The most important Dissertation tips you’ll ever hear!

The wet and windy day, shown in the picture above, was the day when my dissertation finally finished. I had submitted it two months previously and began research on it thirteen months before that, but finally I got to hold it proudly – along with my first-class degree and my Stirling Guildry Award for highest awarded score in a British or Scottish history topic.

A few key tactics had a tremendous influence on how successful my dissertation was in thoroughly covering the subject area.

I will share them with you now.


  1. Wording of your dissertation title:

In late January 2016, I was faced with finalising the final wording of my official dissertation title. Some of my peers were not so concerned with this seemingly innocuous task when there seemed to be far more important jobs to do.

But be under no illusions, the most critical factor in gaining a higher mark in any piece of work is that you answer the question. So you must look at the scope of the evidence you have obtained, and can obtain in the future, and decide where to set the boundaries of your topic. Therefore, the working of your dissertation can make the different between a comprehensive assessment and an almost-comprehensive assessment.


  1. Cultivate a strong relationship with your supervisor:

Although you have to conduct the research and writing yourself, your supervisor plays an essential role in guiding you in the right direction. Remember that they will have seen the mistakes made by students before and will be able to help you to avoid the pitfalls that have caught out previous students.

I met several of my peers who were so concerned about being a nuisance to their supervisor or stepping over boundaries that they emailed them less than 10 times during the entire dissertation period.

Even if you do contact your supervisor too much, or overstep some boundary, that is always better than coming to them too little. The last thing your supervisor wants is for your dissertation to stall or fall apart.

The best advice I can give for getting the answers you want from a busy supervisor is to send one email with the precise questions which you have built up during a research or writing session. If that means keeping an email draft and then sending it off in time for your supervisor to answer the next day, well then it is still more helpful then keeping silence.


  1. Make each chapter cohesive and absolutely related to your question:

Keep a one paragraph thesis statement (see guide) about what exactly you are trying to prove in your research. Then you can make a similar thesis for each of your chapters, or different sections of your research chapter(s), so it becomes easier to appreciate the logical flow of your argument and which parts need to be altered or filled in with extra evidence or analysis.


  1. Cross-reference the evidence for guidance:

Cross-referencing evidence is what allows you to successfully compose a strong argument. If you haven’t done so already, then take your largest source of evidence and highlight the patterns which occur for the particular debate that you are concentrating on.

Once you have started with the largest source of evidence then it will be easier to use the smaller ones to reinforce or contradict your findings from the first source.

When you infer something from cross-referencing evidence then you should write it as a chunk of text, with the evidence included, which you could then cut and paste into your dissertation. It is also a great solution to writer’s block.

After completing this process what I ended up with were large Word Documents – easy to find on my computer, pen drives, and Google Drive – which contained the original notes I had taken as well as clearly distinguished small paragraphs with conclusions that I could cut and paste into my dissertation. Then I could supplement and alter them based on evidence which I came across in other sources.


  1. Look at archives outside the immediate location:

For my history dissertation I studied the unique success of the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow after 1931, which did not occur in any other location. However, due to the small amount of surviving materials which relate only to the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow, I searched for other perspectives, such as materials on the national Independent Labour Party as well as local Glasgow branches of rival political parties.

In addition to looking at the Mitchell Library’s extensive collections on the Glasgow branches, I visited the London School of Economics, the Peoples’ History Museum in Manchester, the Scottish Labour History Society, Local History Groups in Glasgow, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, as well as online archives such as British Newspapers, 1600-1950.

I always emailed archivists in advance for their recommendations. This was a crucial tactic for me in scraping back extra marks onto my final grade, because I was able to locate evidence which had only arrived days before and was not listed on the official records yet.


  1. Ask experts in the field about the most up-to-date texts:

Once you locate the most comprehensive or recent texts on your particular topic area, or related to a particular part of your topic area, it is a good idea to contact the author to ask them about their opinion on what is the most comprehensive and up-to-date research on the topic. It will be easy enough to locate their email address on their university profile page. Make sure that you state your exact question and area of study, because they might be able to tell you some more specific useful texts in addition to answering your specific question.


  1. Double and triple check your references and bibliography:

The referencing and final bibliography might seem relatively unimportant, and it is for that exact reason why many people waste good marks by neglecting it. A dissertation which has taken you months can be read by your marker in less than an hours, so it will not be difficult for them to notice mistakes in the referencing.

If you have a referencing guide for your subject, then by the time you have submitted your dissertation you should know it off my heart. Some things to look out for are whether your in-text references or footnotes and supposed to be the same as in your bibliography, and what they expect you to write as a reference if you are citing the same source more than once.


  1. Give your dissertation to both an “outsider” and an “insider” for review:

I became so accustomed to my own writing style that I would miss obvious mistakes. If possible, have your work read by different people. It serves different benefits to have your work looked over by an “outsider”, meaning someone who hasn’t studied your subject, and an “insider”, meaning someone who has.

An insider will focus more on the spelling and grammar, and will also be able to advise you if it is overly elaborate and confusing, because you want to convey your argument immediately and decisively. An outsider will be able to analyse the more acute points related to your subject. However, it is naturally better to select an insider who is not studying the same area as you, so that neither of you are tempted to adjust your own work based on the other persons’ work.


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