Dissertation Preparation

The first part of this post is about the teaching strategies I use to help undergraduate students prepare for their dissertations. Scroll down for a list of Top Tips for Dissertations, compiled with advice from my students!

In the English Faculty’s syllabus reform, three years or so ago now, we introduced the undergraduate dissertation. Students choose the topic of their dissertation in the Trinity (summer) Term of their second year and then hand in their 7,000 – 8,000 word dissertation in the Hilary Term of their third year (around March), so they work on the project for almost a year. Oxford students have two other coursework papers- a Shakespeare portfolio of three short essays and an extended essay of 5,000 – 6,000 words- but the dissertation is the piece of work is produced over the longest time period.

The introduction of the dissertation got me thinking. How do we prepare students for undertaking a significant piece of research over an extended time period? The time period is of increased significance here in Oxford because in the normal course of an eight week term, students write an essay a week on a new text or topic and often have to rattle through huge periods of literary at great speed! I knew that I wanted to introduce some form of structured dissertation preparation into the second year teaching here at Univ and I thought that it would be useful to write a blogpost detailing my two-stage plan. I’d be very grateful for other thoughts on dissertation preparation, so please do leave me a comment or send me a message on twitter!

Stage One: Dissertation Day

Diss Day screenshot

In Hilary Term (around February time), I organise a Dissertation Day here at Univ, which is really a mini conference in disguise! We ask each of the third year students to give a 10-15 minute presentation on their dissertation topics. They must submit a title for their talk in advance, the presentations are divided into groups of three followed by questions, and the audience is made up of the current second years and the college tutors in English.

For the third years themselves, the aim is two-fold: to allow them to practice their presentation skills (which is especially useful if they plan to go on to graduate study and give papers on their work) and to provide them with an opportunity to articulate the key arguments of their dissertation at the relevant moment in the process. We plan the Dissertation Day for around five weeks before the submission deadline. At this stage, most of the students have a clear handle on the primary and secondary material, and most of them have their key arguments mapped out, but having to articulate them to a general audience encourages them to clarify their central ideas. We also encourage the students to offer a brief narrative of how they arrived at their dissertation topic and how their ideas/approaches changed, if relevant.

We have run the Dissertation Day for the past two years and it has been a really enjoyable and interesting occasion. I think the third year students have enjoyed presenting the fruits of their research and it has been certainly been a great way to celebrate their achievements, especially when the dissertation process (like a PhD!) can be rather lonely! Our first group of third years who completed a dissertation did say that they felt some disconnection from their peers during their third year as for most of their courses at this stage they are taught  individually for supervisions or centrally in the faculty, rather than being together in their close knit college group of eight students, being taught together on a weekly basis. It was great to bring them all back together and provide a forum for sharing their research.

For the second years, there were two important elements to the Dissertation Day. Firstly, we wanted the second years to get a sense of what a dissertation might look like in the lead up to making their own choices about research topics. We wanted them to get a sense of the range of topics that are possible, the different approaches available, the scope of a dissertation, the kinds of argument that can be made, and also how exciting the process of research can be! This year’s Dissertation Day included papers on travel writing; space and place in Modernist short stories; territory and the self in American nature writing; the role of women in post-war drama; Victorian literature and science; education and observation in seventeenth-century treatises; and a number of papers on twentieth-century poetry, including work on the fragment, the idea of sincerity, and the relationship between poetry, light, and sound.

Secondly, we made it a requirement of the day that the second years participate by asking two types of question. Firstly, by asking at least one question about the content of the papers which could be beneficial to the third year students (and I made sure to outline the etiquette for appropriate questions beforehand!). Secondly, after all the papers had been given, we had a brief round up where we asked the third years to reflect on the process as a whole and the second years were encouraged to ask for their advice and tips. When talking to the students after the day, the second years felt that this was especially helpful and we hope that when they give their presentations next year, they will pass on their own advice to the new second years!

Stage Two: Middle English Research Project

Having participated in the Dissertation Day, I then ran a two week Middle English Research Project for the second years (about two weeks after the day, and just before we asked them to start thinking about their own choice of topics). For their final piece of work for Middle English (the main paper that I teach them), I asked them to do the following, which they would present in our class at the end of the two week period:

  1. Choose a text/topic to research.
  2. Close read the primary material and choose a passage to close read that exemplifies your interest in the text/topic and your key argument.
  3. Produce an annotated bibliography, abstract, and title for the topic.
  4. Reflect upon what this process has taught you about doing research.

So the idea was to give the students a trial run of the dissertation so that they could practice the key skills required. Hearing the papers at the Dissertation Day helped the students to choose a topic. I asked the students to choose a passage to close read because I wanted to emphasise that they should start with their own ideas about the texts. At the Dissertation Day some of the second years were concerned about how to produce an ‘original’ dissertation and I always recommend starting with your own initial thoughts on the text, before you begin the research process. Those ideas will no doubt change but it helps to have a record of your initial interest and response. Presenting a close reading passage also makes sure that the students are constantly attending to the language of the text itself.

I asked the students to produce an annotated bibliography so that they got used to the process not only of reading and recording secondary material, but analysing and evaluating it. I wanted them to start to recognise the trends in criticism in their topic and to identify the ‘big hitters’ in the field. If they were to teach their chosen topic, who would they recommend as the key scholars, which secondary reading should they start with, how might a newcomer navigate the field? I also wanted them to identify gaps in the field and key articles relating to their own topic so that they can start to position their own work. (I should say that I had already taught them how to use the International Medieval Bibliography and how to do their own research in their first year, so I could build on those existing skills at this stage).

I also then asked them to write a 100 word abstract outlining the topic and approach, and come up with a title for the project. This was an important part of the process because just before Christmas the students have to submit a title and abstract to the faculty for approval, so I wanted them to have had a practice run at this. I advised them to make sure that the abstract outlined a focused topic that could feasibly be achieved in the word count (7,000-8,000) and gave a clear overview of the material to be covered and a sense of the argument that might be made (although of course that is provisional at this stage of any project!).


This year, the projects that my students presented in our final class included: imagination and jealousy in medieval dream poetry; excess in Gower’s Confessio Amantis; the role of wonder in Mandeville’s Travels; material goods and clothing as markers of identity in The Book of Margery Kempe and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue; women in domestic space in secular literature; Malory’s portrayal of Lancelot in the Morte Darthur; and the meaning and function of questing in the Morte Darthur. In the class, the students presented the topics, their close reading, guided us through the annotated bibliography, and finally we brainstormed the key ideas that the process had taught them for when they begin their real dissertation work over the summer vacation.

We collected the ideas together on the flipchart (apologies for the poor photos!). Below is a summary of the key points and some extra advice from me.

Top Tips for Dissertations

  • Start by close reading the primary material and making notes of your own ideas, before you read too much secondary literature. This will help to ensure that the core ideas are your own.
  • Start your research by using electronic bibliographies (such as MLA, the International Medieval Bibliography) and library search catalogues to compile a list of current research in the field. It also doesn’t hurt to do a quick google of the topic! It can take a while for new monographs and articles to make their way onto bibliographies, so it’s worth doing a quick search on the internet (with all the usual caveats that you must make sure that any online material that you find comes from a credible scholarly source!)
  • When taking notes on secondary reading, make sure that you include all the bibliographic details, and the page numbers for any quotations that you copy out (this is crucial as it saves time later- you don’t want to be checking references in the week before the deadline for an article that you read the previous summer!) You might also want to include a brief summary of the topic of the article and the approach used, and whether or not it will be useful for your project (again, you don’t want to have to go back and reread material because you’ve forgotten what you thought about it at the time!)
  • When copying out material from secondary reading, be meticulous about using quotations marks- you don’t want to accidentally plagiarise material! In my own research, if I have an idea of my own when I’m reading secondary material, I either note it down in a separate notebook or I write it on a separate line with an arrow before it → this is my own shorthand for ‘own ideas here’.
  • You might want to keep a running bibliography of everything you’ve been reading. This will save time later and will make sure that you are in the habit of recording all the important information for footnotes and bibliography.
  • Interrogate secondary reading. Which critics do you agree with? You can build on their work but you need to think about what you can add to their approach. How can you develop their ideas, what have they missed? Which critics do you disagree with and why? What are the gaps in the secondary literature? What have the critics missed? This is where you can position your study and show how it contributes to the field.
  • Let the secondary literature guide you- follow the footnotes! You will constantly find new material to read as you make your way through the secondary material. You might want to have a small notebook or a word document that you just use as your ‘to read’ list. This will keep all the references that need following up in the same place.
  • Don’t be too narrow in your reading and don’t be afraid to read something that intrigues you, even if it isn’t on your precise topic. Sometimes, serendipity leads us to an article or an approach that we weren’t expecting, but that turns out to be incredibly fruitful. Follow your nose!
  • If you’re working in an area that is new to you, ask your supervisor for help navigating the critical field. For example, many of my students want to work on American Literature but they haven’t studied it before, so as well as reading up on their chosen texts/authors, they will need to read some general books to get a sense of the literary tradition and the field as whole first.
  • Your reading will inevitably include a range of material, embrace the interdisciplinarity! Read up on the historical context of your writer/period. You might be interested in taking a theoretical approach. You might want to bring in visual or material culture, or scientific writing, as part of your approach. Ask your supervisor for guidance if this is the case.
  • A dissertation can feel like a huge, overwhelming project (as can a PhD!) but try to break it up into small tasks that you can easily achieve. Make a list of articles that you want to read and start working through them. Plan to spend an afternoon close reading a primary text.The pomodoro technique is very helpful if you’re struggling to concentrate and be productive. See my study skills post here for more info.
  • Make sure that you have thinking time! Go to a coffee shop or sit in the college gardens and brainstorm your ideas. It is important to continually reflect upon the project and where your ideas are at. Doing this in a separate notebook or word document without all your materials in front of you can be very helpful, so that you don’t get bogged down in the detail and can think about the bigger picture.
  • You will probably find that ideas come to you when you’re doing other things, like cycling to the faculty, or working on another project, so it might be useful to have a notebook that you carry with you to jot down all these ideas in a safe place. (As my students know, any opportunity for new stationary/notebooks is very welcome!)
  • When you’re working on a large project over a long period, and you have a number of other things on the go, it can be easy to push the dissertation to the back of your mind. I’d recommend working on it ‘little and often’ throughout the year. That way it’s always there in your mind and you’re making regular progress. Set aside some time each week to work on the dissertation, even if it’s only an afternoon. This will mean that when you come back to it, you don’t feel as though you need to start from scratch and remember what you’re working on before you can get started!
  • Get organised at the beginning of the project! Set up a dissertation folder on your computer with sub-folders for: secondary reading notes, ‘to read’ list, running bibliography, own ideas, notes from supervisions etc. If you take your notes by hand, which I personally recommend if you can, get a big project notebook for secondary reading and a small notebook for ‘ideas’. Being organised from the beginning will save you lots of time and effort later.
  • Get advice from your peers! While you will have meetings with your supervisor, it can also be helpful to talk through your topic with friends. Get together with your peers with talk through your ideas and arguments. You will probably all be working on different things but it can be helpful to get an outside perspective and also to articulate your ideas out loud.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your mind (within reason obviously!) If it becomes clear that you need to add in an additional text, or you suddenly discover a theory that would be perfect for your project, or your argument starts to change (as often happens), don’t be afraid to explore these possibilities (in conversation with your supervisor to check that you’re on the right track). When I did my DPhil, I completely changed my final chapter. It felt quite scary to do that but my gut instinct was that it would make for a much better argument. I cleared it with my supervisor and in the end I was really pleased that I made the change. If you find that an idea isn’t working, don’t be afraid to rethink.
  • BACK UP YOUR WORK! And then BACK IT UP AGAIN! I cannot stress enough how important this is and how much trouble it will save you if your computer breaks or you lose your notes etc etc. I tend to save material on my laptop, usb stick, and then for crucial written work I’ll email it to myself or to a friend!

If you have any advice, as a student or tutor, please do leave me a comment and I will add it to the list!

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One Response to Dissertation Preparation

  1. Edward Mills says:

    Another tip that I’ve found handy is to think not just about how often you write, but what you use to write. I’ve been using Scrivener for a few years now on long-form projects, and it’s very useful for getting away from the ‘terror of the blank page’ that Word can sometimes throw at you (although — a real gripe — it doesn’t handle Zotero all that well). There are plenty of other options as well, but they share the aim of making the writing process more ‘organic’, and less focused on ‘filling x pages’. A friend of mine wrote a blog post about this (it is in French, but the Google translation’s just about readable) — http://clementinebleue.blogspot.fr/2012/07/ciel-mon-logiciel.html .

    Oh, and if all else fails, there’s always ‘Written? Kitten!’ (http://writtenkitten.co)

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