15 – 20 September 2012. This is the deadline for handing in most Master’s dissertations/theses in the UK. That gives you 5 months. No problem, right? All you need to do right now is finish your papers for the spring term, take a bit of time off and then start reading for your dissertation in late July. Right? Wrong. If you go about it that way, you’ll find yourself hard up against your deadline in September.
Here are my tips for getting your Master’s dissertation/thesis in on time:
1. Get organised.
First, organise your notes. You’ve taken a bucketload of notes and now it’s time to find out which ones apply to your chosen topic. Sit down, read, create a file and copy all the relevant information into that file. By doing this, you will not only remind yourself about what you’ve studied, you will also create connections between ideas that at first seem disparate.
Next, place your notes or resources under category headings. For example, if you are writing about the revolutionary impact of graffiti in 1970s New York, you may want to consider category headings like: the economic climate of post 1960s New York, the history of racial tension in New York City, the impact of street culture on dominant culture, the history of graffiti style, etc.
Finally, whenever you find new information, categorise it using your system. This will help you to clearly see what information you have and what you still need to find. It will also, and this is important enough to say twice, help you to make connections between different resources.
2. Research and narrow.
Once you’ve organised what you know, compile a list of what you don’t know. Make the list narrow (i.e. focus on a few relevant topics). Try not to get distracted by covering everything on your list. You might find that one topic, when adequately covered, provides enough material for your entire dissertation/thesis.
Not sure where to begin your research? Start with the electronic databases relevant to your field (MLA for Modern Languages, SSN for Social Sciences, etc). If you’re unsure where to look, ask your university’s librarian. He or she will point you in the right direction. These databases offer a broad view of the current debates taking place on your subject. They also provide you with an understanding of the primary texts other academics are using.
3. Create a Bibliography.
As you research, build a bibliography/works cited page. Format your bibliography pages in the style guide you are expected to use for your dissertation. Do this now and you will save yourself time and anxiety later.
Do not wait until you have finished your research to begin writing because your research will never be ‘finished’. Write every day. You may want to divide up your time consistently each day. I tended to write in the mornings and read in the afternoons when I was doing my thesis.
Writing every day not only helps you meet your deadline, it also clarifies the originality of your argument. Being clear about what you want to argue will give you confidence about your writing. Soon enough, you will find that the joy of writing a research paper is discovering the originality of your own ideas.
5. Rewrite and edit.
This final stage is the most ignored and the most important. Rewriting is more than simply checking for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Rewriting requires you to read over your text carefully, looking for gaps in your argument, false statements and possible errors in attributing references (i.e. plagiarism).
First, consider the organisation of your paper. Ask yourself the following: does one idea lead clearly onto the next?; are the transitions smooth?; do the introduction and conclusion make the originality of the paper clear?; have you supported your claims adequately?
Next, consider how your sentences are structured. No one wants to read a 15,000 word dissertation composed entirely of five line sentences. Nor do they want to read only short, staccato sentences. You want your examiner to enjoy your work! Sentence length is fundamental to capturing the attention of your reader. Make sure you mix it up and give it texture. Use short sentences to accentuate a point. Use long and medium length sentences to inform.
Finally, have someone else read your work! None of us are brilliant at editing our own work. If you do not have a friend or a relative who you trust to read your paper, give us (thewritinglaboratory.co.uk) a try. Our tutors can guide you through every stage of the writing process. We can, for instance, offer comments about the quality of your argument or help to make sure you have not unintentionally plagiarised. We can also proofread and edit your text. If you include the code ‘AprilMayJune’ in your order, you will receive 10% off whichever service you choose.
I hope you have found this article helpful. I will be back in two weeks time with an in-depth look into how to research effectively.