I’ve written a few times about my disseration. When I first started trying to post about it weekly, it seemed like ages away that I’d be handing it in. But here we are; Christmas is fast approaching, and I’ve handed in a draft. I have a set of results, a lot of reading to do, and a lot of graphs to make. So as I gulp in anticipation of only having one term of uni left (I’m both terrified and SO DAMN READY!), I’m using today to reflect on everything a dissertation throws at you.
Choosing a dissertation topic was cut-throat, despite our teachers saying no one ever struggles and it’s not too competitive. As soon as the list of topics went live I went in with emails to all topics that sounded good. I’d been told in previous years not to expect much – students in years above me all moaned that no-one got their first choice and you should accept that you’ll get your third of forth. I managed to get interviews for my top 2 choices and was given a project with my first choice of supervisor. So yes, it is entirely possible to get the topic you want. Here are my hints though: don’t wait around – get in there as soon as you can to show interest and read around the topic – show up with some ideas as to how you would execute the project. Admittedly, I ended up writing my own project in my interview (if anyone wants more information on writing your own dissertation projects when given a list then leave a comment and I’ll get a post sorted!), but I wouldn’t have gotten the project if I hadn’t gone into the interview and started nattering on about how buoyancy affects seal behaviour. So be prepared and don’t hang around!
After 3rd year exams passed, I had to head up to see my supervisor and start brainstorming the topic. I actually worked at a distance from my supervisor, which was interesting but did mean a few three hour drives and overnight stays in Cromarty to catch up. The data set we were given to work with was like nothing I’d seen before and honestly terrified me. I was wondering how in God’s name I’d manage to do anything with it! We had a look through everything on it and started to think about how each of us (3 in total) would shape the data for our own projects. At that point I felt very lost – How would I complete a project using a data set I’d never understand?
Summer flew by in a blur and before I knew it, it was time to begin the project. With a little background research under my belt and a few months of volunteering jobs done, I was somewhat ready. After another trip to Cromarty to confirm how we’d be undertaking our projects, I was given one seal’s worth of data and told to explore and come to some conclusions. Progress was slow as I tried to remember how to use R, and found myself needing more time outs than ever. Around this time, Tom floated the idea of getting a cat. By the time I re-figured out how to use R, done preliminary data analysis and started to write my code to decipher the data, we had bought a fluffy little companion.
First off the bat, don’t get a pet whilst writing a dissertation – they take up an awful lot of time. I wouldn’t change Peggy for the world, and the stress reduction from cuddles is a big help, but the way I have to sit when she falls asleep on my lap led to a trapped nerve and a day of not walking, along with a lot of time lost as I could only work when she was asleep. But determination is a strong thing and after two and a half months of R making me cry, I had a set of results that not only showed something but were really interesting! Finally, I was done with the hard part!
Next up came the draft. Most disserations are around 20,000 words long. Mine was set at 4000 words for a draft, although I did have my reasons why. I managed to illustrate where I wanted to go with the write up, what I thought the results meant, and still had room for more to write, providing I could research it. So essentially, this is where I am right now. I am by no means done. But I’m very close to it…
Overall, no one lies when they tell you your dissertation is the most stressful experience in your student career. If you aren’t doing a scientific degree, it will be mind numbing too as you have to do all of the reading! From a scientific point of view, it’s so useful to be able to say you conducted an entire study independently. Mine was desk based – all I did was analyse data. There is always the potential for lab-based or field-based studies. It all depends on what you want to do. But yes, you do need the whole three months to do it, you do need to dedicate yourself to it, and it’s not easy. But the independence was amazing, and if this is the last student experience I have, I’m happy with how it’s gone.
How about you? Completed a dissertation? In the middle of one? Not even in the forefront of your mind? Tell me your stories in the comments below!
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