The sun is shining but many students won't see the daylight. Because it's that time of year again – dissertation time.
Luckily for me, my D-Day (dissertation hand-in day) has already been and gone. But I remember it well.
The 10,000-word spiral-bound paper squatted on my desk in various forms of completion was my Allied forces; the history department in-tray was my Normandy. And when Eisenhower talked about a "great crusade toward which we have striven these many months", he was bang on.
I remember first encountering the Undergraduate Dissertation Handbook, feeling my heart sink at how long the massive file took to download, and began to think about possible (but in hindsight, wildly over-ambitious) topics. Here's what I've learned since, and wish I'd known back then…
1) If your dissertation supervisor isn't right, change. Mine was brilliant. If you don't feel like they're giving you the right advice, request to swap to someone else – providing it's early on and your reason is valid, your department shouldn't have a problem with it. In my experience, it doesn't matter too much whether they're an expert on your topic. What counts is whether they're approachable, reliable, reassuring, give detailed feedback and don't mind the odd panicked email. They are your lifeline and your best chance of success.
2) If you mention working on your dissertation to family, friends or near-strangers, they will ask you what it's about, and they will be expecting a more impressive answer than you can give. So prepare for looks of confusion and disappointment. People anticipate grandeur in history dissertation topics – war, genocide, the formation of modern society. They don't think much of researching an obscure piece of 1970s disability legislation. But they're not the ones marking it.
3) If they ask follow-up questions, they're probably just being polite.
4) Do not ask friends how much work they've done. You'll end up paranoid – or they will. Either way, you don't have time for it.
5) There will be one day during the process when you will freak out, doubt your entire thesis and decide to start again from scratch. You might even come up with a new question and start working on it, depending on how long the breakdown lasts. You will at some point run out of steam and collapse in an exhausted, tear-stained heap. But unless there are serious flaws in your work (unlikely) and your supervisor recommends starting again (highly unlikely), don't do it. It's just panic, it'll pass.
6) A lot of the work you do will not make it into your dissertation. The first few days in archives, I felt like everything I was unearthing was a gem, and when I sat down to write, it seemed as if it was all gold. But a brutal editing down to the word count has left much of that early material at the wayside.
7) You will print like you have never printed before. If you're using a university or library printer, it will start to affect your weekly budget in a big way. If you're printing from your room, "paper jam" will come to be the most dreaded two words in the English language.
8) Your dissertation will interfere with whatever else you have going on – a social life, sporting commitments, societies, other essay demands. Don't even try and give up biscuits for Lent, they'll basically become their own food group when you're too busy to cook and desperate for sugar.
9) Your time is not your own. Even if you're super-organised, plan your time down to the last hour and don't have a single moment of deadline panic, you'll still find that thoughts of your dissertation will creep up on you when you least expect it. You'll fall asleep thinking about it, dream about it and wake up thinking about. You'll feel guilty when you're not working on it, and mired in self-doubt when you are.
10) Finishing it will be one of the best things you've ever done. It's worth the hard work to know you've completed what's likely to be your biggest, most important, single piece of work. Be proud of it.
• This article was previously published on Guardian Students on 2 May 2012.
If you choose the right thesis for your dissertation, you'll likely have committee encouragement, support in your discipline's larger community, and a potentially stronger chance for funding and future employment. A strong thesis also means less roadblocks as you write.
If you've chosen a weak or unpopular thesis, you'll probably encounter hurdles along the way that slow you down. This kind of opposition not only affects the project, but it can hit your self-esteem right when you need the confidence to finish your project to the end. Writing a dissertation can be challenging enough without conflict, and while a dissertation is never easy, the right thesis can make the whole process smoother.
So what do you do if you find that your thesis just isn't working? You'll probably have the urge to scrap the whole thing and start over. Ideally, most problems surface during the defense and approval of your thesis proposal.
Oftentimes issues arise during the research and writing stage, and in the worst case, they can't be dealt with in footnotes or a minor skewing of your argument. You might actually need to start over. So when is it too late to begin again?
Here are some points to help you decide if you should start over or keep going and try to push through.
Talk openly to your thesis director.
You may want to appear as if you have it all under control, but the best policy is to be honest with your advisor. If your advisor served on other committees, then she has seen the crises that arise in writing dissertations. If she has written a thesis, she knows what you're going through. Let her know what you're struggling with and ask her honest advice. And remember, your advisor wants you to succeed. She will have insight about your project and whether or not it's worth sticking it out or starting over.
Check out the official timetable and policies in your graduate school.
You want to see if starting over jeopardizes your funding or status in any way. Obviously you have to consider the official timetable between entry and completion in your department. Can you still finish within that time frame if you start over? You can often appeal these guidelines, but you also don't want to put yourself at risk. Most likely, you will have to reassemble your committee and get a second proposal (which you'll have to write) officially approved.
Consider what you can use.
If you've already spent a year or two assembling your research, it may seem crazy to think about starting over. Take the time to figure out what is salvageable. Is it possible to use any of the research to bolster or provide background to a new topic? Is there a way to use some of your research differently or in a new light? If you can't manage an entire dissertation out of your research, perhaps you can salvage a journal article.
What is going to change the second time around?
You need to take a hard look at the problems you had with your first topic. Make sure that they are really topic-related, and not a symptom of writing the dissertation itself. If you see a clear path to success, then maybe a topic change is just what you need to jump-start your project and finish it to completion. Changing topics midstream is more work, not less, so make sure that switching topics isn't just another procrastination strategy. Remember, your dissertation doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be finished.
Do enough preliminary research to know that your new topic has support and viability in the larger academic community. You also need to have a strong sense of the problems with your first topic, so you don't repeat them again.
Barreca, G. (2012, July 12). 6 Things Your Dissertation Director Wishes You Knew . Retrieved August 26, 2014 from Brainstorm.
Herrmann, R. (2012, April 8). My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation. Retrieved August 26, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Myers, K. (2013, March 25). Accepting Setbacks: Surviving When Your Dissertation Changes. Retrieved August 26, 2014 from Inside Higher Ed.