How can I attain a good mark for my dissertation?
March 2, 2006 11:08 AM   Subscribe

I've got 10,000 words of a dissertation to write in 30 days. It's an undergraduate dissertation, but I really, really, need a II:I (2:1, II:1) or above. Please see inside for more information! Thanks!

Can people who've gone through this process offer any insight or tips on
a) how to write a really good dissertation in a short space of time
b) what markers are looking for in a dissertation (own/original voice, etc)
c) best practices for:
i) organising myself (e.g. should I stick to a strict timetable?)
ii) organising my notes (e.g. should I buy VoodooPad?)

Thank you all very much in advance!
posted by dance to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What department? And what's your subject?
posted by rxrfrx at 11:09 AM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: Answer to both questions: Archaeology.
posted by dance at 11:14 AM on March 2, 2006

Start with the obvious/easy stuff and the more intimidating stuff will follow. I'm not sure how much original evidence you're presenting, but it should go something like this:

Methods, results, introduction, abstract, conclusion, revise abstract, revise results, revise conclusion, revise introduction, revise abstract.
posted by rxrfrx at 11:19 AM on March 2, 2006

Archaeology isn't a subject, or at least not nearly specific enough of one. What's your paper actually about?

Some general hints I've found useful for working longer projects, combining stuff I knew in University, with stuff I learned at work:

- Break it down and plan it out. Give yourself x days to do background reading, Y days to outline your central thesis and Z days to actually write the paper, followed by ZZPluralZAlpha days to edit it.
- Break down anything more than 4-5 days long into finer gradations and plan those, too. So if you're leaving yourself 15 days to write, you might set a per day word count, or some milestones along the way.
- Don't procrastinate past your self-imposed deadlines. If you're working hard and you don't make them, you may have to rejig your plan with your new timeline in mind, but don't just let yourself slack past the dates you've set.
- Leave lots of time for editing at the end, especially when it comes to setting your footnotes.

In terms of organizing notes, I find it most helpful to have them on small, independent pieces of paper. Ones you can keep track of, but reorder. To this end, I find the notebook pages filler in a refillable organizor or other small binder quite useful. You can write notes, with references each on a single page and move them about as you try to structure the outline of your argument.

And a final thought on the actual writing of the paper. A lot of time you get bogged down in 'How am I going to say XYZ?' If you're spending a lot of time looking for the perfect words, just write down XYZ in the same words you're using to ask yourself 'How am I going to say XYZ?' and move on. If they don't work (and chances are they will, and you're just looking for longer, more intellectual sounding words) you can fix them after your first draft.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:23 AM on March 2, 2006

10, 000 words is about 40 pages. I'm assuming you'll have a bibliography and/or works cited (the latter would be kosher from an MLA/American context, my British protocol is rusty, but it's similar, no?), a cover page, and table of contents. These all "count," but honestly with a month left, you should be ok.

But it sounds like you don't even have a topic yet--that's bad. There's a lot of pressure to be original and innovative in a project like this. Don't succumb to it. It's an exercise in amateur (best sense of the word) scholarship. Presumably, you have good profs--you are not going to change the way they look at anything. Your job is to demonstrate an ability to sift through existing primary and secondary material, and synthesize it into appropriate jargon (best sense of the word).

You're already off-track re: "should I buy this, should I organize a table." You need to hunt down a prof and at the very least run your ideas by her (again, my own educational experience was American--I met with a prof weekly over the course of a semester to do a 60-page honors thesis my senior year of college).

Here ya go, from my experience--No alcohol. No drugs. No parties. These can be hard to avoid, so give yourself incentives--I'll go out and get plastered only if I get five pages written. A girlfriend/boyfriend is harder to write off, but again--incentives. You only get to hang out with him/her if you plow through three significant sources and find at least five relevant, quotable passages.

And don't screw yourself like many of my friends did, re: editing. Just because you hit your word/page length, your job is just beginning. You need to edit, edit, edit the thing--it will take more than one all-nighter. I'd give yourself at least a week.

Heh. I miss college. I worked a hell of a lot harder on my undergrad thesis than I did to get an MA, for what it's worth. Good luck!
posted by bardic at 11:26 AM on March 2, 2006

Can't really speak to the rest, but Voodoo Pad is the best thing to happen to my research/note-taking. It's $25. Downright cheap for an app I keep open all day, every day.
posted by stet at 11:34 AM on March 2, 2006

What about this involves a short space of time?

If your question was how to research it I'd understand, but writing 10,000 words in 10 days shouldn't be a problem for anyone who's [almost] done a BA or BSc, writing 10,000 words in 30 days leaves me with only one question - how to fill your free time?!

If you're 30 days from the deadline and don't have a topic then what you need is a hardcore research schedule. Simple answer there: go to the library (or another location where you WILL study) every day. 6-7 days a week. If you skip one day go twice as long the next.
posted by tiamat at 11:44 AM on March 2, 2006

Presumably you were supposed to start in October? What went wrong? Avoid whatever it was.
posted by A189Nut at 12:11 PM on March 2, 2006

If it were me, I'd spend 20 of the 30 days doing research -- trying get through a book a day. If that's impossible, a book every two days. That's still 10 books.

I'd keep lists of key points from each book with page-number references.

Last 10 days:

Day 1) Write an outline.
Day 2) Write 10 pages.
Day 3) Write 10 pages.
Day 4) Write 10 pages.
Day 5) Write 10 pages.
Days 6-10) Revise 10 pages a day.

Frankly, I can write 40 pages in one day. So my real schedule would probably be:

Day 1) Write outline.
Day 2) Write first draft.
Day 3) Revise.
Days 7-10) Goof off.

(Or, if I'm procrastinating, it would be the same schedule but in reverse. Goof off first and then do the paper in the last three days.)

Research is the key. People often get writer's block because they haven't laid down the foundation.
posted by grumblebee at 12:28 PM on March 2, 2006

My best tip is: Don't get bogged down in a beginning-to-end model. Don't think you have to start on page 1 and write straight through to page 40.

Some of the best bits of my thesis came about when I had an idea as I was writing, jotted it down, and then came back to it later. I often thought of something I should have said earlier, or might not need to say til page 35, but you need to write it when you think of it.
posted by griffey at 12:40 PM on March 2, 2006

Well, I can give you some indication of what a 2:1 means pragmatically, at least in terms of the dissertation grade [I assume that your final degree report will take exams into account as well, which complicates this calculus a bit.]. Oh, and be aware that this is only my experience in reading and evaluating dissertations, and is therefore representative of a small-ish sample.

A dissertation that reflects good research and that takes all its cues from the literature will earn a 2:1 at best, but more likely a 2:2. Essentially, this is the score for a dissertation that shows an understanding of what is taking place in the field but nothing beyond that. A First shows an ability to take current literature and extend its direction, either theoretically, methodologically, or analytically. You'll need to show substantial original thinking and insight to score a First. Lots of original dissertations that have problems elsewhere will receive 2:1s, as well.

If your exams were good (2:1 level), you'll need a 2:1. If you had great exams (mostly Firsts), you'll need a 2:2. Otherwise, you'll need to score a First on the dissertation to pull yourself up to a 2:1.

At this late stage, I think your only real hope is to focus on some original idea you have had and bear down hard on that.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:48 PM on March 2, 2006

Huh: I disagree with a lot of this advice (I'm a graduate student in literature, as an aside).

1. You cannot speed up writing. Writing is hard, it takes time, and it is thinking. You need to write, re-write, and re-write again. So: start writing now. Give yourself at most one week to read and "research" and then begin your writing. You may throw out a lot, but it will help you clarify your ideas if, like me, you think on paper. Write a page a day for 20 days starting ASAP, and then fit your ongoing research into the document you have already started.

2. Get in touch with your professor / advisor as soon as you have a topic and talk with them. If you are writing your thesis while also talking with a professor and reading widely, your finished product will have a sense of intellectual growth, motion, and discovery. If you wait until the last moment to begin writing and base your work only upon your reading, your finished product will be static, boring, and overdetermined.

3. Don't set out an unrealistic writing plan for yourself that is over-specific and narrowly focused. Write what you feel most knowledgeable and interested in and let your essay come together in an organic and genuine fashion. A few days before it's due, you'll have a sense of how to connect and organize.

4. Remember that 10,000 words is actually extremely short. In that space, you will be able to treat a fairly narrow topic in a thorough and interesting way. You will not be able to write anything huge. The biggest problem students seem to have with longer essays is proportion; so talk to your professor about whether or not your subject is small enough to be treated in only 10,000 words.
posted by josh at 1:26 PM on March 2, 2006

josh has some good tips, plus I would add that you need to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and decide what is actually doable for you. If you *can't* write 40 pages in a month (I couldn't...unless I already had done my research), then you need to beg for mercy now and get an incomplete or an extension if available. Then, throw out all the writing schedules everyone gives you (unless your profs, if they do).

Also, you need to start writing *now* so that you understand what exactly it is that you really know and what you don't know. If you get, say 2,000 words in two days and a clear sense of what the next three things you need to research are, then you are less than a week down and you already have 1/5 of a rough draft. Basically, you need to be writing what you know every day, and attempting to integrate that into your diss's body.

Whatever you do, don't try to think up the paper, outline it and then write it unless you are positive that you write well like that, and from the sounds of it you don't or you wouldn't be in this mess. As you are writing your draft, if you find that you are unhappy with it, suck it up and resist editing. Make a note to come back to, that will be more text for you later.

Finally, count on rewriting the entire thing at least once (well, once since you won't have any more time than that). Get the initial text down with all its warts and then take a weekend off. After that, go back to the text and start reading and revising. Start with conceptual problems and eventually move to surface features like grammar. Remember it doesn't need to be perfect, just done with a degree of competence. But most importantly, you have to be writing it right now.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:46 PM on March 2, 2006

Spend a few days nutting out the premise or point of your dissertation. You want a handful of key points or themes you're going to explore. You should be able to summarise each of these themes in a single dot point. This is your map, and it's worth investing in. It's the 20% of your effort that will give you 80% of your result. Without it, you'll be writing all over the place, and you'll put 80% of your time into rewriting trying to make your dissertation a cohesive whole.

After that, write every day. Set aside a time and a couple of hours, pick a point, and flesh it out. Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you've told them. Cite frequently, but paraphrase with your own voice - less than 10% of your work should be direct quotes. My postgrad work is on public sector leadership, so it's easy for me to present a view, contrast with dissenting views, argue a point then summarise and have 2,000 words done in the blink of an eye. Archaeology is going to be harder.

Don't think "I've got a 10,000 word dissertation to do". Think, in order:

- I'm going to set aside time to think about what my dissertation is about, and make notes;

- I'm going to summarise the key themes in punchy dot points, making sure there's something to pull them all together;

- I'm going to write an introduction where I spell out those points in a logical, linked fashion;

- I'm going to pick whichever theme I feel like writing about and write two pages on it, then take a break; repeat every two pages;

- I'm going to leave 3 days to polish and refine the raw text, making sure I have a cohesive argument or overarching theme and that this is articulated in the introduction, throughout the work, and in my conclusions.

Good luck!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:57 PM on March 2, 2006

Oh, and definitely what Josh said about discussing your topic with your professor or lecturer. You need a green light on your map - it'll do wonders for your confidence. If you're like me, 10,000 words isn't enough. I always start way to big, trying to present three themes with a handful of arguments for each. For 10,000, I suggest one topic or theme, with maybe 5 points to flesh out with 1500 words each.

A trick I learned was to set a word limit 25% lower than what you actually have, then work to that. The writing will be tight, it'll look good, and you'll be over the fake limit anyway. It's much easier to say "wow, I've got a spare few hundred words to talk about X, and add a bit to Y" than to try to amputate a couple of thousand words at the end and have your verbose arguments start to look flimsy.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:03 PM on March 2, 2006

...doesn't your department have all this info available for you?
posted by anglophiliated at 3:35 PM on March 2, 2006

What I did for my undergrad literature thesis:
1. Had an idea I was really interested in, found a professor who was interested broadly in the idea (i.e., the book I was focussing on, but not the line in inquiry I was taking so much).
2. Wrote at least 10 pages (or so) of close reading about the book and why I thought what I thought about it. Also biographical stuff about the author, etc.
2. Read everything on that topic. It was kind of narrow, so I didn't have that many articles (maybe 7 or 8 plus 2 books) to work with.
3. Kept notes on each article, and then after reading each one, wrote at least 2-3 pages on how it fit into my overall argument, agreed and disagreed with it. I went at a pretty fast pace with this. You can even do one-a-day or more. Also wrote the works cited as I went along.
4. Looked at the writing I had amassed (should be around 30+ at this point) and rearranged, editied, worked it until it was something. I had more time than you do to do this, but it can be done. Introduction, conclusion made up a few pages. I am really into cutting when I edit, so I lost some page count, found out about another book, read it, added it, and remassaged all over again.
5. Final proofreading and attention to protocol.

What I am currently doing for a 30 page term paper for graduate seminar:
1. I got the professor to "give" me a topic that he thought would be productive
2. With significant help from him, amassing literature.
3. Repeat steps 3-5 from above (hopefully).

If you don't have a topic, get a professor to suggest one. Some really cool ideas just don't have legs. You need something that's easy to find literature on, easy to write about.

Good luck!
posted by lalalana at 4:37 PM on March 2, 2006

My advice from my experience:

Write at most, 5.5 days a week. Use saturday night and sunday to go outside and have fun.

When its time to write, go into a room and don't come out until you have met your quota (predetermined amount or quality).

Unplug the internet. Listen to music.

Now whenever I hear song X, I think of how hard it was to write my introduction and I laugh and feel happy to be done.
posted by maxpower at 8:18 PM on March 2, 2006

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