• Michael Randall

4 Weeks Until Dissertation Submission - Why You're the Expert Now and Have Got This Covered

In my last post on this blog, I wrote about the folly of students ‘peacocking’ and comparing themselves with one another. This is a trend that I was noticing increasing among honours students in particular this year, and seems to have been one of the more well-received/read posts on here. One thing this has conveyed to me is that the blog is quite an effective way of communicating with, at least a portion of, the honours cohort in a way that is accessible, and more in-depth than a class notice. In the same way that one sandwich doesn’t mean you’ve got a picnic, I thought I would follow up on another topic which has been cropping up in my discussion with honours students at the moment. Specifically, motivation and confidence as students are completing their undergraduate dissertations.

Clearly, I’m going to try and be positive, and the general message is going to be “you’ve got this covered”. I wouldn’t say anything different now, would I? And that might make some of what I say come across about as genuine/sincere as a TV chef who tries their own food that they’ve just cooked, and tells you that it’s great - think about it, they never say they’ve overdone something/needed to add more seasoning. And fennel is absolutely rank, so I know to me that a dish including it will just taste of regret.

However, I am hoping that in trying to empathise and give some examples of how we have had difficulties writing in the past, and how we juggle tasks at the moment, you can see that we’re all collectively in the same boat. If you can see that someone has managed that well, then hopefully it provides some reassurance.

In saying this, I also know that I am on the other side of the proverbial fence at the moment, and as much as I may try to cling to any semblance of being a youth by my fingertips, the reality is I’m not a student now, I haven’t been for a while, and a response to reading some of this points might be “yes, but you haven’t considered X, which applies to me”. If that is the case, and I am out of touch, I apologise.

As I write this, the deadline for the honours dissertation is 4 weeks from today. The cohort have 4 more weeks to work on something which they started in September (and possibly before then, if you count research to develop a topic/research question). The tendency at this stage is to focus on the time you have left, not to take stock of how much work you have done already, and recognise the progress you have made.

Validity and the Myths of The Dissertation

Consistently, speaking to students in meetings, they come in saying that they don’t think that their topic is valid, that their writing isn’t good enough, and that they don’t know how to structure it. So we have a conversation, where broadly speaking, all I’m asking is “why is that important?”, “why do I need to know this?” and “what do you want me to take away from this?”. And in asking those questions, a student leads me through their idea. They identify a problem. They explain why it is important that it is addressed. We talk about the background, and how that problem came to be. And then we discuss what the student thinks should be done about it. And by the end, my last question is “how is any of that invalid?”

I think this comes from a couple of misconceptions about the dissertation. Firstly, students think 11,000 words is quite a lot. It is more than other written assignments, absolutely, but it really isn’t a lot at all. If you account for a decent length of introduction and conclusion, plus referencing and a few other bits and pieces, in terms of core content, you’re probably looking at about 8-8,500 words.

This leads into the second myth – that you have to cover everything. You cannot possibly cover everything in that subject area. You cannot solve world peace. Something will need to come out/be dropped, BUT that is because you are focusing on what is fundamental to your argument. As a comparison, my PhD thesis is about 100,000 words. As part of it, I need to write about the economic background to the proposal. I’m not an economist, though, and there’s a point where I need to stop, only present as much as I need to for the argument (but not engage in confirmation bias), and move on to what is key for the argument. It is exactly the same for undergraduate work. If you are looking at a three-stage test in a Court judgment, so you need to critique all three stages in full, or can you say (I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t like the use of the first person) “I know there are 3 tests, but I’m going to focus on the 2nd test, because that is the one which requires reform, and I’m going to tell you why that’s the one to focus on”.

The third myth is that there is such a thing as a ‘perfect’ dissertation. To me, there isn’t. Each question is different – we could have read the same pieces of information, but would convey and structure it differently. That doesn’t inherently mean that one person is better than another. And with this idea of perfection comes a worry that you’ll get things “wrong” – that makes no sense? You’ve set the question and found the relevant information and supporting evidence? So why are you wrong? I’m going to mention my PhD completion process below, but one thing my supervisor said at the time, which helped was “all you have to do is write something capable of being awarded a PhD. It doesn’t have to be perfect”. All you have to do is write something which is an honours dissertation – you’re not drafting the Treaty of Versailles.

The Changing Dynamic in Supervision Meetings

To an extent, some of the concern as well comes from the communication between a supervisor and supervisee. In my meetings in September, I was the lead, and the function was to say “this is what a dissertation is, this is what I expect of you, this is what you can expect of me”. The actual substantive discussion of the subject came 2nd, and often it was “just be wary of x…” or, “I think you might encounter y…”. It’s not so much that I knew everything and the student didn’t – that would be stupid to conclude. I know nothing useful really. Can’t remember the number of the proposed Directive for the PhD without double-checking, but I do know all the lyrics to S Club 7’s ‘Bring it All Back’. But it is more that the student was at the start of the process.

The dynamic changes in meetings I have in semester 2. At this point, the student has read far more information than I have, they know what they want to say. They may have some questions to help narrow down their focus and argument, but they’ve done all of the hard work. Gradually/over time, they have become the expert in the arrangement. And so the questions I’m asking are more to help the student flesh that out. It’s never a “you haven’t done X”, it is more “OK, X is really interesting, can you tell me more about that? How does that interact with Y? So are you asking me to conclude Z?”

I’m always trying to be constructive there, but that is the approach which works for me. Other supervisors may be a little bit more direct on core content and structure – they are similar considerations, but conveyed in a different way. Again, it doesn’t mean one supervisor is better than another as a result, but I think it can mean when students speak to each other and compare their feedback, that there can be a dissonance where a constructive comment from one supervisor can come across differently from how another would phrase it, and that causes some self-doubt.

You've Already Done the Hard Work

At this stage in the process, you have done all of the hard work. You’ve done the research and found the literature. You’ve sketched out plans, and re-jigged and tinkered with the order. All you have to do is write up. You need to see how much progress you’ve made – I don’t record meetings, but if I did and played back the discussion to students, you could see the clear improvement and development of the idea. I see that because I get snapshots of a student’s work over time. It’s more difficult for a student to see that, because for them the change has been more gradual.

Empathising - Completing PhD Corrections Over 4 Weeks

I can empathise with the position students find themselves in. A couple of years ago now, I was at the stage where I was completing PhD corrections, whilst working at Strathclyde. It got to a critical point where I had, effectively, one month to finish everything off. This was in January, so cold, dark, wet days and nights. We have the consolidation week, and adjusting to new classes/teaching. So I had my full time job alongside a pivotal month of work. You have core teaching, plus at that stage you’re inviting in honours dissertation students and Personal Tutees as well. So it’s a busy time. And without meaning to be a mercenary, Strathclyde pay my salary, so it’s all part of the role.

In my head, I built it up to be a miserable month. I had to do the work, and I knew this would mean many a late evening in the office after work, and pushing over weekends. I also know from previous experience that when I get particularly stressed/agitated, I sometimes listen to Metallica’s ‘St Anger’ album on loop – it is a terrible album. The bassist has left the band, they’re going through group therapy, the singer is in rehab, the drummer turns the snare drum off so it sounds like pots and pans, and the lyrics are crap. It’s just noise. But I know that I get quite snappy and irritable if I listen to it. And I didn’t want to be in that position with students, or with colleagues. So I downloaded Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and The Carpenters’ Greatest Hits, so at least I was listening to really sad music, not angry music.

You also get more sensitive to things that shouldn’t really get to you during that time. For example, I have all the time in the world for my now ex-office mate…except when she is typing. If we were both in the office and she was typing, it sounded like a pneumatic drill next to me (for balance, I talk too much and play music clips aloud occasionally). And it’s difficult to try and get space then. So you would find a way to adapt, and that means if I really need to concentrate, I put over-ear headphones on, but with no music playing. I want to stress that it is now a light-hearted joke between us now, and she was very understanding of what was happening at the time.

The reality was, though, that it actually wasn’t that bad a month. Yes, I had commitments and pressures, and I was finishing in the office at 9pm/9:30pm, getting home at 10/10:30pm, having my dinner and sleeping, before doing it the next day. But actually, I’d anticipated the worst, and it was fine. I knew my argument. I knew what I wanted to say. I just had to execute it. And that’s the position you’ll find yourself in at the moment with honours dissertations. You think the next 4 weeks are going to be horrific, but actually they’re not going to be anywhere close to that. Although, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? You’ll just have to trust me there.

Keeping Motivated and Getting Work Ticked Off

So how do you work/keep motivated then? The key is to get into a routine – different tips and tricks work for different people, so there isn’t one set way to write or work. There’s also, I think, the need to be kind to yourself, and plan in breaks/time away from staring at blocks of text, recognising that you’ll have good days and bad days of writing.

As a comparison, I’ll explain some of the tort law exam marking I did for the December exams. I didn’t go away for Christmas, and had grand plans that I was going to get all marking done by New Year. I didn’t even touch it, because I was hibernating – we haven’t really stopped since March, and I’m having to tell myself that if I hadn’t taken that break, I’d be struggling now. When we came back for consolidation week, I started up a new role with honours, and had to plan sessions/events. So I was multi-tasking.

I actually organise myself before I start reading anything - I mark by question, not by exam answer booklet, so I'm consistent within that question. So I create a spreadsheet/log of how many people have answered each question, and can break the task down into smaller chunks and see clear progress.

When I did start, the process was really slow – I marked about 8 answers over 3 days, because you’re trying to get into a rhythm, and cross-reference your marking standards. This involved a lot of sitting at the desk, with over-ear headphones on, drinks (Irn-Bru is a marking drink) and snacks, whilst wearing a pull over hoodie (not a zip through). And as the pace increased, I went from marking a handful a day, to setting targets to get a full set of Qs marked per day. I actually beat the marking deadline by a few days. But in that, I’ve gone from low-output, beating myself up, to getting more familiar with the process and getting into a rhythm.

It’s the same with writing. You might struggle to phrase a key idea – even this blog has had a few sentences tweaked after I’ve typed them, to try and convey the info more clearly. Once that’s on the page and the basic arguments are presented, you then pick up the links and transitions between sections, and you see your work evolve, where your output is better/of a higher quality.

You then go through editing and refinement. For me, this is the most difficult bit, not conceptually, because I know the idea and what I’m arguing. It’s all evidenced. But I hate reading my own work back, and am my own harshest critic. I find out what my written verbal ticks are (why, on earth, have I used “therefore” three times in a sentence?”) and where I should have included commas. I imagine it’s a bit like watching back a video of myself playing 5 a side football – why am I standing there? How can I not have seen that rapid fella standing off to my right? Why didn’t I pass it to the other guy? But you work on it and improve. I’m still rubbish at football, but can have a semi-decent game when I’m not giving the ball away. When I start getting frustrated with myself and trying too hard, I actually play worse as a result, incidentally.

Not Being Hard On Yourself - Changing Your Thinking

Last week, I taught a guest seminar on the law, persons and property class, on commodification of objects/giving things value. Now, the approach I took was to discuss themes from the reading generally, and explain them with wider pop-culture references, in part because of my experience of teaching on law, film and popular culture last semester. So over the course of 3 hours, I made reference to my references to the mug I was using, a £5 note I have, The Incredibles, Jurassic Park (how has no one in the class seen it?), French rap and hip hop, Stokes Croft riots, Les Misérables, Fiddler on the Roof, Pretty Woman, football transfers, How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Recreation, New Girl and a wrestling vignette of 'The Million Dollar Man' Ted DiBiase. I have probably missed a few there. And I know afterwards, when discussing parental rights/adoption and surrogacy, I could have mentioned Juno. The overly self-critical part of my brain, if I let it, will let me think that what I’ve done there is not present an interesting concept with contemporary examples, but presented a garbled mess of unstructured and sporadic content. However, it’s the way I understood the content, and the way I’ve conveyed it – I had to give context and justify their inclusion, which I think I did – but I need to tell myself that it’s valid. Getting bogged down in the footnotes of a piece of reading for the class isn’t my style, so why should I try and do that just for the sake of it? Again, there’s no perfect class/method of teaching. I don’t have to be the greatest lecturer of all time – I need to be competent enough to teach and lead that class.

So what am I actually saying to you? I’ve already said don’t compare yourself to others, and focus on yourself. My point here is you absolutely have put in all the hard work already. Of course your work is valid – you wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case. Yes, you’ve got to include justifications, but everybody does. You have got 4 weeks of effort on this, but it is all execution at this stage. You’re the expert, so back yourself, and lead me, as a reader, through something you care about.

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