By Oluwabunmi Adaramola
In the first installment of this series, I discussed the length of the dissertation, the average time frame it should take (depending on whether it’s an undergraduate or master’s dissertation) as well as various factors to take into consideration when choosing your research area or topic. In this article, I will examine the planning stage and what it entails, providing tips and strategies that helped me properly set the foundation for my undergraduate and masters dissertation.
Your dissertation is usually a 4-6 months project and this should be kept in mind from the time you start thinking about your dissertation. The planning stage is probably, the most important stage to set the tone of a first-class dissertation. What does the planning stage involve? This stage usually asks all the whats, the whys, the whens and hows of your topic and research objectives. And yes, this often involves writing it out or creating a visual aid of the direction your research takes. This could be a mind map which details every idea or argument or point you intent to make throughout the course of your dissertation. Note that this mind map or visual aid is not the final stop. Instead, think of it as the beginning as it would change over the course of thinking about your dissertation. So, pick up an A3 paper and write out every single idea, detail, question or objective you want to discuss and achieve in your dissertation. Is it going to be an empirical or doctrinal research? Write out how you intend to achieve this and why you have chosen this. When writing my undergraduate dissertation, I found that what really helped me uncover all the potential angles and questions and essentially think outside the box was writing every single thought I’d had about my topic regardless of whether I was going to include it in the final project. Of course, it helped that I made this very colourful and as aesthetic as possible, with the help of my very good friend Stabilo.
The next thing I did right after was to create another (colourful) personalised ‘dissertation plan’. This involves drafting out a general plan for the intended time frame between when you intend to research the dissertation and the intended submission date. This helped me mentally plan what I wanted to work on at each point in time, planning right from the research stage into the final editing stage, all within the stated period between research and submission. My top tip when drafting your planning calendar is to plan to start researching as soon as possible and plan to have a ‘finished product’ at least a week before the actual submission date. Factor in realistic circumstances that could occur as well as realistic writing goals. Why? Let’s be honest, we all have those very student days when we feel super productive and ready to take on every task on your table, and then those days when you literally don’t feel up to doing anything except staying under the covers (aka the lazy days). There will be days when you’re not going to write 2,000 words every day or even feel up to researching anything. There will be days when you’d be stuck on an argument or when you’re not even sure if anything makes sense! Added on to this is the rigour of third year, with applications, part-time jobs, other courseworks and assessments and extra-curricular activities. As such, it would be very helpful if your plan itself is realistic and gives you off days to avoid burn out.
Another optional step I’d taken, which is very dependent on your workload, was making an even more strategic plan within the dissertation plan, which was tailored alongside my already scheduled dissertation meetings with my supervisor. This plan included scheduling the periods I’d wanted to carry out research for each chapter and begin writing the first drafts for each chapter. I’d wanted to do this because part of my supervised meetings meant I’d needed to submit 3,000 words (which could be one draft chapter or two chapters) by my third or fourth meeting and another 3,000 by the last meeting. I’d made this strategic plan to ensure I met the deadlines for submission set by my supervisor in order to get all the feedback on my work and apply it to the rest of the project, so I could produce a quality research work. It really made a difference having good feedback from my supervisor on 6,000 words (essentially half of my dissertation!) which I could properly apply to the remaining 6,000 words.
Writing a dissertation involves a lot of self-discipline and sacrifice, especially if you’re gunning for the very high marks. Be realistic in the way you plan the four to six months‘ journey as you don’t want to neglect your other commitments and assessments and at the same to experience burn out! Be kind to yourself whilst working. Take time out whenever you feel the pressure of working coming down heavily on you and don’t forget to breathe. Celebrate each milestone you’ve achieved and be grateful for each step of the way. Remember, big goals start with the small and little tasks! Overall, this stage means being very realistic in planning and having in mind the need to make a lot of sacrifice and having a lot of discipline, The end product is worth it!