On Monday, I went along to a ‘workshop’ for third year undergraduates as they start to think about their dissertations. (For those unfamiliar with the Scottish university system, we do four year degrees, with the dissertation submitted in the fourth year. In the history department at Glasgow, dissertations are submitted on the 14th February, with the proposal due a year before, so these students have approximately two and a half months to come up with a topic which will then take over their life for the next year.) I’d been asked to speak about the experience of writing an undergraduate dissertation – I submitted mine in February 2014, which feels like a lifetime ago now! Typically, I forgot almost all the things I wanted to say (note to self: never try to ad lib) but as I start on the PhD, it was a useful experience to reflect back on the process of selecting a topic and going about researching and writing.
In this blog post, then, I want to consider some of the things I have learnt over the last couple of years; things which I hope might be of use to any undergraduates and masters students who happen to stumble across my musings.
One size does not fit all
What works for one person might not work for another. (Perhaps this means you should just stop reading here!) Your coursemate might swear by the pomodoro method, but that might not work for you. Everyone has their own style of working – this came across really strongly in the workshop. I tend to spend a long time reading, gathering notes and ideas, and then write a lot relatively quickly (so much, in fact, that my first draft of my masters thesis was almost double the word limit…). Others research and write concurrently, shaping their ideas as they go. Finding out what style works for you is important – likewise, some people work better 9-5, others rarely see daylight during the writing process.
Do what you love, love what you do
It’s incredibly clichéd to say but research is so much easier when you have a genuine drive. I’m sure people who know me are already fed up of me talking about how Bede’s misogyny drives his incomplete portrait of women, and how Merovingian abbesses exercised authority in a way which was not dissimilar to my parents’ use of ‘the naughty step’. It’s especially an issue at undergraduate level, I think – choosing a dissertation topic can seem overwhelming. Going from huge survey courses in first and second year, to six often disparate and unconnected courses in third year can make it very hard to work out exactly where your interests lie. I was fortunate in that I took a class in my third year called ‘Monasticism and Society’ and loved it so much I knew that was where I wanted to specialise, but for many students, the prospect of narrowing down their interests is genuinely terrifying. If the topic doesn’t fill you with excitement on the day you hand in your proposal form, it’s going to be a much harder slog.
Don’t be afraid to try out ideas
One of the things that most terrified me when I was writing my undergraduate dissertation was the idea of having to produce ‘original research’ – I knew I could write good essays, but a dissertation is such a step up from that and that was a big part of the difficulty I had in getting started. I was worried that a) I wouldn’t have any ideas or that b) I’d have an original idea, but it would be awful. In my masters thesis, I disagreed with the commonly accepted view about one of my sources in particular. I even contradicted what my supervisor had said when I chose the topic. In my several anxiety induced nightmares between submission and the result, I was convinced this had been a bad move. In the end, it worked in my favour. Don’t be afraid to disagree with accepted scholarship – as long as you back up your points and provide a clear and well reasoned argument! If you have an idea you’re unsure of, ask your supervisor, or test it out on a willing friend or family member.
Use the resources available to you
Speak to your supervisor! Ask them questions, show them your ideas – it’s what they are there for! But don’t forget that the resources available to you go far beyond your supervisor. Be aware of other members of staff in your department – if your research starts crossing over into an area in which they’re an expert, drop them an email! Keep an eye on emails from your department about seminars and lectures – some of these could be relevant to you. As an undergrad I was often too scared to attend, but they are really interesting and can expose you to cutting edge research as well as making useful contacts. Members of the department will also notice your attendance and realise you’re keen, which is helpful if you want to apply for further study and are looking for references. Get friends or family to proofread for you – people who are outside of your discipline are always a good bet, as they can pick up on issues of style that someone more familiar with your topic might miss, as well as being able to tell you when an argument doesn’t quite work or something is missing.
The brick wall is not insurmountable
Almost everyone I knew hit that point midway through the dissertation process (at both undergrad and Masters) where they panicked completely. I remember staring at my notes at around this time 2 years ago completely convinced that I couldn’t write a dissertation. It seemed as impossible as climbing Everest or becoming a concert pianist. However much I tried to reassure myself, nothing seemed to work. It was strangely reassuring to hear very established academics in a workshop I attended this week expressing this same feeling – though I’m not sure I like the idea of battling with it every time I try to write an article in the future! That brick wall, however high and thick it seems when you come up against it, is not permanent, however. What worked for me was taking a few days away from working on the dissertation. I kept a notebook and pen by my bed and in my bag, but I put it to one side. Suddenly, having some distance helped things come together. Inspiration struck, and I sat down and started to write. Once I’d started to write, I realised I could do it. There is nothing more disheartening than a blank screen!
Research and writing can be quite a lonely place. I found this especially true of the Masters dissertation – writing over summer and not having courses meant that it was far harder to engage with the support networks I’d built up over the year. Working part time in an admin job helped, as it got me out of the library and meant that three days a week, I was guaranteed to see and speak to people. We also had a weekly pub trip – it didn’t happen every week, especially as people started to move away or get more stressed about how little they’d written (or, in my case, how far over the word limit they were with half the content still to go!) but things like that really helped. Now I’m doing my PhD I have a few fixed points in my week when I go for coffee with friends, or to the pub or the cinema. These support networks are not always academic-focused – some are, and some aren’t. Support networks also don’t have to be in physical spaces, but in virtual ones too. Academic twitter has proved invaluable time and time again – either in providing sources, answers to questions or even getting a ‘me too!’ in reply to a tweet about feeling stressed by how much work there is to do.
Mental health and anxiety
This point is something which I could easily turn into an entire blog post of its own, and probably will at some point. Research and writing can easily consume you. I am naturally quite an obsessive person – this has served me well in academia so far, as I find it easy to lose myself in a topic. There is a downside to this, however – you can get so consumed by research and writing that your mental health starts to suffer. Being able to tell the difference between ‘good obsession’ and ‘bad obsession’, between natural levels of stress and full-blown anxiety, is a very difficult skill. Academia often attracts people who are prone to anxiety and other mental health issues, and as a result, these things are sometimes glossed over. ‘The dissertation is meant to be stressful’, we tell undergraduates. ‘Isolation is part of the PhD process’, doctoral candidates hear. While these things may be true in part, mental health and personal wellbeing are more important, and not allowing the pressures of academia to consume you is important. I think there’s an important difference between being consumed by your topic and becoming consumed by the pressures of research. Navigating that line is a lot harder to do in reality than it is to say in a blog post written at 1am, but it is an important distinction to be aware of.
There’s probably a lot more I could say, but that can wait for another day and another post! The most important thing, though, is to enjoy it! It was the process of researching and writing my dissertation which convinced me that I wanted to continue on to further study and to try for a career in academia. I genuinely loved writing my dissertation, and I still love talking about it now. The opportunity to spend a period of time researching something of your own choice, that interests you and that you’ve elected to explore in depth is a really great experience.