It seems a useful time to reflect as I prepare meetings to discuss projects with students for next year. Seeing students excel in their dissertations is among the most rewarding parts of my job. The dissertation is the culmination of their studies, where they test all the skills they have acquired and really think deeply about the subject in the context of a detailed research project. Some of the results are publishable and some do get published and that is tremendously satisfying for us and the students.
Students also really enjoy the process overall. We are consistently told by students near the end of their studies often at graduation that it was their favourite experience at university. They get to focus on their specific interests, develop their own ideas. Developing high quality research and making it worthy of good rewards is all of these things. Every project is different and only you and your supervisor know precisely what you should be doing from one point to another but these guidelines generally apply to most dissertations.
It forms a significant part of the third year of an undergraduate degree many universities, including us, double weight them so they count for two modules. It should be based around a series of primary sources the volume and type depends on the project and should include a comprehensive review of the existing historical literature this is usually done in the introduction.
But in the main your experience will involve one-on-one supervisions. Unlike essays the argument of the dissertation must be based around and driven by primary sources and the secondary sources the books, articles etc are used to contextualize and help you interpret the findings from the primary sources.
Unlike source analyses the sources must be used to build the overall argument — merely commenting on their content is not enough. These are important staging posts towards the final product. Choosing the Topic : Picking a topic is subject to a range of different factors: In short it must be interesting to you, feasible in the time 1 year and space 10, words you have, possible with regards to primary source material and worthy of study.
DO take time thinking about your topic and speak to your prospective supervisor in detail about this probably in several different meetings. DO read around the subject. Ask yourself a series of questions. What period of history am I interested in? Am I a political, military, social, cultural or economic historian? What particular themes have I enjoyed on my modules, is there anything I particularly enjoyed think of the assignments you have done.
But the topic needs to be worthy of study in the sense that there needs to be a rationale, it needs to be something that is of interest to others and some importance, not just interesting to you. Are the primary sources available and can you use them? If they are written in a foreign language will you be able to read them?
Is there much more that can be said about the topic? Can the project be done in one year and can it be given sufficient justice in 10, words? The final product will be only four times the length of this blog we exclude footnotes and bibliography so what at first seems a daunting volume of writing will soon become quite a restrictive format. Organising your work : DO start work early. Make sure you start the project over the summer between the second and third year.
Over the summer get some reading done, get to the archives and start thinking about a structure — very valuable time, especially if an unexpected personal or family issue means you have to take some time off in the third year. You need to take a break from your studies, that is important, but there should be time for work too. Missing meetings often because targets have not been met or little work has been done will annoy your supervisor and if you make a habit of doing this will leave you flying solo with the project.
Academics require years of training and experience to manage their own projects — the simple truth is students undergrads and postgrads need supervision because they lack that experience. Make sure you pay attention in supervisions and take notes for future reference. Try to stick to any plans and timetables agreed — its best to be realistic when setting these.
The Reading : DO think about what you need from your reading. You need three main things:. The main debates and arguments in your topic area — these are generally found in the introductions of books and articles. Read about be wider history of that industry and the wider economic history of Britain in that period.
This time, I started by studying a concept that I wanted to use in the chapter. Only then did I start to work with my sources and add them in to the text. I changed the introduction and then went back to analyzing more sources. I ended up rewriting the introduction many times as the chapter grew longer. This was helpful to keep the balance between a having a direction and a point and b actually having evidence to make that point.
But I felt frustrated about so much rewriting, and once again, I found it a challenge to settle on the structure of the chapter. On the other hand, I wrote the second chapter much faster than the first, and I felt more satisfied with the argument in the end. I wanted to try something else for chapter 3. To begin writing-for-thinking, I created two documents, one for analytic brainstorming, and one for what I called source narration—writing about my primary sources.
For about a month, I added things to both documents. I wrote in full sentences, completely cited my sources, and organized the evidence into categories. Only then did I begin to consider how to structure the chapter. Then, I made an outline for the chapter that I actually followed. I got to work writing the sections, using a different document for each section to encourage me to just focus on one part at a time. By this time, I was teaching, so having manageable chunks to tackle helped a lot as I juggled multiple responsibilities.
As I wrote, I pulled in sentences and citations from the source narration document and avoided having to go back to the original. Once I had written all the sections—first the body sections, then the chapter introduction and conclusion—I finally put them all together. I removed some redundancies, and added a few things that seemed to be missing as the whole coalesced from the parts. The final revisions to the chapter involved adding in some more evidence and context, sharpening and modifying some arguments, and revising some of the analytic language.
I liked that this method first gave me time to process ideas and documents in an unstructured, low-stakes way, and then encouraged me to write at a faster pace with less rewriting. Of course, it will get revised again down the line.
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