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The hardest hurdle: Surviving your dissertation

For the last couple of months solid, I have been a hermit in my flat, working on my dissertation until early in the morning, having a few hours sleep and being back up and writing again by 9am. I am so close to the end now that I am starting to relax a bit and feel like I am through the worst of it. So I wanted to share a bit of personal advice for anyone still struggling through, or for anyone else who still has it to come in the next few years. Here is what I have learnt, from me to you, on how to help you survive your dissertation…


When I first sat down at my desk and attempted to decide on a subject for my dissertation, I drew a total blank. I had a lot of passions and a lot of subjects that I was interested in… but did I love them enough to write a 10,000-word study on them? Hell no! So panic set in and I believed that I had fallen at the first hurdle. Please, don’t ever think that you are the only person struggling with your dissertation at any one time. There will be several other people just like you sitting at their desks and feeling like they have bitten off more than they can chew. Just talk to your friends, talk to your family and DEFINITELY talk to your dissertation tutor. Mine sat down with me for hours and helped me zone in on a subject that I was confident that I could write about, and that I knew I would thrive in.


This bit of advice actually came from my mum when I rang her in floods of tears because I felt like I was unable to write to the standards that were expected of me. My university provide examples of past dissertations that were all graded at a first, so I gazed upon these perfect dissertations and could not believe that I had to write something even remotely similar. I was just not THAT academic! So, my mum just said “El, get a grip and write something! Anything! Writing anything is better than writing nothing, even if it’s total bullshit!”. And I did! That night I wrote my first thousand words and it is still there and a part of my dissertation now. Just write something – anything! It will be better than you think, I promise! If it isn’t? Sort it later. You have time.


In the heat of my dissertation, when I was really struggling through each day, I used to set myself mini goals. For example, write solidly for an entire song and you can have a biscuit. Or, my personal favourite, if you write a thousand words today, you can treat yourself to a new MAC lipstick. I surprised myself at how well these goals worked for me. 10,000 words is a lot when you try and face it all at once. Split it up into sections and chapters and take it each word at a time. It gets done so much quicker than you could ever imagine.


A break? In the middle of my dissertation?! Are you KIDDING?! No, I am deadly serious. Too much of anything can make you sick and that is a known fact. If you sit and try to do too much without giving yourself the break you need, the words wont even look like words anymore. The subject you are writing about will become a chore, rather than a passion. And your writing ability will become something resembling a seven-year-old child. Give yourself a day or two where you can step away from it re-fuel, and then come back to it with fresh eyes.


I’m an emotional person on a daily basis. Adverts make me cry, okay? But, for those of you who aren’t big at crying, you’ll absolutely hate trying to get your dissertation done – because you cry A LOT! You will feel so useless, weak and like you really cannot complete this dissertation no matter what you do. But I promise you, you will get it done and having a little cry and feeling sorry for yourself for 10 minutes is totally acceptable. How else are you meant to show that you are human? Crying is a part of life and a huge part of a dissertation! Sorry, tough-nuts! Your time has come! Cry, blow your nose and carry on… you can do it.


I was very guilty of trying to think about too much at once. I worry about things I don’t need to worry about, and I stressed myself out about issues that I wouldn’t face for another few weeks. Don’t think about the work that you have to have done by tomorrow, think about what needs to be done TODAY. I promise you, from someone who has done this first hand, thinking ahead of yourself only adds to that weight you already have on your shoulders. Just relax and focus on right now. You’ll feel so much better for it.


For the organised people like myself, deadlines help to create focus. Sure, they can also add to the pressure, but because these deadlines are personal, it means that it isn’t the end of the world if you miss them. Give yourself a realistic amount of time per chapter and try your best to manage your time properly. Also, for your draft to be completed. make sure it is a few weeks before your OFFICIAL deadline, because you need a bit of chill time and a bit of time where you can go back and tweak the bits that need to be tweaked. No one got anywhere from finishing a dissertation the night before it was due.


My final and most important bit of advice: you can do this. I have never in my entire life had such low self-esteem as I have during writing my dissertation. It plays with your head and makes you doubt every single word you type. I have cried, I have screamed, I have stomped my feet and hit things… I have even curled up in the foetal position and just stared at the ceiling wondering how I could get away with plagiarism. I woke up most days believing that I was trying to achieve the impossible and that there was no way in the world that I would be able to finish this dissertation, but I promise you, YOU CAN DO THIS. My god, you can do this. Even if it is the hardest thing you will ever have to do (which it very well may be), it is do-able. And it will happen. Just believe in yourself the way that everyone else around you seems to. You can do this.


You bloody deserve it!


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