Slaying the dissertation dragon, part 2 – just keep swimming

In part 1 of this two part series I talked about reasons why you might pick an extended research project like a dissertation or thesis, and how to go about finding your research question.  In part 2 I’m going to turn to one of the biggest challenges of undertaking this sort of project – how to keep on keeping on.

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Dory has sat on my shelf since my very first day of undergraduate study. Yes, the song gets stuck in my head every time I look at her.

There’s no question that a dissertation or thesis is one of the biggest individual tasks you’ll undertake as a LIS student and maybe beyond, so big that it can feel impossible. One of the strongest messages that came out of my school’s Dissertation Bootcamp was that it’s okay to feel like this, and that it’s perfectly normal to have days or weeks (or longer) where it looks like you’ll never get through.  The important thing is to keep going.

As well as these words of wisdom (which I might just print out and stick all over my flat in the coming months) I gleaned some practical tips to share with you all to help you get through.

One recurring point was to have a plan – you don’t have to schedule your life down to the minute the moment you start this project, but you should take some time towards the beginning (after you’ve got your research question!) and check your deadlines.  Do you have to meet with your supervisor a set number of times? Is there a deadline for a draft to be in for checking?

Remember to check your other commitments too – you might be going to an enormous conference right before a dissertation or thesis deadline, so plan now how you’re going to deal with that. Last year a friend of mine handed her dissertation in a week early to avoid working on it during a conference we both attended, causing a bit of short term stress but ultimately meaning she could relax and pay full attention to the conference. Check with work – are there any big projects starting or finishing soon?

Once you’ve got these dates set (and do remember to write them down…) then look at your project again. In the words of Nick Canty, our Acting Programme Director of the MA in Publishing, ‘break the mountain into hills’. If you’re daunted by the scale of your project then focus on a chapter at a time, or even paragraph by paragraph if that helps. It adds up.

To add some motivation to this, set your own deadlines, and tell people. You know what makes you actually start working, even if it’s just The Fear (My name is Sarah Hume and I am a serial procrastinator).  Deadlines help make it real, and break up months of work with one final deadline to smaller chunks to do sooner. Think about a strategic plan as well as a chronological one – Aidy So has an excellent post on this.

Be realistic when setting these deadlines though – everything always takes longer than you think it will.   Review your skill set too – can you improve your note taking? How’s your time management? If you know you suffer from mid-semester burn out then do you know specifically what triggers this? Can you plan around it? Breaks are important!

Our subject librarian Tara-Lee Platt (who has been a fantastic source of wisdom and I’ll just keep repeating that your subject librarian – or academic liason librarian or whatever job title they act under – will be an amazing and often underutilised resource) talked about the actual mechanics of literature research, with a useful takeaway – don’t hunt for serendipity.  Trust your search techniques, don’t get desperate, and let it come to you. (Breathe, please remember to breathe)

If your research involves other people, remember this can be tricky and that things happen – we had an entire section on research techniques entitled ‘People let you down, get ill, or die’.  Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold talked us through through the varied methods of working with people – ethnography, interviews, focus groups, participant observation, etc (for anyone interested in this related to user experience, a three day conference on UX in libraries was just held in Cambridge, UK, with some amazing speakers and insights. Check out #UXLibs on Twitter for links to some great blog posts, my favourite being Ned Potter on ‘Ethnography you can try at home‘).  As well as this, the talk went in depth into ways of getting around the fact that people can be unreliable – the key is to be organised, to give yourself lots of time in case things go wrong and to have a plan B.

In a worst case scenario, if everything falls apart completely you will still have options – maybe you can produce an incredibly in-depth literature review of your research area, maybe you can write a meta-thesis on research processes in LIS, maybe you need to take a year and submit later.  The key message all the speakers hammered home was that you need to stay in touch with your supervisor and department.  If something even hints at a significant problem you should give your supervisor a head’s up. Be your own early warning system!
Always, always remember that there is an end in sight, and then be able to rewatch movies about animated fish to your heart’s content.

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