Writing your dissertation seems so far off on your first day of university, but in the blink of an eye three years have flown by, graduation is rapidly approaching and the very last hoop you have to jump through is just a simple dissertation. Making sure you don’t make these 10 common but avoidable mistakes can help make the dissertation process go a whole lot smoother – take notes!
Selecting too broad or too narrow a topic
One of the easiest mistakes to make in the very early stages of your dissertation is selecting too broad a subject. A dissertation should be focused and specific to allow you to investigate the topic in depth. If you choose too broad a title, you will not be able to explore it to a deep enough extent that satisfies the marker. Likewise, choosing to narrow a topic will also cause problems as there will be very few pre-published papers to base your study off and therefore you won’t be able to develop a substantial enough literature review.
Selecting a topic you aren’t interested in
You spend numerous months reading, writing and re-writing your dissertation topic so don’t make the mistake of choosing a topic or title that you don’t feel you can sustain and maintain an interest in for the duration of your final year. If you aren’t interested in it, why do it? No one will be writing this for you, so make sure it’s your topic of choice, not theirs.
Starting too late
You can’t go back and you can’t make up time, so make sure you don’t start too late. A dissertation is a huge time-consuming paper to write, and you really do need all the months they give you to do it well, so start as early as you can, but only once you have conducted your research and understand your topic. Proactivity is very important when it comes to writing your dissertation and it's a crucial graduate skill to have.
Research before writing
I’ve always been one of those people that tries to get ahead of the game, but I ended up wasting a month of time and effort writing my first literature review draft, only to be told it wasn’t enough because I had no real understanding of what I’d written. Make sure you read before you write, and when I say read, I mean read. A lot. Read around the subject, take notes, make mind maps, watch videos to really learn about your topic. You need to know it inside out, so the more reading you do the stronger a position you’ll be in when you begin writing.
Lack of cross-referencing chapters with one another
As my dissertation advisor reminded me daily, a dissertation should flow and read like a story. In a book, the characters from Chapter 1 don’t just disappear never to be seen again, they’re referenced again in Chapters 3 and 7, Chapters 9 and 12, and this is exactly how you should approach your dissertation, you must reference all your chapters to link them together. An easy section to do this in is your data analysis, you can effectively discuss and compare your own findings against those of previous investigations discussed in your literature review – the academics marking it love this!
Using too much jargon
Throughout university you will learn how to write sophisticated and eloquent reports full of course-specific technical words that will be perfected by the time you reach final year. I was told my dissertation should be reverted to a much more basic form of writing; no jargon, no nothing, just simple, easy to understand English. An easy way to see if you’ve used too much jargon is using the ‘mum and dad test;’ anyone that may not understand the details of your topic should be able to read and fully understand your dissertation, if they can’t, you need to tone down its technicality.
Lack of probing respondents when collecting data
At degree level, your dissertation is expected to be an extensive in-depth study discussing more than just surface level findings. If you don’t probe respondents enough when collecting your data, you won’t get enough information to draw detailed conclusions; this will immediately limit the marks available for your analysis chapter. When gathering data, ensure you ask respondents why they gave their response, not just what it is. This allows you to gain a more detailed understanding of their reasoning and increase the level of your academic analysis. It’s better to have too much data than not enough, so probe, probe, probe!
Relying too heavily on tables
It’s very easy to put your data in a table on the page and forget about it, however, the reader should not be expected to interpret and analyse your data themselves, that’s your job. The majority of your analysis should be conducted in the written content of your chapter and be somewhat idiot proof – point out the blinding obvious trends as well as your more obscure findings. As I was taught, think of your tables as appendices; the reader will only look at them if the narrative doesn’t make sense or if they are interested in finding out more, instead use quotes or statistics in the written narrative.
Avoid keeping the same title as your study evolves
It’s so easy to think of your dissertation question and rigidly stick to it, but as with any piece of work, it will evolve and change as you write, so don’t be afraid to alter your title as you go. By the time you finish you may have completely changed your question from the one you began with. This is normal and shows that you have developed a greater understanding of the direction of your piece of work. Don’t stick to your very first title if it doesn’t fit the finished piece.
Not asking for help
Your dissertation advisor is there for you now more than ever so now is your time to use them. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help. In many universities your dissertation advisor also becomes your final year personal tutor, so you can even ask them for help in other modules too! Final year is tough, but they’re equipped and wanting to support you in any way possible, you just have to ask.
Although dissertations seem daunting, work hard, invest the time and effort into it, avoid the above 10 mistakes and just do the best you possibly can on and boss your dissertation. Most importantly, make sure to give yourself that time to switch off and relax. Good luck!
Like this article? Why not read On Your Marks, Get Set, Final Year!