisor you prefer and are likely to be placed with them as long as your topic matches their speciality and they aren’t already supervising many more students.

It’s a great chance when you both meet to bounce ideas off of one another, they will have a much greater knowledge of specific topics than what you will have covered in lectures so they will be able to give you a pretty good idea of things that are relevant, what’s being talked about in your subject and the ways that you might go with your dissertation topic. One really good piece of advice I was given by a lecturer was to create a mind map around my chosen topic and write down everything that I know which then uncovered gaps in my knowledge. This is especially helpful when it comes to playing to your own strengths.

4) Read, read, read!

No doubt there will be considerable spare time during the summer if your time isn’t spent working or managing assignment deadlines. Summer is a fantastic opportunity to grab a couple of books from the library around any topics that interest you and read about them; it doesn't have to be anything heavy or hours of reading per day! If you have more than one idea in mind, grab two or three seminal or introductory texts about each topic and read about it to get a feeling of which grabs tour interest more.

If you have a good solid idea in your head, create a hypothetical bibliography, a list of any and all potential books that you could use throughout the duration of your dissertation – a potential reference list for want of a better word. Grab a couple of books that interest you from the list you’ve made and just get down to reading, you don’t have to read the whole book or a whole chapter but look for things that might help you when writing the dissertation, it will definitely help you get a good start of a reference list!

I hope these tips come in useful when thinking about how to tackle your dissertation!

Topic: Course, Advice and tips