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Top Tips: ‘Mastering’ your MA/MSc Dissertation

As we are all dissertation survivors, we have decided to share our tips to help you join us on the other side!

Siobhán:

1. Break it down into sections (and break those sections down into further sections).
I found that this made it all seem a lot more manageable, and you can tick off the sections as you go. Some of my sub-sections represented about 100-200 words, so I was able to tick off quite a few in a writing session. It might not be a massive achievement at the time, but it helped me to feel like I was getting through it.

Getting through it, 200 words at a time...

Getting through it, 200 words at a time…

2. Know when to stop reading.
This is an important part of information literacy – recognising when you have gathered enough information. A Masters dissertation is not a PhD thesis, so you don’t need to read everything that has ever been written on that topic. I seem to remember being told to have 20-30 references in my literature review, which was a lot less than I would have expected!

3. Create a routine and stick to it!
I completed most of my writing-up while I was working, I would get home at about 4pm (early finish during school holidays thank God!) and go straight to my desk. I’d then write for about 3 or 4 hours, or until I had reached a certain point e.g. if I only had 2 hours worth of work left to do on a particular section then I’d allow myself the rest of the evening off instead of moving onto the next section. I didn’t really enjoy my dissertation so ‘treating’ myself in this way motivated me. Forcing myself to write was important, your dissertation is not going to write itself (as mine proved while I neglected it during June 2012) so you need to just get on with it.

4. Link your results section to your literature review.
This is probably an obvious one but it helped me to structure my results chapter. My subsections were linked to the subheadings and I found that this made the writing process easier.

My to-do list, which structured both my literature review and findings.

My to-do list, which structured both my literature review and findings.

5. Don’t be afraid to disagree with your literature review.
I had at least one finding that went against what my literature review had predicted, and I agonised over this – was my research wrong? Had I asked the wrong questions? No, my sample were just reporting a different experience than the samples in previous studies. Pointing this out does not weaken your research, it shows that you are critically engaging with your results and how they fit into the research landscape.

Helen:

1. In order to remain sane plan to do something fun once you have completed a certain amount of work.

Ask the others and they will tell you how stressed I was whilst completing my dissertation! I was working part time so how to plan my time carefully so a treat was necessary to keep me going. My particular treat was going for a meal every Sunday to break up the mammoth day of research/writing. Taking a break is really useful as after a certain point I found that I became less productive so even a five minute break is important.

2. Make sure you keep in contact with your supervisor.

This can be difficult as this seems to be a time when lecturers take their summer break but it is really important to keep them informed of what you are doing even if it’s just a sounding board. Your lecturers are experienced in their field and can help you when things go wrong i.e. low response rates to surveys (this happened to me!) and can help you with a contingency plan. It is also useful and comforting to have them confirm that you are on the right track!

3. Work in a structured order.

We were given a dissertation handbook which laid out the requirements of a Masters dissertation, it is important to follow this and the assessment criteria to ensure you are heading in the right direction.

4. Use your network.

Your network is brilliant for peer support; even if it’s just to moan! My network was extremely useful when I received a poor response rate from my initial population and helped me to distribute my survey my spreading the word on Twitter. (If you need us to tweet about your surveys please get in touch- we know the stress you’re going through!)

5. Friends and family.

Your friends and family will put up with a lot whilst you are doing your dissertation, as it consumes your life during the months you are completing it. So remember to be nice to them as they will most probably be proof reading 18,000 words for you and having a fresh set of eyes reading it is really great for spotting any errors!

Amy:

1. Master the art of the draft.

 Draft, draft and re-draft. Although the prospect of writing 18,000 words can seem daunting, my B.A tutor gave me some advice that I applied stringently to all of my MA essays; “Never get too precious about a sentence”.

I would print off the section I had been working on and at the end of the day, with a fresh pair of eyes I would go back to it and cross and re-phrase any sentence that I felt was too long, or could be phrased better. Granted, by the end of my thesis I had spent enough money on printing credit that I expect them to unveil a gold painted printer in my honour, I’ll also settle for a blue plaque… but I knew that my thesis was streamlined, that the paragraphs flowed and that I had minimized the risk of repeating myself.

A girl can dream….

 2. Use the resources available.

 Look at previous MA Dissertations.  The collection of theses available at MMU had all ‘passed’, but didn’t contain the grade they were awarded. However, I found it really useful to gather a few and look at the structure of each section rather than the content e.g. The layout of the Research Methodology. I primarily picked ones that I knew to be high quality*, but I also found it useful to gather ones that had just passed to compare and contrast them against one another and against my own work.

 3. Quality time over quantity of time.

 I think we’ve all touched upon this, but seriously….TAKE A BREAK.  Sometimes, regardless of your intention to write X amount of words in a day, it is not going to happen. At this point, it is futile to sit at your desk YouTubing ‘Fenton the Dog’**; you won’t win a medal for spending 10 hours chained to your computer when all you’ve amassed is 1 hour of quality work. It is best to take a break and come back with a better mindset; you’ll probably find that inspiration will strike you when you relax as you are no longer focusing on the issue. That being said; don’t forget to do some work!

Put the tools down and step away.

Put the tools down and step away.

4. Reference like a demon.

 Simple, but important: Reference as you go. Not only is it a relief to not have to trawl through hundreds of papers searching for that elusive quote that you were sure ‘X’ said, wishing you’d referenced it from the start; it is also useful to keep a record of articles that you have read, including the ones that you found to be irrelevant. By keeping a record of all the articles you have looked at it’ll become easier to research for new articles as you minimize the risk of wasting time re-reading something that you have already decided to be irrelevant.

5. Passion.

 Regardless of how long you plan to spend on writing this dissertation, at some point it will be all consuming. Make sure that you are researching something that genuinely interests you because it is that passion that will inspire you to get up every day and write that little bit more. Also, by the end of your dissertation you will have a breadth of knowledge about a niche subject. From my experience, the passion I have for my dissertation subject has transcended into my current role as senior members of staff are aware of my knowledge of the subject and that I want to put my knowledge into practice.

*Social Media is a excellent way of finding out about previous Alumni from your University (and more than likely, their award).

**Even if it still hilarious after the 100th viewing!

Catherine:

OK, so I’m a bit of a fraud on this one as I am yet to complete an LIS dissertation. I only intended to do a PGDip from the start, but then I submitted a research proposal that was relevant to my role at the time, and something I continue to have a genuine interest in. This has left me in two minds whether or not to submit a dissertation.  For now I’ve decided to put my energy and inevitable worry into chartership, but I did pick up a few things from my first Masters dissertation (in English and American Studies).

1. Choose wisely.

My first tip reiterates Amy’s final point, but it bears repeating. Time spent deciding on a research topic is time well spent.  Don’t panic yourself into a topic because you feel you better get started with something quick,  or choose the first thing you thought of because you’re struggling to come up with anything better; know that you want to write 15,000 plus words on the topic you choose. This sounds obvious, but at the research proposal stage of my potential library dissertation, I was infinitely more interested in the topic than I ever was in the English and American Studies dissertation I wrote. A strong interest in the research area and belief in the value of YOUR dissertation on that topic makes the whole process more bearable.

2. Don’t fear the unknown.

You may think that writing about something you already know about will make the dissertation process easier.  This may be the case, but it can also make it tedious. It’s fair to say that although proud of the final output, I didn’t enjoy the process of writing my Masters dissertation; given the chance again, I’d write about something entirely different. I picked the safe option and stayed close to an area I’d written on extensively before. This was borne out of my sense that a Masters was REALLY DIFFICULT, and it wasn’t the time to take a risk with a less familiar topic. Here, I lacked perspective.  Yes, Masters dissertations aren’t easy, but as Siobhan has said, you aren’t writing a PhD and which ever way you cut it you are going to have to do a ridiculous amount of reading. I didn’t put enough trust in the academic skills I had built up over 4 years of HE. I could have written a solid dissertation on the topic I was afraid of; don’t forget that the ability to research, synthesise, critically evaluate and draft your work that has got you this far, will continue to stand you in good stead.

3. Seek feedback often.

Helen has touched on this, but I learnt a valuable lesson by not doing this. After great feedback for my introduction, I ploughed on with the rest of my dissertation. By the time I  next asked for my supervisor’s two penneth, I was two chapters in, a good way through the third and going in the wrong direction. Panic ensued. Essentially I was afraid of straying far from what  my research proposal had outlined, whereas the actual dissertation was developing in a way I hadn’t envisaged. One email from my supervisor made this clear, and I was back on track, although severely waylaid and with a massive re-write ahead of me. My failure to ask for input made the whole process ten times more stressful than it needed to be. You are assigned a supervisor for a reason, so take advantage of their expertise.

4. Don’t be preoccupied with other people’s progress.

You are writing a different dissertation to everyone else. Little good will come from knowing that a fellow student is a week away from early dissertation submission, while you haven’t got beyond chapter 2. This will only freak you out! Focus on your own schedule, not anyone else’s.

5. Fear is galvanising.

I should know.  In a panic ridden state, I essentially produced an entire MA dissertation in 3 weeks. I would not advise you to follow suit, but know that a little panic brings focus. For me at least, a looming deadline sharpened my analysis and helped me get to the point.  I felt that I wrote more succinctly and deftly,  but I didn’t have time for anything else. This is not advocating leaving things to the last minute, but if things do go off track, all is not lost!

*Mini tip relevant to dissertations of all disciplines: Once your dissertation is bound and submitted, resist the temptation to re-read it.  You will find a typo somewhere, it will annoy you hugely,  and it’s too late to fix. Put the dissertation down!

GOOD LUCK!

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7 comments on “Top Tips: ‘Mastering’ your MA/MSc Dissertation

  1. gemmahistory
    September 17, 2013

    Fantastic tips, thank you. I shall be re-reading these once I get going on my MA dissertation!

  2. gemmahistory
    September 17, 2013

    Reblogged this on Gemmahistory and commented:
    Fantastic tips for anyone writing a dissertation. Best of all…you CAN take a break every so often!

  3. Pingback: CILIP New Professional’s Day & MNLPN |

  4. Thanks for sharing your views. This is really awesome and I hope that it will be much helpful for me in improving my Dissertation Writing Services skills.

  5. Pingback: Writing a Master’s Dissertation – useful resources | Angela Gallagher-Brett

  6. davenof
    November 15, 2015

    Thank you for the tips and inspiration. I hope to share my pains and success when I’m done with my breath-taking thesis.

  7. Pingback: Dissertation Research | lenaslifelearning

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This entry was posted on July 8, 2013 by in Top Tips and tagged , , , , .

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