University of Portsmouth's History Blog

‘Have faith in your abilities’: Researching and writing the dissertation

In this blog Dr Rob James, senior lecturer in history, throws light on the process of researching and writing an undergraduate dissertation. Rob specialises in researching people’s leisure practices, and teaches a number of units that focus on one of the most popular leisure pursuits of the first half of the twentieth century, going to the cinema. He would be happy to supervise students with dissertation topics that cover a broad range of topics located broadly in twentieth-century Britain.

Mentioning the word ‘dissertation’ can send a ripple of terror across many a student cohort. It is like one of the characters in the Harry Potter books and films mentioning Lord Voldemort. It’s the thing ‘that-must-not-be-named’. For students in their first year of study, it’s along way off, of course, something quite easily put to the back of the mind, but mention the word and a look or horror usually appears. For second years, it still seems like a distant task to tackle, but there is a growing fear that it is something that needs to be thought about, particularly as the year progresses. For final year students, it’s something that’s at the forefront of every student’s mind. Have a look at the blogs on this site by previous Level 6 students and they will all mention the dissertation as something that’s ever-present in their minds in the final year.

Drawing on another fantasy book and film series for a metaphorical flourish, it’s like the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. In the first year, as in the first film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy The Fellowship of the Ring, only mentioned a few times. In the second year, as in The Two Towers, always lurking in the background and becoming an increasing concern. For final year students, like Gollum in The Return of the King, on every student’s mind and deemed essential for overall success! However, there’s no need to worry. Writing a dissertation is a do-able task. Millions of students have written one before you, and millions more will continue to do so. It’s achievable, and the sense of satisfaction you’ll feel once it’s done is second to none.

Okay, the thought of writing 10,000 words on a topic does seem daunting. I remember when I was an undergraduate (here at Portsmouth) that the thought of writing that many words seemed like an impossible task. But do not fear. You will be surprised at how easy it is to begin to build up that word count. Working on a topic that you are passionate about – one that you have chosen and set the agenda on – makes the task so much easier. There are also ways to make the task seem less insurmountable. For instance, it helps to break up the dissertation into smaller chunks. Most dissertations consist of an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. If you divide that up, that’s roughly 3000 words per chapter and 1000 words for the introduction and conclusion. I am sure that makes it sound more achievable doesn’t it? You’ve got this far by writing lots of longs essays, so this is definitely something you are used to! Setting achievable targets also helps. Fix a set of deadlines across the final year to complete the work. There will be an official deadline for the dissertation draft and final submission, of course, but at the start of the year they will seem a long way off, so start by portioning out your time across the months and organise draft chapter deadlines with your tutor. A slow-but-steady approach is always recommended. Taking a boom-and-bust approach– leaving it to the very end – is always a risky thing to do and usually results in a lot of stress and a less than perfect dissertation.

In addition, you are not left to do this on your own. Yes, it’s an individual project that requires lots of independent study, but you’ll receive lots of help as you go along the way. There is so much support available to you while you work on your dissertation, and I’d advise you to make the most of it! You will be assigned a dissertation supervisor who will work with you as your project progresses. They will be there to offer advice, caution against being too ambitious, challenge you not to be overcautious, help guide you through the research and writing process, read draft chapters and give feedback – as well as providing feedback on the whole draft. Why not make the most of that opportunity? It can only pay dividends. On top of this, second year students are able to speak with their personal tutor about their ideas and receive advice on them, and later in the year are given the opportunity to speak with a specialist in their research area to get feedback on their ideas. Finally, all second years submit a proposal that will receive feedback and guidance on how to proceed with the dissertation. There are also two sites on the VLE, Moodle, to help you work your way through the various stages of the process. The first – ‘Preparing for your dissertation’ – is a must-go-to destination for all second years, offering advice on planning your research, including what to include in the proposal! The second site – ‘Writing your dissertation’ – is an invaluable resource for all final year students, offering advice on researching, writing and producing the dissertation.

So, next time you hear mention of ‘the-thing-that-must-not-be-named’, relax. You’ve achieved so much already, and all the skills you have learned and are continuing to learn as you work your way through the degree, are leading to this point. You can do it. Have faith in your abilities. We do!

With many thanks to Russ Wiiliams, second year History student, who suggested the idea of using the character of Gollum as a metaphor for the dissertation’s increasing relevance as students work their way through the degree. My cultural references would have been somewhat dated and no doubt of little relevance to the majority of you!

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