University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Don’t lose your head – surviving a dissertation on King Charles I’s killers

Below, one of last year’s third-year students, Alex Symonds, gives some timely advice on how to survive writing your dissertation.  Alex’s dissertation was entitled “‘Cruel Necessity’: Understanding the Influences on the Commissioners in the Trial of Charles I”.  As Alex’s supervisor, I knew she had it in her to do very well, but my mouth dropped to floor once I began reading her work.  The dissertation was very bold in its arguments with an original central focus on humanising the regicides, as well as those chosen commissioners who chose not to sign the death warrant, who have been far less studied. Alex developed some sophisticated arguments around the role of religion in motivating individuals, the fact that several potential signees in the military were otherwise engaged preserving the uneasy peace, the concern of lawyers over the legality of the trial, and the worry amongst aldermen about how signing would look to their constituents.  Alex’s handling of the extensive historiography on the subject was particularly strong, as was her fluid writing style, and the way she structured, signposted and referenced.  Part of the problem for Alex was that she had chosen such an enormous (and enormously important) topic.  Luckily for us, Alex has decided to expand her research for an MRes with the UoP.  – Fiona McCall

This is a longer blog post, but I think this subject deserves the time, both to tell you why I’m worth listening to and not just another patronising voice, and to give you some genuinely helpful candid advice that should make you feel less alone. I can’t give you subject specific advice, but I can tell you what I needed to hear when I found myself barely surviving my dissertation.

Firstly, much like yourself dear reader, my dissertation process couldn’t have been more different from what I’d spent three years imagining. After a nightmarish final year, I found myself two weeks away from the final deferral deadline with absolutely nothing written but a failed draft of my first chapter, which despite containing some useful feedback I could only view as a haunting failure, a reminder of everything I had done wrong.

I nearly gave up. The academic year had gone wrong at every turn, and by this stage I truly felt like all I was doing was prolonging my inevitable failure, and stopping now would give me that sweet relief of a break that I so desperately needed. I was so mentally low and burnt out that redoing an entire year felt like less of a mountain than carrying on for two weeks. And for one day I stopped, had a breakdown and gave up, before realising that I’d spend every day this way if I didn’t try, and my efforts would solidify my feelings of my failure being inevitable rather than potentially my fault. So I picked myself up and decided to try.

A broadside of 1829 commemorating the martyrdom of Charles I includes portraits of those responsible, the scenes of the trial and execution, and a reproduction of the death warrant.

A broadside of 1829 commemorating the martyrdom of Charles I includes the scenes of the trial and execution, a reproduction of the death warrant, and portraits of the trial judge John Bradshaw, the regicides Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, and parliamentary general Sir Thomas Fairfax, who famously chose not to attend the trial or sign the death warrant.

And I got it done. Against the odds I finished proofreading about two hours before the deadline, realised I’d forgotten a glossary and panicked, frantically wrote said glossary and submitted with an hour left. Against even more odds I earned a first on that dissertation, and while I cannot promise you that you’ll achieve that same grade as you drag yourself across the finish line – I can promise you that you can reach that finish line, and it is so worth it. The delayed gratification of that break is bliss, and the release from the crippling self-doubt that I’m sure you’ve been battling is worth it.

My hope for this blog post is that it will motivate just one person that finds themselves in the shoes I found myself in: utterly hopeless, devoid of motivation, finding every piece of advice patronising because they weren’t the ones in this situation.

I have worn those shoes, and therefore here is my advice for surviving your dissertation, in no particular order:

  1. You are not a failure. This is less advice and more of a reminder, but I know you need to hear it. You have not let anyone down. Even if you don’t get it done and do need to redo, you are not a failure. You are human, things go wrong, and we learn; if worse comes to worst, you can use this experience to do better next time. You are not a failure.
  2. Break it down into as small chunks as possible. I knew I had fourteen days (thirteen minus my breakdown day), giving myself three days per chapter, one day for an introduction, one day for a conclusion, one day for referencing (more on this later), and 1 day for a buffer. This already made it feel significantly less scary, my 3000 word essays from the rest of the year typically took three days to write, and my chapters were shorter than that – and just like that the impossible task became possible. I broke the content of these chapters down further, 750 words a day discussing one of the main themes of that chapter; a significantly smaller mountain. Make that mountain as small as you can for yourself.
  3. Stick to your schedule. It’s hard to, but if you’re going to break it down into chunks you have to stick to them, unfortunately you don’t have time for endlessly editing. Finish the section and move on, the last thing you need is further panic because you’ve fallen off of your stable lifeline of a schedule. Working a buffer day into your schedule will make this easier; don’t plan to be flawless.
  4. Lower your standards and focus on getting it done. I know, it’s easy for me to say because I got a first, but believe me I was not aiming for one. Aim to submit something, anything, so you can say that you are done. Once you take the pressure off of yourself that high quality writing will come naturally to you. You will hit your daily word goal far quicker than you realise, giving you a feeling of success that I am sure you need, and you can focus on quality from there. Do not give yourself the self-doubt of aiming for perfection with every word.
  5. Re-read the criteria. I’m sure you think you know exactly what is expected of you. I did too, and then on my final re-read before submitting realised I forgot a glossary. That was extra stress that I didn’t need, and could have easily avoided by double checking the criteria.
  6.  Do not underestimate referencing. Giving myself a day for my referencing was the best decision I made; I needed every minute of that day. If you’ve been able to submit more of the ‘optional’ draft deadlines you might need less time as your footnotes and bibliography might be more in order – but my bibliography was non-existent and my footnotes were scribbles. Do not leave it to the last minute, the last thing you want is to finish your dissertation but be capped at 50 because you didn’t reference. I strongly recommend doing your referencing on a day you’re feeling less up for writing content, it’s monotonous enough that it provides somewhat of a mental break while still making huge progress.
  7. Reach out for help. I’m sure you’ve been putting off admitting that you need help, but I strongly recommend finally swallowing your pride. I’m sure you’ve had the Student Welfare team recommended to you before and you’ve convinced yourself into not accepting their help; they are wonderful people who will help you think rationally in this panicked time. Additionally, ask someone to help you proof-read; having another set of eyes read your work before your supervisor will help you catch silly mistakes and validate that your work is good. Swallowing your pride is worth it.
  8.  Get up and fight. You have worked too hard to give up now. It is never too late to try. Look at your previous grades: they are proof that you can do this and you are more capable than you realise. You might not feel like it right now, but your degree is worth fighting for. You are worth fighting for.

Good luck. You’ve got this. I promise it will be worth it in the end. You can survive your dissertation.

If you would like to contact me for advice, please feel free to do so: UP895045@myport.ac.uk.

If you are you are interested in reading about a dissertation which took a different perspective on King Charles I, read about Connor Scott-Butcher’s dissertation here.


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