A postgraduate dissertation is very different from an undergraduate dissertation in many ways. Some differences include the expectation to bring originality to the field, the more complex methods or discussions that are needed to meet the requirements, and overall just the higher level of academic ability that is expected.
Here are my top 10 tips for writing your PGT dissertation, based on my experience:
1. Plan it out and start early.
Never write ‘work on dissertation’ as part of your to-do list. This is way too broad. You need to break this huge goal down into smaller tasks, to make it more achievable so that you’re not put off or made to feel anxious simply by looking at your to-do list. Examples of good to-do list tasks include ‘read paper on…’, ‘write __ part of literature review…’, ‘conduct exploratory analysis’ and so on.
Check my previous blog post with tips on how to manage your time.
2. Overcome writer’s block.
One of the worst things about writing is writer’s block. It can be really difficult to overcome but trust me when I say it is your minds way of telling you that you need a break. This doesn’t mean go and switch on an episode of your favourite TV show, because that will result in a downward spiral of procrastination. There are ways to get your mind flowing again without stepping away from writing.
One really good method which I find helps me is to write a snippet on myself or any subject of interest. I find that writing carelessly about things I find easy to write about makes my academic writing come easier.
This is explained better in the following Ted Talk.
3. Expect to write multiple drafts.
It won’t be perfect first time, so don’t expect to write one draft and it be done. Be ready to edit and delete sections you worked hard on, especially if you’re over the word count. This is something I personally found hard to accept as I used to write my assignments, proof-read and submit. Expect very different with your PGT dissertation, especially after your supervisor has had their hands on it!
4. Turn your phone off and close all tabs.
Don’t check these during breaks as you will get distracted, even if you put it down after 5 minutes your mind will still be wondering what has been said in that group chat. The only way to overcome distractions is to go cold turkey. You can catch up later!
5. Send your supervisor a draft – early!
I learned this the hard way. I sent my draft over way too late and my supervisor told me he wouldn’t have time to look at it. It gave me a sense of panic I’d never felt before and a lot of comments in my final feedback could have been addressed before submission if I’d have been more prepared.
Even if your supervisor gives you a deadline, it’s likely they have other students to supervise as well and they will need to read and comment on their papers too, so the earlier the better.
6. Don’t be a prisoner to the structure.
You don’t have to finish one section to start the next. You can go from literature review to methods to results and back again. Or in a more traditional paper this means jittering around your chapters. There is no unwritten rule that says you must finish a section to move onto the next one – and this is where writer’s block will hit you hard if you’re not flexible with your writing.
7. Use a reference manager.
…but check over them yourself. This means you won’t have them all to do at the end of the dissertation, which can often take much longer than expected and there is a chance you won’t be able to find the papers you’ve read again.
I highly recommend Mendeley reference manager as it has an add on to your internet browser and to Microsoft Word, so it is very convenient. It will also save the paper if there is a PDF version available on the web page – bonus!
8. Be original.
As mentioned earlier this is the most important thing for PG dissertations. You need to read, read and double read the literature to make sure your work has not already been done by somebody else. This is important as you will need to justify your work and the contributions it will make to research.
If you’re struggling to think of something original, a good idea is to look at ‘future recommendations’ sections of recent papers to see if you can find inspiration here.
9. Take advantage of the services on offer.
One thing we can really appreciate about University of Manchester is the breadth of additional services that are on offer to support students with their studies. The library has a fantastic catalogue of pages, courses and drop-in sessions which are available to all.
Also check with your school as some offer courses on academic writing, writing literature reviews, critical analysis and so on. Another great source if you’re an international student is the University Languages Centre, who have their own range of services offered.
10. Look after yourself!
As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. This means that you need to look after yourself to get the most out of yourself, which includes refuelling, relaxing and rejuvenating yourself not only at the end of each day, but also throughout.
Ways to look after yourself include:
- Have breaks during the day, and by this I mean regular breaks maybe once an hour – there is a reason we have a 10 minute break in the middle of a 2 hour lecture!
- Sleep properly – this means catching your 7-9 hours per day, which is the recommended amount for most adults.
- See your friends. There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to allow yourself to have a social life, particularly if you follow my first point of advice by planning your time and starting early.
- Eat well and consistently. I know the last thing you want to do is cook a meal when you have a huge workload to worry about but prioritising your food intake is important to keep your brain functioning at its best. Instead of calling the local takeaway and waiting 50 minutes for it to arrive, try looking on Google for some 10-minute meal ideas. You’d be surprised what you can find! Or take a look at content ambassador Kirstie’s recipes for people that dislike cooking!