Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Planning the dissertation

In my experience there are two main types of dissertation student.  The organised, planned, and methodical being the first (& also my own preference - I cope with stress by trying to avoid it & that usually means putting in the hours of preparation nice and early) and the "I need the buzz and pressure of a looming deadline to get me to focus" being the second. 

I've seen both strategies work, although I tend of course to spend more time with those students who start early and are organised enough to book meetings and use several iterations of supervisor feedback.  I can't help feeling that this gives the 'organised' student a better chance of getting a stronger grade.

Guide, not enforcer role

I see my role of project supervisor far removed from controlling or chasing students.  I am a guide to help lead you on a journey up a challenging mountain pass.  To the right you can see a picture of me on top of a mountain in Wales (Brecon), so you will appreciate that helping people climb mountains is something I do both literally and metaphorically. 

You need a plan !

Whatever your style, you need to have a plan.  When out in the wilds of mountain country, where help can be a long way away, it is crucial to have a route, to have studied the map carefully and considered the terrain likely to be encountered (the bits where the wavy lines come close together are steep and take much longer to cover).  You need to work out a route map, detailing where you plan to be at what point.  For safety hill walkers (like myself) submit one of these to a base (police, pub, responsible body not involved in the hike) in case of emergencies. 

Mountain guides also use this as a tool to ensure the desired direction and rate of progress are being achieved.  Although you may be a novice at writing a dissertation you should none the less ensure that one of the first things you do is create a project plan.  It does not have to be fancy, you may want to put it on MS Project, or use multi-coloured highlighter pens, but a simple hand written page will do.  It must identifies the key milestones (outputs - not just completed chapters, be more detailed) and allocates a time span (start and end date) and possibly a word count.  Ticking of achievements (200 words written today TICK, ten items added to the bibliography today TICK) is very motivational, particularly in the early stages when the mountain looks high and far, far away.

Plan for little rewards

Just as mountain walkers will plan to have food, toilet and rest breaks, you should also include things to look forwards to along the way ("all work and no play makes Jac a dull person", after all).  I always look forwards to sharing a couple of beers (lager, not the flat, warm stuff) with my buddies at the end of a hike to review the trip (and laugh about getting stuck on the barbed wire fence, throwing my back pack in a stream and being chased, whilst ski-ing down a very steep bit, by a rabid looking sheep - all true !). 

Don't forget to allow for a bit of contingency - try to plan to finish a couple of weeks early - then if you start running a little bit behind - you have a few spare days to catch up, without having to pull 'all nighters'.  Your plan will need to be more detailed in terms of dates and outputs than my general emotional chart below, but this should give you a good starting point to create your own....


Five common dissertation 'mistakes'

(1) Spending too much time worrying about the perfect title.  They evolve over time & really need lots of literature reading before they crystallize - many students flap and don't do the hard work of reading academic journals around their subject.  (see this blogs post on finding a dissertation title)

(2) Taking it far too easy once the title has been decided & approved.  This is the time to crack on with deep and wide literature research and developing/planning the methodology.

(3) Students trying to stretch 5 or 10 sources too thinly.  Deep, deep research (including relevant texts and academic research journals) is necessary.  The better the content, the easier it is to write - it's a beauty contest on what to exclude - you have such an embarrassment of riches.  Saying little with nothing much requires literary genius few of us possess.  The research is the most important phase, yet it takes the most time & yet generates the fewest words.  (see this blogs post on using a shell document).

(4) My computer crashed.  Of course I always back up.  Just not the dissertation. 

(5) Insufficient time polishing.  Ironically the last sections to be written (intro, conclusion and abstract) are often rushed.  These are your prime real estate - the first thing a marker looks at.  If they are peppered with spelling errors, grammatical nonsense and is hard to follow - you start by creating a bad impression (sub 50%) and an amazing lit review and methods section will only see you play catch up.  Make sure you BEST writing is show cased in the abstract, introduction and conclusion.