Eight things I learnt about dissertation writing

My dissertation journey was not at all what I expected. In the first place, I had few thoughts about what I was going to write about and how it was going to go, even though I started pondering upon it in the first year of studies. I remember approaching a GLOCAL administrator at the beginning of the second semester to ask for guidance on topic development and greater clarity on the process, and got the response that it was too early to think about it. At that time, I didn’t like this answer (I like coming prepared), but now I realise that, indeed, a year can turn things on their heads.

In the end, dissertation research and writing turned out to be the best and also the most challenging part of my GLOCAL experience. Below, I share eight recommendations and encouragements that I would give my younger self as thesis writing approached. I hope they will be useful to you, too. Please note, my experience is mostly relevant to students who will be writing their dissertation with the University of Glasgow, however, I hope all of you will find something useful to help you on the fascinating journey you are about to embark on.

A glass of wine can make a long working day less of a downer (photo from the author’s archive).
Nika's dissertation writing advice

1. Sort out your priorities and stick to them

First things first, you need to clarify your priorities and make sure you stick to those. I realise that not all of you have the luxury to dedicate all your time to the dissertation. Some of you might have an internship you hope will lead to a full-time job, others might have a part-time job to cover your expenses or finance the program. Still others might be dealing with all sorts of life complications and challenges. No matter what it is, you need to get very clear on what you want to get out of your dissertation writing. For me, it was to write an elegant piece of research and a powerful dissertation, to establish connections among seemingly diverse fields no one studied before, and to have fun along the way. And that’s exactly what I did.

For you, it might be to learn a new research method or establish a connection with an organisation you would like to work with in the future (collaborative dissertation), or to have fun and dive deeper in the field you enjoy working in or a topic that fascinates you. Alternatively, your priority could be as simple as writing a dissertation without compromising your mental health, and instead focusing on travelling, living your life to the fullest, investing in your personal life, or landing a good job post-graduation. No matter what it is, clarify your intentions early on and focus on them without trying to take care of everything and succeeding at nothing. (Read more on priority setting in Greg McKeown’s “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.”)

Dissertation writing with a view of the Brasenose College, Oxford (photo from the author’s archive).

2. Take time to choose the topic that makes your eyes light up

I think choosing the topic was the longest stage of my dissertation journey, and I do not regret it. They say that preparation is 50% of your success, and I can’t agree more, especially in dissertation writing. I took a good two months of research and discussions with my advisors to 1) figure out the aims of a dissertation and 2) how I can combine topics that interest me the most with the program major. I did a lot of preliminary research and managed to combine three areas that I love with what the program wanted of me. For me these were: aesthetics, wellbeing, and neuroscience and psychology. Since I didn’t have academic experience in these subjects, I reached out to people in the field to see whether I could pull it off. I talked to a friend who is doing a PhD in computational neuroscience, and also reached out to the Neuroscience Lab at the University of Glasgow, to see what was possible. Originally, I was ready to do primary research and analyse existing data sets, but then life got in the way, and I was short on time to pull off such a lengthy and complicated endeavour. So I made a decision to stick to secondary research.

An additional pickle I got myself into was the fact that the topics I am deeply passionate about have little to do with the GLOCAL program. That’s why I needed to do extra work to research them all (and more) to be able to find common threads to connect them together and present my ideas to the advisers with clarity and determination. And this brings me to the idea I started with: you are going to do a lot of work (more than you expect), so make sure that you are actually interested in what you are researching. If you are not, these are going to be very long and miserable months of your life. To quote the late Steve Jobs, “you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing… and the reason is that it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard, and you have to do it over a sustained period of time, so if you’re not having fun doing it, you don’t really love it, you’re going to give up.”

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.

3. Factor in ample extra time for each stage of research and writing

Life is going to get in the way no matter what. It can be something as simple as getting a cold or having to move to a new place (GLOCAL trained us well for it, but it still hurts every time), or as catastrophic as a loved one dying or a war. With that in mind, make sure you have at least a few days to a few weeks of a buffer for each stage of your research and writing process. This is especially relevant for those planning to do primary research, as you have to get your ethical permits in order and that takes time. Your declared deadlines will almost inevitably be moved, but having extra time factored in will keep your anxiety at bay and your mind clear and focused to continue doing the work.

Nika's dissertation advice - 3
Nika's laptop screenshot when working on her dissertation.

4. Develop a good relationship with your supervisors, but champion your work first

I had the most amazing team of supervisors who both supported me and kept the bar high for me to stretch myself intellectually and academically. For me, this is the winning combination you want to get: on the one hand, you know you can reach out to them when you are lost (and you will be) in the process of researching and writing, and on the other hand, you are committed to delivering a certain level of work that you are proud of. Having said that, make sure to put your ego aside and be prepared to take constructive criticism.

To succeed in thesis writing, remember that your supervisors are there to make your work better, not to crush your dreams of writing a perfect thesis. For a supervisory relationship to work, you have to find the balance between asking for guidance and support and providing high-level research work. And remember, in the end, it is your dissertation and your advisors are there to share their expertise and advice, not force you to do things a certain way. If you are afraid that doing it your way will get you a lower grade, ask how you will be evaluated and make sure you check your work against those criteria.

Dissertation Writing Advice
Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash.

5. It is okay to not know what you’re doing. Just keep going.

If you are writing your dissertation with the University of Glasgow, be prepared to figure out your way across the stormy waters of the dissertation sea with the help of a DIY compass. When we were writing our theses, we received little guidance from the school. This was both a blessing and a curse, depending on the angle you view it from. Indeed, we often had to figure out our way through the research and writing process on our own, and it was sometimes painfully paralysing. That’s why, as I mentioned before, your supervisors can be an immense resource. On the other hand, we had the freedom to go about it the way we wanted and that allowed for an amazing experience of learning, trying, forgetting, relearning, improving, and overcoming over and over again.

Such freedom can be viewed as indifference by those with little experience in critical and analytical thinking, but if you’ve got this far in your GLOCAL journey, trust me, you can do it. At the same time, there is a high probability that such freedom can cause vertigo and overwhelm, and when this happens, make sure you reach out to either the program administration, your supervisors or your classmates, or all of them at once if it becomes unbearable. For you not to reach the point of no return, make sure you build a support group to interact with regularly. More about that below.

Keep calm and write your thesis
Photo by Keepcalm.com.

6. Create a social support system among your peers and people going through similar things

I don’t need to remind you that we are social creatures, while dissertation writing is a solitary endeavour. To make sure you come out of this experience stronger rather than traumatised, take care of your social support system from day one. I was a part of the “COVID cohort” where so much of my study experience was influenced by the pandemic, one way or another. The majority of my interactions with classmates were online. You will have it easier, and this is a major advantage. If all of you are in Glasgow for your final semester, make sure you get together with your friends and other classmates on a regular basis. I would even recommend a monthly meeting where you discuss your dissertation progress. Sharing your advances, asking for advice, clarifying ideas, or simply complaining about how hard and unfair the world is, will help keep you sane and mentally and emotionally fit to keep grinding at it.

Nika's dissertation advice - Meetings with colleagues
Final thesis presentation to the panel of professors from the consortium and colleagues (photo from the author’s archive).

7. Let your dissertation change you

To unpack this point, I need to take you to the first year of my GLOCAL experience. During the second semester I burnt out. It was quite bad. I developed insomnia and my chronic conditions intensified to a point where I couldn’t move much and had to go back home, be hospitalised, and undergo extended treatment. I didn’t see much point in studies and was questioning whether I should continue with academia at all. I opted out of going to Colombia for the third semester and stayed home to focus on my healing and took the classes online. The remote semester I took at Los Andes was my favourite one on this program, and it helped me see the point in continuing my academic journey.

When the last semester of the program rolled in, I was at a loss where to start with the dissertation writing but I knew I had to do it my way. The main message you will hear when starting to plan your research is to choose a narrow topic. In the end, it’s a short project and you can’t study everything. That was problematic in my case because I have a broad range of interests and I like learning. So I knew I wanted to find a way to combine at least a few of my passions. As I mentioned before, it took me more than two months to crystallise my topic, but in the end it was worth every hour. Fast-forward to the end of August 2022, I realised that I would love to continue with my research and am now considering doing a PhD.

The point is, a dissertation can be an incredible learning experience on both academic and personal levels. You will grow and change as you will be writing it, so you will want to adjust your work accordingly. Simultaneously, your research will change you — how you view the world, what you want to do with this knowledge, and how you would like to contribute to society. If you want, your dissertation writing has the potential of being a deeply transformative experience, and I think it would be foolish to ignore this remarkable opportunity to grow. Don’t forget how hard you worked to make it come true.

Nika working on her dissertation in a cafe
Changing the scenery and working from a public space adds a social element to a highly solitary endeavour. Here: The Victoria Pub, Oxford (photo from the author’s archive).

8. Take your dissertation as a chance to have fun but also as a stepping stone in your career

To summarise, your Master’s thesis can be viewed both as a blessing and a curse. Or as a guarding dog of the gates to a future you, the one who is a little more experienced, self-actualised and wiser; the one who is proud of their accomplishments and ready to go out there and contribute to building a brighter future. With that in mind, focus on researching what you’re passionate about, but also consider what you might want to do with your life after GLOCAL. Even if you don’t see a clear path into your professional future yet, keep that intention at the back of your head and, as the late Steve Jobs said, “trust that the dots will somehow connect.” (I swear, I don’t quote Steve Job this often in real life.) Additionally, don’t forget to update your resume with the skills you learnt and honed during your dissertation writing and see how those skills can be transferrable to whatever jobs you will be looking for. You are about to undertake a massive project, so make sure you account for it when choosing your next professional role.

Best of luck, dear GLOCAL! I know you can do it. As one of my classmates said, “the only way out is through,” so fasten your seat belts and get ready to take one of the most memorable and glorious rollercoaster rides of your life.

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