Dissertations: How to choose a topic

It’s been a little while now since I handed in my dissertation so I’ve had a bit of room to think about the process and evaluate what I got from it. Whilst it’s still fairly fresh in my mind I want to write a little about my experience of the process and in doing so I hope to reassure and help other students approaching their final year projects.

Having asked around on a few of my social media accounts the most common question that has come up is ‘How to choose a topic?’ so that is what I will focus on for this post. If after reading you have any more queries do feel free to ask.

Looking back I can remember how daunting it seemed at the beginning of the autumn semester – I had to write 8000 words on a topic that was completely unspecified. There were no instructions, no models, just ‘go!’ (like the final Great British Bake Off challenge when they were asked to ‘make a Victoria sponge’ without a recipe).

When I opted to do a dissertation I had no idea what I was going to write on, I just knew that I wanted the experience of doing one and the independence and research skills that I knew it would bring.

The best advice I was given on choosing a topic was to look at the modules that I wished I could have taken but couldn’t fit into my timetable or weren’t on offer this year.

In essence: what would your dream module be?

I took this one step further and started looking at the course catalogues of other universities and seeing what they offered. It was whilst browsing the website of King’s College London that I came across a module about Medievalism. As the start of a dissertation topic it was perfect for me; it allowed me to combine my two favourite modules: Romanticism and Medieval Writing.

I then began reading general texts around the area until I began to get a feel for the field. I noticed what ideas kept reoccurring, what was treated as gospel, and which writers/texts were most closely associated with it.

This eventually led me to choose Keats and his vision of the medieval as the topic for my research. He was a well-known figure who I loved but whose medievalism hadn’t been fully explored (in my opinion at least).

Throughout this process I was in continual discussion with my supervisor. Along with being a fantastic champion and all round morale booster my dissertation supervisor was able to help me get a feel of what was the right size for the range of my work. 8000 words seems a lot at the start but as I soon found out you run out of space very quickly. So rather than trying to cover ALL of Keats’s poems which utilised medieval aesthetics I instead chose just two texts – and even then I struggled to keep myself under the word limit.

Although committing to a dissertation topic is daunting it should also be exciting. It’s a chance to spend a term researching something you love. And remember, however overwhelming it may feel at the start, you will be fine. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually you’ll look back to see you have climbed a mountain – or written a 8000 word dissertation at least!

diss-and-me

Everyone needs a photo of them posing with their diss before handing it in

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‘Know thyself’

Confession time: Up until the age of about seventeen, I saw revision as fairly optional.

I’ve always been one of those prats who is content to rest on their laurels until about three weeks before the exam and then frantically work to catch up. Unfortunately for me this largely worked, and it wasn’t until Year 12 results day that I got the kick in the teeth which had been a long time coming.

University, however, is a whole new ball game.

Even on modules which are 100% assessed at the end of the term, it is very difficult to coast. If you don’t do the required reading then you won’t really understand the lecture in full and seminars become a tedious task when you have nothing to bring to the table. So figuring out where and when you work best is very important.

#TheWhen

Personally, I work best between about 11 am and 2 pm. I realise this probably sounds like a very dull thing to have spent time working out, but when you have a stack of reading to do it’s important to take into account the chances that you will fall asleep at your desk if you try to keep going until midnight. There’s also a significant difference between reading something and actually processing it. Any reading done after eleven at night has a tendency to go in one ear and out the other with me.

#TheWhere

I’ve tried studying in the library. I really have – but for some reason it just doesn’t appeal to me. I usually only study in the library if I want to eliminate all distractions and power through a piece of work, but as you might have guessed, that’s not really my style. For me, my essays come together best when I give myself adequate dithering time. I type two hundred words or so then go and make some toast or make a cup of tea, then I come back and tap away a few more hundred words, etc. This dithering time lets me organise my ideas better, but it’s a bit annoying for the person sitting next you in the library, so I do most of my work in my room.

(I have also tried studying in Unio, the union run café, but other people’s conversations are often more exciting than essays on literary realism, however hard you try to concentrate.)

#TheMotivators

Beyond the obvious (getting a good degree), it’s important to have small motivators to keep you working when you’d much rather be in the union bar. This can range from allowing yourself to take a break every hour to watch funny cat vines, to finding that 80’s playlist that gets you pumped. Each to their own.

This probably all sounds rather dull, I know that 17 year old me didn’t care about such things. But once you get to university it’s vital to understand how you work if you want to keep on top of all your work. And because frankly, it makes your life a lot easier, which is what all students want right?

So, to steal one of the Delphic oracles maxims; ‘Know thyself’.