Researching and writing a dissertation in a pandemic

Sophia Lamberton 28 July 2021
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Choosing, writing, and researching a dissertation is a tall order at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Find out how to manage the workload.

Some of you will commence your final year at uni soon, meaning it’s time to consider a dissertation topic. Speaking from experience, it can be hard starting what is probably the biggest project you’ve undertaken so far, especially off the back of 18 pandemic-stricken months. Here’s some advice on how to get started:

Choosing a topic

Choosing a topic that intrigues you should be the first step you take. You’ve got to write around 10,000 words, and you’ll be working on it across multiple semesters, so you don’t want to choose something that you’ll get bored of. I chose my dissertation topic by creating a mind map of subjects that I’d like to learn more about and considering my favourite modules at uni.

Something important to consider is the accessibility of the sources you want to use. If you need to visit a library, archive, museum, or another site, be sure to secure the material you need as soon as possible in case they close due to unforeseen circumstances. Always have a backup plan!

Check which topics your course leaders will be willing to supervise before you start writing your proposal, as it will save you a lot of time further down the line.

Beginning your research

The past year has taught us to expect the unexpected. My advice would be to start as early as possible on researching your chosen topic to avoid being sidelined by any unforeseen circumstances. If you need to isolate, you won’t be able to access non-digitised sources. However, on the plus side, isolation can also be a good time to be productive.

One of the best things to come out of the pandemic is the range of sources, archives, collections, and e-books that are now available for people to access from home. I’ve found some fantastic websites and collections held by institutions from across the world that I’ve used for my research. When it comes to accessing collections online, my advice would be to be organised, save anything you’ll find useful, and keep track of your references. Sometimes you won’t be able to access websites and collections if you go back to them later, so this is a good way to save time and avoid unnecessary stress.

Writing your dissertation

Once you’ve got most of your research done, the challenge is selecting the essential information to include. Ten thousand words seem like a lot, but trust me, once you start writing, it goes very quickly!

Again, the key here is to start as early as possible, especially as you’ll have so many other things to do like module assessments and graduate job applications. If you start writing earlier in the academic year, then you’ll also have more time to fill in any gaps in your research and make any changes that you need to if you’ve been unable to access a particular source.

My advice for the writing would be to break the process down into manageable chunks. Make a timetable and check for any deadlines set by your supervisor in case you need to have a chapter written by a specific date. You can always tell your supervisor if you get stuck or have any mitigating circumstances. 

I hope this guide helps you to get started. Good luck to everyone starting their dissertations!

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Sophia Lamberton 28 July 2021