Doing the Dissertation: Tips for researching and writing an undergraduate History dissertation
Researching and writing a dissertation at the end of an undergraduate degree can be an exciting experience. It’s the first and possibly the only time you’ll get to tailor a research project to your own interests from start to finish, providing an opportunity to venture beyond the course modules and to test the skills you’ve picked up over the last couple of years. Yet it may also seem an incredibly daunting prospect with the summer and third year still stretching ahead!
Along with the university’s dissertation handbook – a must-read for any student before embarking on the process of putting a dissertation together – below you’ll find some tips from this year’s graduands regarding how to make the process slightly easier on yourself; to maximise productivity and minimise stress!
‘Children in Crisis: Parents’ Roles and Community Involvement in High Medieval Miracle Narratives’
- It is very important to choose a topic or area of research that interests you, and that will interest you throughout the year. Having said that I also found it very valuable exploring a subject that was closely related to the work of a member of the History department. I found my dissertation supervisor’s student hours very useful as they were able to help with the relevant historiography for my work as well as discuss with me the issues I was looking at in depth.
- It’s also important to keep a sense of time throughout the year. I was given the good advice of setting aside specific time/days during the week to devote to dissertation to keep the ball rolling during term time. A whole day is valuable as it allows you to really concentrate on the subject you are studying and make progress without having to constantly remember what stage you’re at. The Christmas holidays are also a valuable time to start writing. Make sure you take advantage of the 3,000 word draft, rather than submitting a small rough section, to get as much feedback as you can for direction for your final dissertation.
‘“Fear No Longer Dictates.” An Assessment of the Impact of the Good Friday Agreement Upon Northern Irish Society, 1998-2014.’
- Don’t be overwhelmed by the amount of primary material there may be on the subject. This is particularly true if, like me, you cover a modern dissertation topic; my primary source of primary material, the Conflict Archive on the Internet, has millions of words within its pages — it simply wasn’t feasible to include every single speech made on any particular theme. Be selective: as long as you can justify why you’ve ignored or circumvented certain sources (or types of source), it’s absolutely fine.
- Make the most of audio-visual sources, if there are any! Just because you can only find a speech that’s, say, a BBC recording, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use it! It’s also something which can help make your primary source bank a little bit more original.
- Make a writing timetable, spanning the period of time you’re planning on writing your dissertation. This is something which is highly personal and depends on the way that you work the best. This is an example of the one that I created for myself for the month run-up to hand-in, colour coded every day as to how productive I was!
- Choose a topic that you’re interested in! It’s a piece of work that you’re spending time on for more than a year – if you’re bored, it’s going to be really, really difficult to motivate yourself to write a good piece of work.
George de Cintra.
‘A Comparison of how Three Medieval Miracle Story Authors Presented Disability’.
- Don’t be afraid to be creative with your analysis of the primary material. It is fine to go against the established historiographical consensus on a particular topic, providing the sources fit your argument! It also makes the dissertation process more enjoyable when you’re working on something that feels original and inventive. The 3000-word procedural work for the dissertation, which you’ll complete during the Christmas holidays, is a particularly good time to try out these new ideas on your supervisor.
- Remember that the dissertation is written very differently to the 2000-word essays that you’ve been writing up until now. Unlike those essays, which are about navigating the scholarship on a particular topic, the dissertation is structured primarily around your own analysis of primary material. I made the mistake of thinking that the dissertation was written like any other essay, leading to lots of rewrites after my supervisor informed me of my error!
- Proof read your dissertation multiple times after you have finished writing it. Grammatical and spelling mistakes are an easy way of making your work look unprofessional.
‘Politics and morality in the early sixteenth century: Edmund Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth, 1509-10.’
- Consider keeping an annotated bibliography. Essentially an annotated bibliography is a normal bibliography of your secondary reading but with an evaluative outline of each piece itself, including details about the argument, sources used, where it sits within certain debates, and (crucially) whether there is anything you disagree with. Keeping your reading notes like this is a chore in itself, but helpful for a number of reasons – it’s searchable, for when you can’t remember who made a particular argument, it’s a useful way to access the majority of your research in one place, and it saves you running around for publication details right before the deadline! As long as you remember to save it regularly and in multiple locations it can become a really helpful tool for the dissertation and any further work.
- If you’re worried about going over the 10,000-word limit (which is easier to do than you might expect), one suggestion might be to set word limits for each chapter and then write them up in individually saved documents before editing them together later. If you’re particularly verbose this can help make sure you avoid the often-inevitable dilemma of not having enough words left for a conclusion at the end!
- Read sections of your writing aloud. Again this stands as general essay-writing advice but can be particularly helpful for dissertation, where the extended length means you have the space to be more expressive. Reading aloud a particular section you’re worried about to a housemate/course-mate/partner or even to yourself is useful for checking grammar and sentence structure as well as the general tone of your work.
‘Anomalies in the Colony’: Continuity and Change in English Perceptions of Irish Catholics between Britain and the West Indies during the Seventeenth Century.
- Make sure to read the dissertation handbook in full before starting your final draft, especially the sections on writing and formatting. This is especially important if your department requires you to seek permission for exemption of certain sections from the word count, such as an appendix, by a set deadline. If you don’t read the relevant sections at least a few weeks before submission you run the risk of missing these deadlines. It will also mean you won’t have to go back to correct any formatting errors, such as superscript references in the incorrect place.
- Ensure that you keep detailed information about the primary sources you have used or intend to use, including the publication date. This is particularly important for sources that have been published in multiple editions, as page numbers may be different or sections may have been altered or translated in a different way. Early English Books Online (EEBO) and many other online archival resources also provide the option to copy a durable URL, which you could add to your annotated bibliography for quick access to the correct version of the source.
- When using an online archival source such as EEBO, using the ‘find’ function in your internet browser is a useful way to search for keywords. You can then navigate directly between each instance of a particular word or key term within the source without having to return to the main search engine page of the archival resource. This is particularly useful for finding key passages in very long documents that would otherwise be very time consuming to read in detail.
The University of York History Department dissertation handbooks (2015-17):
“Ten things I wish I’d known before starting my dissertation.” The Guardian, April 2014. (for general tips, though the article refers to History dissertations specifically too).
York Digital Library (YODL) (you can use YODL to search for and view past first-class dissertations, which can be useful as examples for formatting and structure).