“What writing my dissertation taught me…” – PGRs perspectives on dissertation writing process
In today’s contribution two St Andrews graduates share their insight into the process of dissertation writing and what helped them throughout the challenges of it.
First, Ria Rampersad reflects on structuring her dissertation, as opposed to essays she was previously focusing on throughout her university modules: “Having written two Masters’ dissertations and receiving excellent supervisory advice and support, I thought that it would be worthwhile to discuss a few tips for those starting out on the road to thesis writing.
The first thing to note is that a dissertation is not an essay. It isn’t a piece of work that you submit at the end of a module. This type of academic writing is distinct from other modules in that the piece of writing that you produce should not necessarily represent data that you cherry pick in support of a claim. Of course, it is important to justify any claims that you do make, but it is even more essential that you present a balanced review of the area of literature that deals with your study. Balancing your review means that you situate your topic within the overarching discipline, providing an introduction, presenting the relevant theories that relate to the topic and the questions that arise from these, which may then become pertinent to your study.
Indeed, the literature review is one of the most crucial aspects of your thesis and should lay the groundwork for what would follow in the subsequent chapters, being ideally broad enough that it can explain any variances in the data. For me, the literature review was the most difficult aspect of the thesis to finalise, and underwent several changes. Notwithstanding that feeling of uncertainty that came about with re-drafting, this is a normal and natural part of the editing process.
Luckily, the methodology chapter tends to be a more straightforward one. There you document the approach chosen to collect and analyse your data. It is important that a rationale for the decisions made accompanies your discussion on the methods. It might be worthwhile to think of this part as an explanation of the choices made and the factors that informed them. It’s not so much that you should be trying to convince the reader of why you made certain choices, but rather help them to see the logic behind your decision making.
If the goal of the methodology chapter is to describe how you conducted your research, then the findings chapter is to state what you found as a result of those actions. By that I mean that this is where you would provide evidence of what you found as guided by the research question(s), but without going into too much detail about the nature of those findings. The more in-depth analysis is reserved for the discussion chapter, where you explain the patterns that made themselves known in the findings chapter and help the examiner to understand them. An in depth explanation of what you established and how it links to existing research will support the strength of the evidence that you derive from your study.
There are times however when your results may be inconclusive or don’t seem to support your argument. If this is the case, remember that it is perfectly fine to admit this in your analysis and to perhaps share with the examiner why this might have occurred. Writing a thesis is less about being accurate and more about being analytical, demonstrating your understanding of the research process and its pitfalls and showing your ability to think critically, questioning both what the data does and what it does not reveal.
Yes, drafting a thesis can at times be stressful but it also gets to show the examiner the way you think, so consider it as a means of self-expression aimed at demonstrating your interaction with the scholarship. Use it as a launch pad to present your best work!”
To this Yi Zhang adds: “I recently noticed that how we play a puzzle game (a big set, say 500, or 1000 pieces) can inform us on how to best go about a large writing project, such as a PhD thesis. A few tips I learned myself: start from the easiest or the most fun “patch,” instead of feeling you have to follow a certain “order” – the key here is to get it started, instead of sitting there and feeling overwhelmed; if you are missing one piece, don’t waste all your time searching for it, just leave it there and it will turn up later – the thing is, we have 3-4 years to work on this “puzzle,” what seems elusive today may show itself up later; once you have finished several big “patches,” you will have a better perspective on how they relate to each other and how to connect them – and this is harder to do when you haven’t finished many patches yet (which is even more true with thesis work than with a puzzle, when you don’t have a complete structure or blueprint in front of you yet).
Of course, everyone can feel different on how to go about a puzzle: I know some people prefer to start from the edges. Also admittedly, thesis work is not exactly like a puzzle game when all the pieces are already given. Nevertheless, everyone can still learn a little bit of their own working habits from it. Observe how you play, and ask yourself why you can’t treat your academic work such as thesis writing just like a giant puzzle set – we relax when we play, but seem to “fight” when we write. We tend to treat our writing project like a battleground, a place to test if we are good enough or not – if we can find any piece at any moment. And if not, we are frustrated and spend even more time feeling anxious about everything. However, often it is when we choose the most relaxing and enjoyable way of working that our work turns out to be most efficient (because it is likely the right way). And with 3-4 years of such work facing us there is a great deal that we can save, or wast, due to our working attitude and habits. Missing something? It is ok to just leave it open there and move on for now.”
Thank you so much, Ria and Yi, for having contributed your comments and experience in order to help others find their best way to work on dissertation or thesis writing this summer.
Let us know (yes, you, reader!) if we can support you better here in CEED, and in case you would like to contribute to our future blog posts on academic skills and postgraduate community life, do not hesitate to reach out!
You can also book a place on CEED’s Writing for dissertation success! workshop running in person on 31st May.