Ten Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Dissertation

The sun is out, the cheap £5 barbecue sets are flying off the shelves of Tesco faster than the store can stock them and Arsenal have just made my year by lifting the FA Cup for the first time since 2005. But amidst the liveliness of the week that has just passed, there are a group of second year students completely oblivious to the hell that awaits them during their final year. The embodiment of this so-called evil? Their final year dissertations. With that in mind, I thought that I would take this opportunity to compile a list of facts and helpful tips that I wish I knew before I started my own dissertation.

1. No need to worry over the summer – Most of my friends finished their second year and were already making plans as to what they were going to do and where they were going to go over the summer. Which is exactly what you should be doing. However, I did have a handful of friends that made it their goal to attempt to finish their dissertation over the summer break. Do not try to do that. You have an entire year to work on and finalise your dissertation. The summer should be spent researching the areas around your dissertation topic, and maybe even reading a few books that you can use as references later on.

2. Have something to show to your supervisor early on – Come late September, there was only one thing on my mind. Fresher’s Week. However, I had also worked on a mock initial report that I was able to hand in to my supervisor for feedback. In the case of the Computer Science department, you can access the templates for the Initial, Interim and Final reports at any time on the intranet. Being able to show something to your supervisor early on will help ease you into your final year at university, and you won’t be playing catch up come September time when the first batch of assessed coursework is due.

3. Plan your time – Everyone loves a good Monday night out at The Sugar Mill, Wednesday night out at Tower, Thursday at Welly, probably a Shinobi night out when it comes round on Fridays and a Saturday at Brassick. Let’s face it, we’re students, no-one expects you to constantly be stuck in the Brynmor Jones Library from 9-5 every day. But even spending a few hours every other day on your dissertation will soon add up. The amount of students that I know who attempted to get their dissertations finished within the last 2 weeks and also expected a high grade was baffling. The only way you could expect to achieve a feat like that would be if you constantly worked for 20 hours a day for a fortnight. Save yourself the hassle, start using a service like Toggl and make a plan of action as well as making time for yourself to prevent burnt out. Completing a dissertation is like eating an elephant. You can never hope to do it in one sitting. So it must be done piece by piece. Bite my bite. Over time. Don’t expect it to be anything less and just keep chewing on it.

4. Ask for feedback, and often – This is something which I wish I could have improved on a bit more if I am being honest. Your dissertation supervisor will be one of the two supervisors that will be grading your final year project, it is vital that (s)he is happy with the submitted work. Being able to handle feedback is key, and your supervisor will have marked enough dissertations to know what makes an average dissertation and what makes an exceptional piece. Taking their feedback into consideration and implementing it will be what inevitably gets you the higher mark. My supervisor told me on numerous occasions that if there was an aspect of the dissertation that he advised needed changing, and the student had not changed it, then that student’s mark would suffer.

5. Go to your supervisor meetings – My supervisor meetings were at 3:15PM. On a Tuesday. Tuesdays were my day off. There were times when these meetings seemed pointless. But hindsight is 20/20. The collective amount of knowledge that I picked up and was able to include in my dissertation far outweighs the benefits of having an afternoon nap.

6. Learn to reference – The department of Computer Science at the University of Hull has a policy whereby if your references are deemed to be unsatisfactory, your overall dissertation mark will be capped at 45%, regardless of the quality of your written content/programmed solution. Workshops are ran twice throughout the university calendar in order to aid students and teach them how to reference properly. If you are finding references too difficult to use, trying use an automatic referencing website. I used the Referencing Made Easy page by Queen’s University of Belfast, they have a feature whereby you can simply input the ISBN number of a book and it will automatically create the reference for you. Another widely used alternative website which most of my friends made use of was Neil’s Toolbox.

7. “This too shall pass” – Breaking away from the structure of this list for a brief moment, I would like to share a story that I read a few months back. It is a fable which is told by the Persian Sufi poet Sanai. There was an arrogant emperor who asked a wise man a task that he, the emperor, thought would be impossible. His request was “Bring me something to make me sad when I am happy, that also makes me happy when I am sad.” The wise man then brought the emperor a ring with the words “This too shall pass” engraved on it.  I always thought back to this story even when I was struggling along with my dissertation. Now that it is finally finished, I can just sit back and relax.

8. Printers and the binders on Newland Avenue are not your friends – If you leave the printing process of your dissertation to the last minute, make sure to be prepared to reinstall your printer drivers again. Something will definitely go wrong. The words “paper jam” will cause you to have a miniature heart attack, prepare for it. Binding is expensive. So very, very expensive. It ended up costing me £32 to have two copies of my dissertation printed out and bound, don’t forget to budget for this scenario.

9. Make backups – Seriously, make backups. Once you have made backups, then make backups of those backups. Even whilst writing this blog post, my Internet switched off whilst saving a draft of the post! But I only lost a few hundred words, primarily due to the fact that I have a weird obsession with making a ridiculous number of backups. I was having a look at my coded solution which was part of my dissertation a few days ago and I realised that for some reason it had been deleted from the default Projects folder that is created by Microsoft Visual Studio 2012. I make use of Dropbox, so this was not a serious issue at all. For anyone who does not make use of Dropbox or a similar service, I highly recommend it. There is nothing worse than knowing that your dissertation work has been wiped or deleted by accident and you have to start a section all over again.

10. You can do it – This final point is not even a tip. But it is the most important point to remember. Knowing that you can do it. I mean seriously, you’ve got this. If I can do it, you can do it. There is nothing more satisfying than finally handing in your dissertation and posting a photo of it onto Facebook. No matter how impossible the task may seem at times, just know that thousands of other students have been through the exact same thing. As long as you are well prepared, you will get there. Future students may even look at your work, you will feel proud once you have completed it.

And there you have it. My top 10 pieces of advice for students that are about to start their dissertations. It was an extremely mentally draining process, but I got through it. The only thing left to do is revise for my next two exams, and then the Honours stage of my degree will be over. Until the next blog post. Adieu.

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