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The pre-dissertation dumps

13th September 2012

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When I was at sixth form, I wrote a nine-page pamphlet for the senior staff which not only outlined my democratic right as an individual to have representation but went as far as demanding that this meant there must be an adequate and active student government in place. Writing such a long, thought-provoking and well researched document got me thinking, ‘I can’t wait to do my dissertation at university’ – how wrong I was…

Drawing a blank

Years later, on the edge of entering my third year, I wish I could say I was equally as enthused. I wish I could even say I knew what I wanted to write about for my dissertation. An entire module last year of planning what to do it about and creating a proposal for my topic had little effect in the long run and I am back to square one. Now, I know there are students in my class who have already begun their research and hell, some may have even started writing their first draft, but am I worried? Well, maybe a little…

Even though a few of my friends may have made their first steps, I doubt that I am alone in my position. Surely I can’t be the only student still sulking about not knowing what to write about? If you have chosen a topic and have started getting some sources together, then good for you, but this article is addressed to those out there who are still racking their brains. Maybe we have made a false start, maybe we haven’t got out of the blocks as fast as we thought we would have (a couple of cute Olympic references for you there…), but that isn’t to say we won’t finish well. Have faith in yourself – this thing is a marathon, not a sprint (ok that is the last one I swear).

At first the dissertation appears as this unique opportunity, in which you can finally research something you are interested in and write about it. Naively I bought the hype and thought that this would be my chance to write something which would change the world. Now I’d settle for just having something to write about. I suppose it was too much to ask to create something in the same vein as President Kennedy when he, as a student, wrote ‘Why England Slept’ in 1940 for his thesis.

The more I sulk about my situation the more I start to think that maybe the point of a dissertation isn’t about writing something special or something which could make a difference. It is merely about writing something which resembles one of the boring academic journal articles you’ve forced yourself to read, for a seminar you loath, just so you don’t get embarrassed if you’re called upon. It isn’t about being creative, it is about writing something which conforms to a particular style, by taking a small subject area and casting some light on it.

There is a struggle for balance when deciding on a subject and anyone else out there who hasn’t quite got a topic yet will probably be going through the same thought process as I am. Obviously we can’t write something as long-winded as ‘A History of the World’ but something as tedious as ‘The East Marsh ward of Grimsby’s influence on the international haddock market in June of 1950’ is equally as challenging for different reasons.

My advice is to keep pestering your tutors, teachers, friends and neighbours until you’re satisfied. You only get one go at this and you’ve paid a lot of money to be at university, so you may as well make the most of it. Though this is a difficult task we are all facing it is not a sisyphean one, it is merely herculean. You’ll choose a topic in the end and then when you do, you’ll write something significant and special – not just another academic journal…

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