Grad School, Grad School 101, Study

How to survive the Master’s dissertation/thesis.

Assalamualaikum, and hello! 🙂

Early note: In the UK, people write a dissertation for their undergraduate or Master’s programs. When you’re pursuing a doctorate (Ph.D./EdD, etc), it is called a thesis. In other countries, such as the US, it’s the complete opposite, where you write a Master’s thesis and submit a dissertation for your Ph.D.

To make things clear, whatever it is, this post is on how to survive the Master’s dissertation (or thesis, whatever you call it at your university). However, some parts of this may also be applicable to doctorate students. This is from my own experience during my MA Education journey at the University of Huddersfield, and so it may not be the same for you.

Early warning: Lost pong ahead, fair warning.

My own Master’s dissertation experience.

I did my undergraduate in the United States, and my BBA degree did not require me to write an undergraduate dissertation or final year project. This meant that when I was pursuing my Master’s, the dissertation was the longest piece of academic writing I ever had to write (as of now).

survive the master's dissertation
My 3-month baby.

For my Master’s program, we had to write a 12,500-15,000 words dissertation. Now, that may not seem much. I know of some Master’s programs where you have to write 20,000 words or more. But, for someone like me with no experience in writing long academic papers, it was daunting.

Looking back, it was kind of hard for me to keep it below 15,000 words though. I had to cut back on a lot, and re-focus my paper so that I can stay within the word limit. I suddenly realize that a 15,000-word paper is really not that long, but I guess that’s how it is. You got to learn to write succinctly and to the point.

I did my dissertation on SkolaFund and how it helped their participants to bridge the gap into higher education. It took a lot of hard work, countless nights staying up and analyzing data, long hours of writing and re-writing various chapters. The fact that my research participants were based in Malaysia (mostly) and I was in the UK made it a little hard. It was also a little frustrating in the research side of things, as there wasn’t that much literature surrounding the usage of crowdfunding in education, particularly in Malaysia.

But, I made it through somehow. I actually managed to score an 85 for the whole thing, which is way more than what I expected.

#100DaysofDissertation.

I challenged myself to finish my dissertation within 100 days, hence the #100DaysofDissertation. It was useful for me to have a goal in mind as it keeps me motivated and fired up throughout the whole summer. I started my dissertation process sometime in April/May and finished it in August, well within my 100-days. I actually submitted my dissertation 3 weeks ahead of the deadline, mainly because I was flying back to Malaysia for holidays and didn’t want to worry about it.

This was roughly how I structured my whole #100DaysofDissertation

When I started my 100 Days, I kept track of my schedule via a Google spreadsheet. Shamefully, the spreadsheet only worked for like ~1 month, before I abandoned it. But the schedule helped a bit in the sense that I had a rough structure of how I was going to spend the summer. This included scheduling in meetings with my supervisor, data collection period, the time set aside to analyze my data, and time to actually sit down and write.

Schedule some ‘off-days’.

Make sure you schedule in some off-days in between all your writing. After all, we’re only humans. And we all need our downtime to enjoy and relax a little. For me, I had planned some personal days over the summer break, which included attending a few concerts and going on a weekend trip with my husband. This can help you to recharge your mind and body and helps you to stay motivated throughout the whole process.

So when you’re planning out your rough plan for writing your dissertation, throw in a couple of off-days to just lie in bed, watch a movie, or go out with friends. Or, if you plan to write every single day, make sure you spend an hour or two to relax and de-stress. Make sure you have some fun things planned in between all that hard work.

Choosing the right topic to write your dissertation on.

Choosing the right topic for your dissertation can do wonders to your motivation throughout the whole process. If you choose a topic that you are not interested in, how would you get the motivation to push through and actually complete it?

That was the reason that I chose to write my dissertation on SkolaFund. It is something that is close to my heart, and I’ve personally done a project with them (i.e. my Radiance21 Scholarship project). It is definitely an area of interest, and it overlaps with my academic program (Youth and Community), so I figured, why not write about it? Furthermore, there is not that many literature surrounding SkolaFund or educational crowdfunding, so that’d be a good area to go into and write about.

So choose your dissertation topic carefully. Not only does it have to be related to what you’re studying (of course), but you must also be interested to learn more and write about it. Being personally invested in a topic can help to boost your motivation when things get rough. After all, you’ll be reading and writing about it for a few months at the very least. So you better not be bored about it and hopefully, it’d help you to survive the dissertation period.

Structuring & organizing your dissertation.

When you first think about writing a long academic assignment (like your dissertation), it may feel daunting and scary. I know it was for me, as I had various thoughts crossing my mind.

“How do I structure this thing? Wait, no, how do I even start writing this thing? Can I even meet all the learning outcomes for this assignment?”

survive the master's dissertation

I was lucky because our program provided a guide to help us survive the Master’s dissertation. This included suggestions for chapters to cover, what to write for each chapter, and how long the chapters should be. This helped A LOT because after breaking down the 12,500-15,000 word limit into different sections and chapters, the whole thing looked a lot more manageable.

So before you start writing, have a rough idea about how you’ll be structuring your dissertation. How many chapters will you be writing? What will you write for each chapter? Jot down some bullet points of your main and sub-headings so you’ll have a clear vision of how the final output would look like. And don’t worry if these changes along the way, it’s supposed to change as you write your dissertation. But having a rough draft of your headings and sub-headings will at least help you focus your writing on different parts.

Referencing like a pro.

In academic writing, one part that scares a lot of students (and researchers!) is the referencing and citation part. Luckily for us, many software and apps exist to help in navigating the confusing world that is referencing. You can use things like EndNote, Mendeley or RefWorks to help manage your reference list.

Personally, though, I didn’t use any of them. I didn’t have that long of a reference list, so I figured I would just do it manually (I don’t regret it, but it does take a little bit more time) as I had to manually cross-check my references and citations. This included printing a draft of my dissertation and checking off the citation one by one and manually checking my readings to ensure that I got the right information for the reference list. It was a little tiring, but I knew what I signed up for when I decided to not use any referencing app or software to do my assignment.

Utilize different resources.

One of my lifesavers throughout my Master’s journey is the Academic Phrasebank by the University of Manchester. This is especially useful for people who learn English as a second language, or for people who came back into the academic world after a long time. It can help you to better structure your academic writing and use different phrases and transitions throughout your paper.

Another perk for me was that I was working part-time at the University of Leeds’ Library throughout my Master’s journey. So, not only do I have access to the resources (physical and online) through the University of Huddersfield’s Library, I also have access through the University of Leeds’ Library. This gave me more opportunities to check out books that would be useful for my dissertation and helped me get a deeper understanding of the things I’m writing about.

So consider what your university offers you and how to best make use of your resources. For instance, most universities in the UK allow their students access into the SCONUL Access scheme. This scheme allows you to sign up for (free) membership at different university libraries and borrow/read books at their libraries. Some universities may also allow you to request books from other universities (through Document Supply/Inter-Library Loans), so this may also help you to get access to books from other places.

This also includes utilizing different apps and software to collect and analyze your data. Use SPSS or Excel to analyze your questionnaire data. Use an audio transcription service to help you transcribe your interview data. Save your data (and your draft) in a cloud storage – this can help ensure that in case something happens to your laptop or USB drive, your data and work are still safe.

Have a strong support system.

One thing that helped me to survive the master’s dissertation is having a WhatsApp group with some of my classmates. It feels good to know that you’re not alone in the dissertation journey. I did my dissertation over the summer holidays (May-August), and I rarely see my classmates as we only had 2-3 sessions throughout the whole summer. So keeping in touch with them over WhatsApp helps to comfort me whenever I feel stressed out. It also helps as you can motivate and push each other to do better and keep to deadlines.

I also had my husband and friends around when I was doing my dissertation. They helped me to stay sane and motivated, and provided a way for me to let off some steam. My husband helped a lot in analysing my data, and he also pitched in to help me to transcribe some of my interviews. I also got my friend to do some transcribing for me (paid, of course) so that I can ensure that my transcriptions are accurate.

My dissertation supervisor, Dr. Helen, was another source of support. I checked in with her a couple of times over the summer and sent her copies of my draft. She provided criticism and feedback and challenged me to think about things in a different way. I probably wouldn’t have been able to score a dissertation if it wasn’t for her help, so I’m highly grateful for her guidance.

If you’re into Twitter, or doing a Ph.D and need support from other researchers out there, you can also look into #AcademicTwitter. Follow good and engaging accounts like Academeology and Academic Chatter and connect with other academics out there. Surround yourself with like-minded people and it can help to build you up.

Remember… it will turn out OK.

There were multiple times throughout the whole summer when I feel like “Shit, this is not going to turn out well.” I was questioning myself, I was questioning my research, and I was questioning the quality of my dissertation.

survive the master's dissertation
Made it through successfully!

My advice would be: Don’t worry too much about it. If you constantly consult your supervisor and have them checked your draft, you should be all good to go. Don’t compare yourself to other people and think that your dissertation is not up to par. Impostor syndrome is a huge huge thing in academia, we all have gone through it. But you have to learn to let it go and trust that you are good enough, and that your dissertation is good enough.

Remember that you have your own voice and something new to add to the world, and only you can bring the best version out.

Hang in there, you can survive this master’s dissertation!

Of course, there are a lot more things that you can do that would help with your dissertation. For instance, my friend used the Pomodoro Technique (I wrote a little about this in this Say What? issue) to organize her time. Unfortunately, I tried it out and it doesn’t work for me (more like it doesn’t suit how I study probably).

So read around and find out what works for you. Something that worked for me or someone else might not work for you. Take your time and figure out how you best study and choose what works for you. You can do this. I know you can!

If you’ve successfully completed your Master’s or PhD dissertation/thesis and have any other things that you want to share, I’m sure people would love to hear from you too. Feel free to share it in the comments section and share your own experiences!

Hope this helps! 🙂 Until next time, stay awesome and take care. And go crush that dissertation!

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