Expert Advice on How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis

It has been shown in research that a lot of students are often uncertain about what is expected of them when they start the process of writing a thesis or a dissertation. The following writing tips and strategies have been compiled by university experts and they are designed to show students how to manage these tasks effectively. This guide also includes advice from three newly graduated students who successfully completed theses or dissertations in recent times.

Begin as early as possible

Irrespective of whether it is a thesis or dissertation you are writing, it is best to begin planning the project as soon as you possibly can. A good starting point is to carry a notebook with you at all times and write down ideas when they occur to you. Join any courses where the subject matter and the instructor’s interests match yours. Where possible, pick writing projects that you can use as a foundation for your thesis or dissertation or ones that are compatible with your goals. A little strategic planning is a great way of developing a research “stream.” Any past research papers you have written are also a good way of helping to define areas of interest and you may be able to extend your previous work into a possible topic for a dissertation.

Be Prudent in Your Choice of Advisors

The experts who helped us write this guide suggest your first consideration should be people who are known to help students succeed. To find such people, you could ask more advanced-level students about university staff who are reputed to be “high achievers” or those who are known to have a positive attitude towards higher education and student achievement. Find out which faculty members are known to be helpful to students and those who are less so.  

Secondly, you need an advisor who is attentive to your degree requirements, your dissertation or thesis project, to meeting deadlines, and to your needs as a student. Choose someone who fully understands the thesis or dissertation process, is a good communicator, and who is discerning but fair. Lastly, the advisor you choose should be experienced so this means you may want to avoid new faculty members. The best advisors are likely to be those members who have previously served on dissertation committees.

Be Prudent in Your Choice of Supervisory Committee    

Generally speaking, a dissertation supervision committee is made up of three or maybe four extra faculty staff. You should again consider those who have a good reputation for helping students prepare for graduation and who enjoy good levels of cooperation with fellow faculty members. One student who completed a sociology thesis for a Master’s degree recently claims that the process is made a lot easier when a supervisory committee is thoughtfully-designed and complements the student’s abilities and skills.

So, what is the process for identifying these people? Get acquainted with your college professors. Go to research seminars to better understand the fields they work in. Enrol in classes and talk to the lecturers and professors. Read any work they have written. Speak to advanced-level students. However, the best strategy of all is to take your advisor’s advice when selecting a committee.

Be Prudent in Your Choice of Topic

When it comes to choosing a topic for a dissertation, there is one important word to remember, and that is ‘focus!’ This word can save you a lot of time, energy and effort when it comes to limiting your research question or problem. It is also advisable to select a topic that is manageable. It is most likely your dissertation will be quite big, but it should not be a lifelong work. Enlist the help of your advisor to whittle the topic down so that it does not take you two decades to graduate!

Lastly, our university experts recommend choosing a topic you have a love-hate relationship with. This, they say, is because no matter what subject you choose, you will come to hate it in time. If a topic is not interesting or inspiring, it will eventually become easy to find reasons not to work on it. However, this should not happen with subject matter you like.

Meet Regularly with Your Dissertation Adviser

Maintain close contact with your dissertation adviser and continually ask for their advice. This person will have a broad perspective on your topic and their views should help you retain your focus. Plan meetings in advance to ensure these are of maximum benefit to you both. Have a list of questions or topics ready prior to every meeting so that you do not forget any discussion points. Put simply, this means preparing a meeting agenda.  

Make copious notes. After meetings with your adviser, sum-up your discussion and email it to him or her. Most likely, your adviser will be mentoring other students so it is not realistic to expect them to precisely recall your discussions at different meetings. However, sending a summary by email helps ensure you are both “singing from the same hymn sheet!” 

Keep a Copy of Every Single Thing

Stories abound about students who store copies of important college papers in their fridge in case of a house fire. While this might be excessive, it is advisable to keep copies of different chapters in various places such as in an email folder, on an external drive, or on a flash drive.

Another recently graduated student explained why it is important to keep an adviser’s feedback. This student says that a) advisers sometimes expect to see their feedback and/or comments worked into later or final papers, b) it is wise to keep copies of earlier drafts in case a tutor wants something put back in, and c) earlier drafts can be useful for seeing how ideas alter/develop with time.

Do not be Afraid to Seek Help

It may be that writing is not your strongest point. If so, our third recently graduated student recommends using college writing centers. He says that, a) these are free and the assistants are graduates with many having written dissertations themselves so they understand every stage of the process, and b) writing centers can keep up motivation, not least because students have to write something before their next tutor-student meeting.   

Another mechanism for helping maintain focus is organized college support groups. These groups can give feedback on writing and critical thinking skills, and generally offer encouragement. It can be especially useful to have other people to talk to when you have writer’s block or encounter various problems of the professional or personal variety. In many cases, colleges have a counsellor if you really run into difficulties.

It must be Done – So Do It!  

It all boils down to one thing at the end. Established routines are an effective way of achieving critical goals. So, write! For some students, this means scheduling specific times for writing – especially making optimum use of their most productive times. Some treat dissertation writing in a similar way to a part-time job with certain hours a week devoted to it. Setting a clear timeline – a backward-looking calendar – for completing an important writing project is also a good strategy. Build in critical milestones such as a timeline for collecting data, analyzing this, setting a schedule for different chapters, and so on. However, make sure your goals are realistic!    

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