Dissertation Learning Research Student-made Thesis

What to expect from postgraduate dissertations

Before starting my postgraduate (PGT) course, I was terrified about its shrouding uncertainty. More than anything, I became overwhelmed thinking about writing a dissertation. How do I narrow down topics? How long do I have to write it? How on earth do I actually do research?

For those of you in or about to enter a PGT course, you may have similar apprehensions.

I am currently in the MSc Science Communication course, so naturally my requirements may be different from your own. In fact, I guarantee this won’t be a perfect reflection of your programme, because (surprise!) I don’t even have to write a full dissertation for mine. Instead, I have a condensed “research project,” an infant version of a full-blown thesis.

But I digress, here’s the rundown of what I’ve encountered so far, as well as what I expect out of the coming months. Even if this schedule doesn’t apply to your PGT course, it hopefully gives you the gist of what to expect from the dissertation process as a whole.

November-December: Choosing your research topic

Toward the end of your first semester, it’s about time to consider what you want to study for your dissertation. If you hate research and have commitment issues like I do, this is excruciating work.

To help narrow down your options, I suggest reviewing what you’ve learned in your course so far. Which topics most interest you? Are there any faculty members you connect with, academically or personally? Does anyone’s current research appeal to you? And lastly, do any topics seem relevant to your career path post-graduation?

At the end of the day, asking questions and maintaining a running list of topics made a huge difference. Nothing needs to be 100% decided yet, so just go with what most interests you and fine tune it from there!

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January: Writing your proposal

Over Christmas break, I had to write and submit a brief (I’m talking VERY brief, like 1-2 pages sort of brief) proposal. Although I still didn’t need to have my topic totally refined, I had to outline my future research. And let me tell you, writing a proposal that short over a still uncertain topic is difficult!

The proposal included a short literature review of related work, as well as an argument about why my topic is important. I also proposed a timeline of the next several months, identifying where I’d be finding sources and how I’d be analysing them.

Basically, if your proposal is anything like mine, it seems much more overwhelming than it actually is. Don’t overthink it, and ask your supervisor if you need help. Remember, things are still in beta form at this point, and there’s still room for flexibility if you need it!

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February: Present your topic

In a few weeks, I need to present my topic before all my peers and faculty members… yikes! This step essentially regurgitates my proposal in spoken form, lasting about 8 minutes.

As a quiet person who hates public speaking, this is quite a daunting task. I’ve started working on my PowerPoint and doing more research on my topic to counter this anxiety, hoping to be as prepared as possible for the presentation date.

I recommend keeping your slides short and simple, instead relying on your own words. If you have a few friends in your course, ask them if they’d like to practice their presentations with you as well. Public speaking is scary, and defending your research is perhaps scarier, but everyone is in the same boat. Just practice, practice, practice and everything will be okay!

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February-May: Writing, writing, editing, writing, and editing some more

Clearly I’m not at this point yet, but my entire next semester will be dedicated to writing my dissertation (sorry, “research project”). This is where independent time management becomes key. Schedule in at least a day a week to do research, and once you’re done with that, plan lots of writing time. Try to leave at least a couple weeks before the final deadline to edit your socks off as well.

And remember: If you start feeling stuck, never hesitate to ask your supervisor for help!

End of May: Submit the final product

Freedom at last! If you’ve made it this far with a “research project,” you’re all done. And if you’re still working away at your complete dissertation, you’re about halfway there (sorry!). Regardless, all your hard work has, or will, pay off as soon as the deadline passes.

Good luck with your PGT dissertation journey!