This blog was created as part of the Erasmus Mundus Crossways in Cultural Narratives Masters programme, which is the only one of the EU approved and funded Erasmus Mundus Masters programmes to specialise in traditional humanities with a modern languages background. The Crossways Consortium comprises 6 top-class European universities.

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Sunday, 19 July 2009

Dissertation-writing Tips

by Poonam Ganglani
Dealing with Common Dissertation Difficulties
I’ve put together a few pointers that might help some of you deal with the dissertation if it’s still ahead, based my own experience of dissertationing this last semester. Many of the ideas here are just my opinions on the research process. They may or may not be useful, depending on the methods of study that personally work best for you, and of course the subject of your dissertation. A theory of a co-Mundus dissertationer is that we’re either better as marathoners or sprinters when it comes to the dissertation. I’d say these tips are more along the lines of the marathon method, but they might contain some helpful ideas in general!

1. Confronting the Dissertation
A common problem is the tendency to think of the dissertation as a mammoth task looming closer, making it difficult to even confront it and start organizing for it. A co-Mundus dissertationer and I came up with a solution that greatly helped us throughout the whole process: first things first, demystify the dissertation. The words ‘FINAL DISSERTATION’ are drilled into our heads from day one, perhaps making it seem more threatening than it really is. I was able to start concrete work on my dissertation the minute I decided to perceive it in the same way that I think of a dossier. Think of each chapter as an essay that you need to hand in for one of your courses, and plan your draft accordingly. It might help crossing the most basic barrier of dissertation-dread.

2. How Much Reading?
It’s difficult to decide how much to read, since there’s always more to be learned about the subject. At the same time, it could be dangerous to go on reading indefinitely and without planning — firstly, because you might end up with a more horizontal rather than a vertical knowledge about your subject; and secondly, because you might have less time than you need for the writing process later on, which could become very stressful. I was overwhelmed by the amount of reading I had to do and so developed a plan of action: I organized my reading list by order of importance, and then gave myself a deadline to complete the reading for each chapter. I almost never finished the planned reading by the deadline, but put it aside anyway to begin the writing. This really helped, and gave me better direction while doing intermittent readings later on.

3. Getting Started with the Writing Process
Okay, so you’ve done all the reading, you’re in front of your computer or with pen and paper in hand, ready to start writing…and your mind draws a blank. Sound familiar? Don’t worry if it does, I think this happens to almost everyone at some point. I spent hours sometimes, staring at blank MS Word pages, or coming up with one paragraph at the end of a whole day (and then re-writing it the next). I finally realized what the problem was: the flow of my thoughts was being disrupted by my attempt to simultaneously structure them on paper. It might help to set structure aside when you’re before the screen or paper for the first time. Just pen down whatever your initial thoughts are about the subject, even if it’s haphazard and without any academic form — this will help just getting the ideas out. You can then approach the same text, refine it, and structure your ideas more academically.

4. Thematic or Methodological Framework?
When writing, you usually have a rough skeletal framework in mind around which you structure other thoughts and ideas. Some tend to use the methodology as the larger framework, and then try and fit in the theme of study into the theory. Sometimes however, it might help to try things the other way around: approach your theme of study directly, without being hindered by the need to fit it all within a theoretical framework. Once you have your core ideas down, it will be easier to integrate the theoretical notions where appropriate.

5. The Introduction
As a basic guide, you could try and answer four questions in your introduction: 1.What is the broader context in which the research is based? 2. What theme in particular will the research investigate and what is your objective in undertaking this study? (You could also mention what the research does not aim to pursue, i.e., delimit your objectives). 3. From which methodological perspective will this be considered? 4. And finally, how will the study be organized/divided throughout the dissertation? You could also use the introduction to discuss the research process, particularly if you have some personal thoughts to express about the challenges faced during your research experience. Also, it might help to re-write or refine your introduction once you’ve completed the other chapters, since by then you’d have a more global perspective of your own work.

6. Creative Writing and Thinking
The foremost objective of writing a dissertation is of course, to express your ideas clearly and crisply. However, apart from being a scholarly work, the dissertation is also a piece of aesthetic writing. I liked to think of my dissertation as a challenge in creative writing in addition to its academic dimension (This is just my opinion, and I know that many students feel otherwise). It might help to maintain a vocabulary list. I regularly noted down interesting words and phrases that randomly came to mind over the two years, and integrated some of them into my work, which really helped enhance my writing style.
To get some creative ideas flowing, it sometimes helps to think aloud, either to yourself or to your friends. Exchanging ideas with a colleague during a general conversation could help give you perspectives that you never considered earlier— some that the other person expresses, and others that you spontaneously come up with when talking aloud.

7. Cite, Don’t Cite, or Stereotype?
I am quoting this directly from some writing tips provided by one of my professors in Sheffield. This was of huge help in helping decide whether or not to cite a certain piece of information:
‘When you present a fact or statement, decide whether you need to cite it or not, and whether or not it’s a stereotype. Cite ALL quotes (from the text that you are writing about, as well as from secondary sources. If you present a fact that you didn’t know before reading it in a book, cite it (even if you aren’t quoting anything directly).

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was partly inspired by a clipping from a small-town newspaper in Mississippi.” CITE
“Brick, one of the central characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is an alcoholic.” DON’T CITE [However, it’s wise to cite information that is mentioned only once or twice in the text. For example, it might be worth citing a page number for the information that Brick missed his football team’s Thanksgiving game because of a spinal injury (Act 1, p. 43).]
“Modern theatre audiences are much harder to shock than Elizabethan audiences were.” Stereotype

8. Some Useful Links and Books

- For guidelines on research ethics:

- For laws of copyright: (I thought this link was helpful, although there may be many better ones)
- For Research Methods:
‘The Research Student’s Guide to Success’ by Pat Cryer, Open University Press, 1996.