31 May 2021
It is an understatement to say that the dissertation is not always an easy ride. Many before you, my friends, and myself included, have experienced the endless all-nighters and the stress of nearly-missed deadlines. We have forgotten the things you should not forget, made the mistakes you should not make, and messed up the things you should not mess up.
Here is probably the greatest advantage of not going first: you can learn from our mistakes, and hopefully manage your time a little better than we did. From someone who is now on the other side, here are my top tips to avoid the last-minute panic and the "I am never gonna finish that thing" moments.
1. Do not forget the training for your research method
Based on your experience, some methods might require you to learn new formulas, adapt to programmes you have never used before, or understand tools that you did not even know existed.
While that sort of training is wonderful for skills development, it also needs to be taken into consideration when managing your time. I have seen it first-hand: watching YouTube tutorials on how to use Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) to extract data from your survey at 02:00, ten days before the deadline, is no fun.
Before you even start digging into your literature, have a chat with your supervisor about what you will need to know when it comes to your method and data analysis, and plan enough time to learn and train if needed.
2. Have a step-by-step plan for gathering your materials
What if you have prepared everything for your interviews, but suddenly no one is available to be interviewed?
The answer is: it is not good.
Even before you start your literature review, write down a list of every step that is needed to gather your materials, evaluate the time that each step will require, and factor in the possible obstacles that might arise.
For example, interviews will require you to contact each participant individually with a proposed time, which they might reject. Re-scheduling is not a problem if you have contacted them well in advance, but it is a whole other thing when the deadline is dangerously approaching.
Set out a plan early on, and involve your supervisor — they have plenty of experience with gathering materials.
3. Get those references out of the way
Let us be honest: referencing is a pain, and you would rather be doing the dishes than trying to figure it out. But the sooner you get those references organised, the less likely you are to find yourself having to spend hours chasing articles later.
I personally created a separate document where I systematically noted down, in the correct style and alphabetical order, the references to all the articles that I was reading straight after I had read them. It is annoying in the short term, but very much worth it in the long run. It’s also quite useful to get an overview of the different sources you are using.
4. Remember that the dissertation is not a 24/7 job
It might be easy to lose touch with the outside world during the dissertation period (what day is it again?), but it is important to treat the dissertation just as you would any job.
For some, it might work well to see the dissertation as a 9 to 5 job, and to unwind during the evenings and weekends. Others might prefer to work on it every day, but only for half of the day. Whatever your preferred approach, remember to schedule time to get some fresh air and unwind; it might even help to note it down in your calendar.
The dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint.
5. Listen to your productivity pattern
You know that moment when you have had the same article open on your laptop for three hours and have no idea what it is even about, because you have been scrolling through Instagram looking at cute puppies all this time?
It happens to the best of us, and over the whole length of the dissertation, it can happen quite a lot. It is unrealistic to expect that you will be able to maintain the same level of focus throughout the entire day, every single day, for three months.
Take the time to analyse your moments of peak productivity (by keeping a productivity log for a few days, for instance) and schedule your tasks accordingly.
Do not force yourself to read an article at the end of the day if you know your concentration is at its lowest point around that time. Move on to organising your notes instead.
You can also research tools and techniques that can help with your concentration, such as Pomodoro or Forest, and ask your peers for their own techniques.
6. Avoid the trap of comparison
Some of your peers may work faster, appear more organised, and some may even finish two or three weeks before you do. The opposite may also be true: you might be miles ahead of them, and feel like you are missing something, or skipping steps.
But remember: your research is different from theirs, and so is your working pace/method. Some might decide to explore a theoretical framework in-depth, and therefore need to spend more time on their literature review, while others might be looking to do something brand new, and instead spend more time on their data gathering and analysis.
Some people might like to work fast on a first draft and spend time correcting everything later, while others might prefer to take their time and not have many corrections in the end.
My advice: if you are stressing about your time management, do not discuss it with your friends, go to your supervisor instead. They know your research, they will be able to tell you if you need to worry.
While some tips might seem obvious, it is easy to lose track of these simple things once you are lost in your dissertation.
Remember to take a step back at some point, and adjust your time management if needed.
Do not forget to reach out to your friends, family, supervisor, personal tutor, or coach if you are struggling: with all those brains working together, you are much more likely to find a solution. And make sure you do not overlook your own wellbeing, nothing is ever worth that.
Best of luck with the dissertation: I will see you on the other side soon!
Sophie is a graduate from the MSc in Marketing programme at the University of Edinburgh Business School