student life

Dealing with dissertation meltdown, from someone who’s been there

Dissertation, final year, stress, advice, student, university, student life, Kettle mag, Stephanie Riley,
Written by Steph

I think I wrote my dissertation in a ‘bull in a china’ shop kind of way: hitting the library hard and staying in panic mode for about 6 months. This is my advice on how to deal with this, learning from the mistakes I made. However, if you’re reading this before the Christmas break having a zero word count, I was in the same boat as you and only started properly writing it in February and still got a high 2:1, so you’ll be fine!

Be interested in the topic

Obviously, you’ll need to choose a topic or a question to write about pretty early on in third year. Pick something you’re interested in and enjoy writing about. Don’t pick something just because you think it’ll be impressive for your tutor to read or anything like that. If you’re not interested in the topic, then it will come across in your writing, and it’ll be much harder and tedious for you to write than something you are actually passionate about. The final wording of the title can be done at a later date, but finding a general topic then narrowing it down to a particular time period (for example) is key for not wasting time on finding quotes you don’t need.


After this, the earlier you start planning, the better. Writing it all down in different sections visually compartmentalizes your ideas for you, which really helps you to see what quote or idea goes where. Then, as your research progresses, you can collect quotes and critics, write them in that appropriate section, and think about the wording of it later. This is something I did not do very well at the start of my research and later I remember reading back over a chapter and deleting a block of 1,000 words, as it was a great answer to an entirely different question. Not gonna lie, there were some tears, maybe followed by some beers, but, its better to find out sooner rather than later.

Make good use of your tutor

If you have a dissertation tutor, use them! Send them email after email, question after question, even if it’s to check that a certain sentence makes sense. It’s their job to help you, so do not feel like you’re asking too many questions because at the end of the day its your degree and you want the best one you can get.

Check the rules

See what is actually counted in your word count. It may seem obvious, but sometimes the rules of your piece is written down in a complicated manner, or someone has said one thing and a tutor has said another (which happened a lot during my degree.) Do your footnotes count? Does your title? These vary course-to-course, so double and even triple check with your tutor. It does seem insignificant, but seeing as one correctly cited footnote for a e-journal source could be about 50 words, it’s extremely important to know what and what not to cut.

Ignore others

Don’t listen to other people. Obviously you’ll talk to your mates about it, but it’ll literally stress you out so much more finding out someone’s a bit more ahead than you or seen their tutor three times this week when you’ve seen yours once so far. Do other things, even if it’s just going on a night out, just have a bit of a break and see your mates. Also, being a recluse and repeated 7-hour straight library sessions isn’t a fab idea. The amount of time you’ve trapped yourself in a stuffy library doesn’t earn you extra points in your degree, its only hinders your concentration and the quality of your work. By all means, I’m not saying work for 20 minutes and have an hour coffee break, but every hour or so, have a walk to get some coffee or ring a friend for half an hour to get your mind off a specific paragraph. Looking at it with fresh eyes actually helps more than you think.

Proof, proof again and proof some more

Proof read, proof read, proof read! Don’t just submit it after reading it once. It will be tedious, clearly because you’ve been looking at it for months on end, but its really the only way to spot grammatical errors or that your sentences actually make sense written down not just in your head. Swap with one of your friends and mark each other’s, and also triple check that you’ve spelt the names of your authors and critics correctly!

Don’t cram

Mostly, if you just do a little bit each day it’ll get done quicker than you think. The amount of research does matter, but do not use full paragraphs of other critics work. Chose the sentence or phrase that is most relevant to your topic, then paraphrase the rest of the critics argument in your own words instead. Being penalised for plagiarism after you’ve done all this would is not very cool. 

Good luck! It’ll be stressful and anyone who says it isn’t is a liar, but nothing compares to the feeling of finally handing it in and knowing you’ll never have to look at it again!