It’s getting to the time of year when undergraduates start stressing about their dissertations and so I thought that I would try and help by setting out a basic schedule for when to write a dissertation. This schedule won’t work for everyone as not everyone likes working to a schedule and depending on where you are your dissertation will be due in earlier or later, or could be a different length. However, this will roughly work for a 10,000 word dissertation that is due in February/March/April of your final year of your degree.
It may seem early to do anything for your dissertation yet but as soon as you start Second year you should begin to think about what you would like to do your dissertation on. Are there any modules you’ve enjoyed or think you will enjoy? Is there a specific period of history you enjoy? A specific type such as military, political, feminist, gender, class, social, cultural, or something else? Maybe there is a specific group or person you like learning about? It is also important to consider that you will be working with your dissertation supervisor for a year and working on that topic for a year so choose not only a topic you like but a supervisor you like or that you can at least work with for that long. I was lucky in the fact that my favourite lecturer also taught one of my favourite areas of history. However, if you aren’t so lucky then pick an area of history you love and try to work on it in a way that you can get supervised by a lecturer you can work with. For instance, if you really like Germany in the interwar period but a lecturer you like specialises in Britain in the interwar period, you could look at Germany in the interwar period from a British point of view. Another important aspect to consider is how unique your research will be or what is something new that you can bring to academia on your topic. If your topic is over-saturated and your research doesn’t bring anything new to the topic then do not do it. Your topic doesn’t have to be ground-breaking but you cannot just reiterate information that has already been acknowledged.
In your second half of Second year you will probably be asked to fill out a form concerning the basic details of your dissertation proposal so it is important to be prepared for that. In my experience, it doesn’t have to be very detailed. You can even just simply state the person or period you want to study along with a topic and the lecturer you would like to be your supervisor. For instance, “post-war Britain with a focus on teenage leisure” can be your basic proposal. Just make sure you have a rough idea of what you want to do and what angle you want to take with it. You can then discuss your rough idea with your supervisor and narrow it down together. Your supervisor will probably help you begin to make a bibliography that you can use and will give you some tips on what to do over the summer.
I would recommend trying to do as much research as you can in your summer break so that you have less work to do when you come back to uni for your final year. I would especially recommend trying to sort out as many of your primary sources as you can as these are oftener harder to sort out than secondary sources. For instance, if you are using oral history then conduct all of your interviews in the summer, or if your sources are at a particular archive such as the British Museum then go and look at your sources at the archive. If your sources are at an archive then make sure that they will be at the archive on the day that you visit. At the British Library, you can request that they have specific sources for you when you visit such as a specific photograph collection or book or magazine issue. Doing this will save you a lot of time later on. If it is easier, then when you visit the archive, take photos of your sources to read later on so that you can focus on getting all of the sources you need instead of getting all of them and reading them and taking notes all at the same time. This then also means that when you come to sort out all of your sources later on in the year that you can still read them as they are rather than relying on notes that you took when you visited.
In terms of secondary sources, these are also important to consider over the summer break. Although I did not look at all of my secondary sources over summer, I made sure that I read quite a few and made notes on them so that I had less to do when I started third year.
Third Year, Semester One:
At the beginning of the semester, the very first thing you should do is book a meeting with your supervisor/tutor and discuss the progress you have made so far and what the next step is. Depending on how much work you did over summer you will probably either have to find a few more final primary sources, find more secondary sources, or make sure you have got all that you can from your chosen sources. If your supervisor/tutor gives you any feedback on how to improve what you are doing, please make sure you listen to them as they are the ones marking it and also are more than likely an expert in the field you are researching. If you can, try and book weekly or fortnightly meetings with your supervisor so that you can update them on your progress and make sure you are going in the right direction. It will also force you to make sure you’re working instead of procrastinating which is so easy to do!
Once you have all of your primary sources and a large majority of your secondary sources you should be able to begin writing your dissertation. We had to write the first draft of our introduction or conclusion in the first half of the semester. It is probably easier to write the first draft of your introduction first and then edit it as you write the rest of your dissertation so that it fits with it.
In the second half of the semester, you should try and write a draft of at least one of your dissertation chapters. It doesn’t have to be the first chapter, it can be any chapter but you should try and write at least one chapter so that you have less work to do over Christmas and in the second semester. Trust me, the more work you do in semester one the more you will thank yourself.
It is so tempting to just relax over the break and not do any work but you should really try and do as much of your dissertation as you can whilst you don’t have lectures or other assignments. Of course, make sure you do have time to relax and take days off but you should also aim to write at least one more chapter over the break. I know I keep repeating myself, but the more work you do over the break, the less you have to do in semester two when workloads usually get pretty intense. Ideally, you should try and write at least two chapters over the break or a chapter and a conclusion. Also, if you are really behind, please make sure you at least have all of your research done by the time you return to university so that even if you have yet to write your dissertation, you don’t need to worry about reading more material.
Third Year, Semester Two:
It is probably obvious, but you should try and write and complete the first drafts of your entire dissertation as early as you can in this semester. It may be a lot of work but try and make targets of how many words you will write a day/week. The sooner you finish the first drafts, the sooner you can edit and change those drafts and the sooner you will have a completed dissertation!