Crossing the canyon of my undergraduate dissertation

It’s finally done, signed, sealed, delivered. Two weeks ago, I felt overwhelmed, the thousands of words left to write like the gaping maw of a canyon I’d never be able to cross.

Was it worth it though, is the question. I would say it was, but not for the obvious reasons.

Of course, having a piece of academic research to your name feels pretty good, I will admit. I have something to show to employers and a piece of work to add to my academic portfolio. A handful of new – wait for the buzzword – transferable skills.

But bar all that – the knowledge that I completed a subject-specific independent research paper is still baffling to me. Until a few days ago, I had never written that many words consecutively for a graded composition.

I made the decision to choose a dissertation module during my year abroad. I love to write, I love to read, and I’m interested in so many things; it seemed inevitable. Then final year started, and people aren’t kidding when they say it’s the hardest year of uni. Suddenly I was juggling studies and part-time work with this seemingly insurmountable task, asking myself: “What have I signed up for?”

Being given an entire year to plan and write a paper takes organisation and motivation. Flexibility, too, when you realise your research question just doesn’t work – or has already been done before, which you inevitably will discover the more you scour academic databases – and needs changing. Most of all, it takes passion – if you aren’t interested in what you’re writing, writing your dissertation will be an absolute slog.

Looking back, there are a lot of things I would do differently. Start planning earlier, for one (I’m currently brainstorming topics for my Masters dissertation, believe it or not!). I wouldn’t leave referencing for the last minute, either, no matter how tempting it may be to just get words on the page as fast as you can. And speaking of words on the page – I would definitely, definitely, start writing the actual paper a lot sooner. I spent so many agonising months just trying to get my thoughts together and compile research, feeling like a disorganised mess as I added academic journal upon academic journal to the depressingly muddled Word document I’d ambitiously labelled ‘Dissertation Draft’.

And you might have felt that way too, might still be feeling that way if you’re currently working on your postgraduate dissertation.

There are a lot of things I enjoyed about the process. Nothing compares to the feeling of your ideas slowly coming together, building upon each other naturally. Discovering how many established scholars actually share your common interest. And then there’s being able to tell people about the ostensibly random research topic I’d chosen to write about, watching them feign interest. Nights spent on the sixth floor of the IC, watching the sun set and rise over Sheffield, through the window…

The guilty voice in the back of my head flooding my every waking moment, interrupting my Netflix binges with an accusatory refrain of: “You should be working on your dissertation! Why aren’t you working on your dissertation?!” …well, I won’t miss that. Good riddance!

Anyway, if you’re considering Masters study, and even if you’re not, I would highly recommend doing an undergraduate dissertation, if it’s optional for your course. I’m heading into postgraduate study with more organisational skills, advanced research experience and renewed confidence.

Even if you decide not to choose a dissertation module, if you have a friend who is, give them all the support you can give. They’ll need it!

Looking for some tunes to get you through this exam season? Check out this curated playlist that single-handedly got me through all those late nights… 

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