Guide: Coping with the year-long stress of writing your dissertation
Your third-year dissertation is, without a doubt, the most stressful part of any degree. Be it a mere 7,000 words long or a whopping 12,000-word book, the dissertation is a beast not easily tamed, and the accompanying stress eating/smoking/drinking you may turn to is often of no real help.
Lie to your mum about how it’s going
Telling your mum about how it’s going is potentially the worst thing you can do when trying to reduce your stress levels, even if it’s going well. Mums are notorious for unintentionally stressing you out even more than you already are. Whether she wrote a dissertation or not, your mum probably won’t understand the ins and outs of yours, and will, therefore, ask you questions that you don’t know how to answer.
If you cry to your mum, she will most likely not give you constructive advice, but instead, point out that you should have prepared more over the summer. If she calls to ask you how the dissertation is going, then, for your sanity, just tell her it’s all fine.
Everyone always says to start early, but this doesn’t mean to start in Fresher’s Week, or August, for that matter. Realistically, you need to start your research as soon as your second-year exams are over in May – I know, it’s depressing, welcome to third year. Doing this will, however, relieve the pressure, and it’s more impressive to your supervisor when you turn up in September with a massive folder of notes.
Get into a reading routine
Reading a few chapters a week throughout the first term is far less stressful than frantically scanning through thirty in the week before your deadline. If like me, you have countless other books to read on a weekly basis then this can get overwhelming, so it’s important to know what you’re planning on reading and when. Compile a reading list and work your way through it. If you stick to this rhythm of reading two books/chapters/articles a week, you’ll have read 48 over six months from May to November. Your dissertation can sit calmly on the back burner while you get on with the rest of your degree, and come January, you’ll be ready to write.
Do NOT listen to how much everyone else has apparently already done
Unfortunately, the dissertation will bring to light all the people who love to brandish their intellectual capabilities in your face. At around November time, some braggy post is bound to appear on your Instagram feed that’ll make you want to drop out of uni then and there. It’ll be of someone’s MacBook Pro and their morning coffee, an array of beautifully highlighted dissertation notes sitting pristinely on their desk, and the caption will read something along the lines of, “Finally finished all the reading for my diss! Praying I get that First #progress.” Ugh.
As with the theory that couples who post a lot on social media are unhappy, the same applies to those who post too much about their work. They’re most likely a complete wreck, just like you; it’s just that their aesthetic is more pleasing than yours. Don’t let them get in your head.
Don’t listen to how easy your friend at another Uni has it
I made the mistake of asking about how my friend’s university handles dissertations: spoon-feeding, and it enraged me to no end. At my university, we were pretty much chucked in at the deep end as we didn’t have lectures and had to seek out writing advice. At the time, this seemed fair. But when I visited my friend two days after handing in my muddled mess of a dissertation and heard about how hard she felt she’d had it, you can imagine my irritation.
Install all of the productivity apps
These sound like a con, but most apps are free and have real benefits. Time-blocking apps like ‘Workflow Timer’ set a 30-minute window for you to complete a task in, and then begin a 5-minute break before the next window, or a 15-minute break after two hours. Set yourself challenges: try to read an article in the timeframe, and seeing that you only have a limited time left before your break will spur you on to the end. The aim is to get through sixteen sessions in a day (eight hours), and when you do this the feeling of accomplishment is pretty great.
‘Toby’ is a brilliant browser add-on which saves your links as ‘sessions’ instead of open tabs, so you can easily open the ‘dissertation session’ after you’ve just been completing, say, your module reading in another session. You can shut down your computer without worrying about losing all 15 pages of reading you had on the go.
Carry on with your sports clubs and societies
I cannot stress the importance of this enough! If you give up your teams and spend all day every day in that library, you will drive yourself mad. Going to practice or a society meeting after an eight-hour library sesh may be the last thing you want to do, but it provides a well-needed mental break. Even if you can’t commit to attending everything, try to go at least once a week to relieve some stress and have a laugh.
Don’t let your supervisor scare you too much
Your supervisor will almost definitely employ scare tactics to put a fire up your ass. They’ve read the 5000-word drafts submitted in July by the keen beans, and then they’ve read your email asking if thirty references are enough, and they worry.
It’s good to be a little bit scared – it’s motivational. But don’t let your supervisor’s harsh words get you down. As long as you’ve got a plan and you know that what you’re doing is suited to you, you’ll be fine.
Don’t ignore it – it will not go away
As stupid as it sounds, this is what I did in the hopes that it would magically all come together in the six weeks before my deadline. Surprise surprise, it did not, and I ended up spending almost 24 hours in the library manically writing my last section the day before it was due. It’s like looking at your bank balance after a heavy night out – you’ve just got to face up to it.
Try to calm the f*ck down
Just try not to panic, okay? It’s important to remember that your chapters are just several normal essays all compiled into one project and that if your university didn’t think you were capable of completing it, then it wouldn’t be taught. If you feel like it’s all getting too overwhelming, call your university’s counselling service and arrange a session, or chat to your supervisor about how they can help you manage your workload. Keep in mind that by the summer term, this will all be over and that this time next year you’ll be doing whatever you want.