Having completed two History dissertations I understand the apprehension and stress that they can bring. These projects at first seem impossible and vast. Students are often left feeling helpless and lost. The thought of choosing one specific topic out of a whole degree field is daunting and for me this choice extended to the beginning of time. How could I possibly choose one topic? Of course I did end up choosing and went on to complete a second dissertation for my MA. This gave me a chance to make changes to the way I approached the task having learnt from my first experience. I found my MA dissertation not only highly enjoyable, but also reasonably stress free. Here are the lessons I learned and my top tips for avoiding unnecessary dissertation stress.
Choose something you find interesting: I cannot stress enough the importance of choosing a topic that you enjoy. You are going to be stuck researching and writing on this field for months so it is imperative that you actually like what you are doing. University tutors stress that a key aspect of a good dissertation is that it presents new ideas. This left students like me whose interests lie in the already well researched Tudor period feeling panicked to choose a more obscure and thus innovative dissertation topic. However, in the end I found that it was easier to develop my own thesis and ideas about a subject I enjoyed than one which at first may have appeared more original.
Make your own timetable: Though dissertations are large topics, you are given a substantial amount of time in which to complete them. In order to utilise this time effectively and keep yourself motivated it can be helpful to set your own goals along the way. For instance, set yourself a date by which you want to complete your first chapter or your introduction. This gives your research, planning and writing focus and structure. Importantly it also helps those who find themselves leaving everything to the last minute.
Start writing early: Don’t leave the writing until the last minute! The hardest part about a dissertation is setting pen to paper. This is why it is essential to start writing as soon as possible. It does not have to be structured paragraphs or chapters but bullet points and ideas which allow you to start formulating your thoughts and establishing the project’s direction.
Break the topic down: With large projects such as this it is extremely hard to know where to start and how to organise all the research material you have found. The most helpful way to deal with this issue is to not only break the topic down into chapters and themes, but to use subheadings to break it down further. The use of these subheadings focusses your attention on a specific theme and stops you getting lost within a mass of research.