1: Where to start – writing your dissertation

Looking at a finished dissertation, thesis, or research report may be one of your proudest moments to date because it shows your accomplishments so far as an undergraduate or graduate. You can see the months of work that went into creating the final document. You may also realise just how many academic skills have been added to your core capabilities as well - skills that you will be able to carry forward into the workplace as part of your area of study.

However, knowing where to start is half the battle when it comes to something as overwhelming as a dissertation, thesis, or research report. And, the fact that it often is such a significant part of determining whether or not you get your degree qualification makes it even more stressful.

That's why this chapter is packed full of strategies and tips that will not only show you where to start but it will also make sure that where you start is the best place to start for your particular writing project. The key topics found in this chapter include:

  • How to understand exactly what it is you are doing;
  • How to start off on the right foot;
  • How to work efficiently and effectively;
  • How to look at the various stages involved; and
  • How to avoid common pitfalls and achieve the definition of a successful academic writing project.

One more thing before we get started: There are many similarities between dissertations, theses, and research reports in terms of the stages of research and writing, but there are also some subtle differences (hence, why the first section focuses on defining these writing projects). Throughout the book, where necessary, these subtle differences are re-addressed to make sure you do not miss out any aspect, component, or task related directly to the type of academic writing project that you happen to be working on.

Chapter 1 contents:

1.1: Defining dissertations, theses, and research reports

One of the best ways to get started well is to make sure you understand the type of writing assignment and what it is trying to accomplish for you as part of your academic career. Here are some key ideas about each type of academic writing that we are discussing in this book:

Dissertation

A dissertation is a formal research study on a particular specialised subject, which is submitted as part of an assessment that will determine if you are awarded with a University degree.

Thesis

A thesis is defined as a piece of academic work that focuses on a piece of research that is also submitted as part of an assessment that will determine if you are awarded with a University degree.

Research Report

A research, or project, report is tied to a specific research project that was completed for a specialised study area and offers the findings and conclusions about that research or project.

Key Differences

In just looking at the above definitions, the differences between the three are not so obvious. To further set each apart, here are some key differences that also further define these types of undergraduate and graduate writing projects:

  • Depending on the country you are in, thesis and dissertation may be interchangeable terms. In the U.S. a dissertation may be for a PhD while a thesis for a master's degree, but this would be vice versa in the UK.
  • Dissertations tend to be longer - sometimes twice as long - as a thesis.
  • A thesis may often rely on the research of others and simply synthesises the information while a dissertation focuses more on original research, theory, and arguments.
  • While a thesis can take less than a year, dissertations can be the same or often take over a year or more to complete, which makes sense since the length required is considerably longer.
  • A research report is not necessarily a component of completing the assessment for awarding a degree but is considered one assignment of many during your academic career.
  • A research report is considerably shorter and less involved than both the dissertation and thesis.
  • A thesis typically involves an oral presentation to a committee to explain your research and findings.

Despite these differences, these academic writing projects all share certain things in common:

  • Excellent academic research
  • Evidence of critical analysis
  • Logical arguments
  • Excellent writing
  • Originality
  • Good referencing
  • Correct structure
  • Academic presentation

These key ingredients of a successful writing project are discussed further on in more detail in this chapter as well as throughout the book.

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1.2: Strategies for a successful start

Now that you know the basic differences and similarities between a dissertation, thesis, and research report, it's time to break down the strategies for a success. Rather than drifting along and hoping that eventually the whole writing project is going to make some sense, stop the aimless approach and get focused on starting off well. Here's how:

  • What are you being asked to produce? Read the material in your course handbook, study the learning outcomes, and familiarise yourself with the learning objectives. If that does not help you figure it out, then it is good to speak to your supervisor or tutor about it.
  • Get in touch with your research topic. While it may seem that you have an expansive topic or area of research, look into the background material that aligns with your specific course, including your initial reading list. By beginning to read more about it, this will start the brain churning around the ideas presented there and help you brainstorm about what it is that you will be doing. Trust us, this will happen.
  • Think short term rather than long term. When given a deadline that is months away, it is easy to take a relaxed approach to the whole academic writing project. Many of the students we have worked with noted that the whole dissertation, thesis, or research report process took them a lot longer than they thought. Their conclusion was that they needed to get organised faster before the time got away from them. In this case, it means thinking about what needs to be accomplished sooner than later. We will talk about time-lines and schedules later on, but just know that effective time management is a critical strategy for a successful start.
  • Be active and engaged in the writing process. Psych yourself out and get pumped to participate in the process. Everything listed here so far in terms of a strategy has involved action - reading, thinking, writing and creating a timetable or schedule. Action gets the mind engaged and involved to put you in the right frame of thinking to get into what you are doing. The more you are engaged, the better the final product will be!
  • Push the motivation button. As a student, it can be easy to fall into the lazy cycle or get distracted by more interesting things like socialising. You may already feel exhausted from what seems like a jam-packed schedule. However, this is when you need to push the motivation button and make sure it stays on for the momentum you need to carry you through to the end of the dissertation, thesis, or research report. If you feel like you lack the motivation, get help from your tutor or supervisor, on-site counselling, or even your fellow students. This should help you push past any barriers that stand in the way of a successful start and ongoing success.

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1.3: Dissertation, thesis, and research report stages

This section explains the various stages of researching and writing a dissertation, thesis, or report. These are fairly general in order to apply to all three types of writing projects that we talk about here. Throughout the book when these stages are described in greater detail, specifics related to each type of academic writing are further defined.

Title and Topic

The title and topic are often something that you need to create when it comes to a dissertation or thesis. Research reports typically have a title and topic provided by your supervisor. The title and topic are what define what you will research.

Research and Data

Once you have your title and topic, the next stage is about collecting data and research information from various sources - primary and secondary. You will be collecting source material from the library, databases, and online as well as possibly conducting field work, interviews and surveys, or observation during this time.

Planning and Timetable

As previously noted in the section on the strategies for a successful start, planning and a timetable is critical to keep you on track so you have ample time to complete each of these stages. This is about prioritising and planning out a specific amount of time for each phase - and then, of course, sticking to it! Remember, too, that if you are doing a dissertation or a thesis, you are required to bring it to your supervisor or tutor at various times in the research and writing process so this needs to be accounted for in your timetable.

The Creative Process

This is where you reflect on the data you have collected and critically analyse what it is you have read and observed so far. This is then compared to your research topic and aim that you have set forth in terms of what you want to answer or provide insights on. This is all about brainstorming and reflection. Here is where you want to develop your outline and think about what goes where within your dissertation, thesis, or research report structure.

First Draft

This is your first pass at getting all your ideas on the page and in a certain order that follows your dissertation framework or research report design. This is not a place to get it exactly right; if you do, you will find yourself struggling. Get it on paper or on the screen. The next phase is where you can fix it. Let it flow out of you and finesse it later.

Revisions

Once you have it all down in the required format, you are most likely going to go through multiple revisions of rewriting, editing, and restructuring to get the logical flow and academic style of writing in place. Leave plenty of time for this phase when you create your schedule because you will want to walk away from it and come back to it in order to see things you might miss from reading it too much. This is also where you can get feedback from others to take the dissertation, thesis, or research report to the next level.

Formatting and Presentation

There is a very specific format and way to present your dissertation, research report, and thesis so all the rules must be followed in terms of spacing, font and font size, charts and graphs, sections of the report or research study and so on. You may also have to put together an oral presentation with charts. How it looks can be just as important as what it says, so this is a critical phase of this type of academic writing.

Submission (and a Sigh of Relief!)

The final stage is when you submit the dissertation, thesis, or research report. You can take a deep breath, let it go, and celebrate finishing it. Then, you can wait and find out just how successful you were at creating a successful academic writing project.

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1.4: What defines a successful project?

While we provided some strategies for getting off on the right foot with your academic writing project, we are closing the first chapter with some tips on ensuring that your entire project is a success. These tips focus on what is considered good form and what might be a pitfall to avoid at all costs.

Here are our tips:

  • Work efficiently: This means using your time well and getting as much done well as possible in the time allotted. This involves setting a plan for each day, understanding what you need to achieve, getting it done, prioritising different tasks, avoiding all types of distractions, keeping your work area organised so you can find what you need and taking mental breaks to keep you at top performance. In a nutshell, you want to cut out anything that is unproductive and wastes time and focus only on those things that can help you be the most productive in the least amount of time.
  • Be effective: Often confused with efficient, being effective is more about the idea that you are going to achieve meaning results from your effort. To be effective, you need to get started, focus on the end result, minimise unproductive work, identify any barriers to your progress, find ways to overcome these barriers and compete each phase and component of the academic writing project. Ask yourself the following:
    • What is my aim for achieving the final product?
    • What types of milestones can I set?
    • What can I get done in the time I have allotted?
    • Is my goal achievable and realistic?
    • Will I be able to see tangible evidence that I am achieving my aim?
  • Avoid common pitfalls: There are many pitfalls that you will experience along the way, so it is important to be aware of these common risks:
    • Underestimating the time you have to complete the project
    • Focusing on the wrong type of initial reading
    • Realising you have poor writing skills
    • Not knowing how to organise so much information
    • Not keeping good records of your research
    • Not understanding how to conduct advanced data analysis
    • Lacking professionalism when it comes to the presentation
    • Suffering from writer's block
    • Plagiarising information or infringing on a copyright
    • Not providing enough time for feedback and revisions
    • Not allotting enough time for typing up the dissertation, thesis, or research report

Throughout the book, we will address these common pitfalls in greater detail and provide some suggestions and solutions to make sure these pitfalls do not stand in the way of your academic success.

  • Don't be a perfectionist: It is easy to get stuck on making sure a project is perfect, which puts you off course in terms of your schedule and ability to even complete the project. Just realise that nothing you write or do is ever going to be perfect. That does not mean you can use it as an excuse to stay "good enough" when you full well know you did not try your hardest. This is about striking the balance between doing your very best and recognising that you have a project that you can be proud of.

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Chapter 1: In Summary

In wrapping up the ideas about getting started on your dissertation, thesis, or research report, remember this final practical advice for this area of your academic writing project:

  • Get engaged with the subject you are researching.
  • Allocate enough time to read and reflect on the subject.
  • Get your other work out of the way so you can focus on this project.
  • Make sure you have all your necessary supplies for the project.
  • Create an environment that is conducive to work on the project.
  • Start writing down your ideas in note form or in a brainstorming graphic. Do not think about what you are writing; just let it flow.
  • Work through writer's block or the sense of feeling overwhelmed. Not every day is going to go as well as the next so do what you can but do not give into those feelings.
  • Stay on track by reviewing what you have accomplished each day in terms of what went well and what could have been better. Check off tasks completed to provide further motivation and that sense of accomplishment that keeps the momentum going. Re-focus on what you will do the next day.

What's Next?

Now that you are headed in the right direction, here are some other ideas about what to do next:

  • Keep reflecting on what you have done to date. A good time to reflect is when you are doing some other activity removed from this writing project, such as running, going for a walk with the dog, or working on a hobby. This will help you reflect properly on your progress, any barriers or factors out of your control, analysis of your work or study practices, and how you might make any changes that will improve what you are able to accomplish.
  • Make lists that involve what you need in order to complete certain tasks as well as those things that you can put to the side as not as critical for the time-being. This helps you from becoming overwhelmed while also putting you on target to be more self-disciplined in how you are approaching these significant academic writing projects. Not to mention, you will be less distracted by what is going on around you that has nothing to do with what you need to accomplish.
  • Regularly set appointments with your advisor, supervisor, or tutor. They can help you set realistic goals and guide your timetable. If your are off-track with your topic or your research does not seem to be going very well, they are there to get you back in the right direction. After all, they want you to be successful, so they are happy to answer any questions you have or provide suggestions that can help you stay on the course to complete your dissertation, thesis, or research report to the best of your ability.

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