Updated: Jun 18
Approaching the undergraduate dissertation is almost like preparing to participate in running with the bulls in Spain. Undergraduate students enter their third year with much trepidation and anxiety but the exhilaration of the final year is just a short sprint away. Though before this joy of completion is the hurdle of the dreaded dissertation.
Amidst the terror of the dissertation experience is also an experience of self-fulfilment in finding one's academic voice, discovery of true research interests, and hope that inspires you to leap forth into another challenge. As a research supervisor, the experience is really mapped by your students' commitment to their tasks.
When my student Greta Boldrini asked for a reference for her Masters I was thrilled to hear she wanted to keep researching in education studies. Her recent acceptance into the MSc in Education (Child Development and Education) at University of Oxford is a significant achievement, one that hopefully inspires many other dissertation students to embrace the process as more than a 'project' to graduate but a journey of self-discovery.
As a supervisor, there are the obvious recommendations for students to do well such as manage their timelines, don't leave their work to the last minute, keep to their meetings, start writing early. Though I do not want to bore you with the mundane, instead here are a few observations I have made about the students who really come through shinning from the dissertation experience:
1) Building a relationship with your supervisor: It's important for students to be taking the initiative to design their topic such that the supervisor guides and facilitates the ideas. For the student this means managing healthy relationships and setting expectations for themselves and their supervisor. As many dissertation students do not get to choose their supervisor, who most likely might be someone you have established a relationship with, it is important that you take the opportunity to set the precedence of who you are for them. In other words, don't just say what your academic limitations are and that you need support in this area, but present your limitations with plan of how your supervisors' support can really help keep you on task and get through your project. If you take a proactive attitude to providing problems with potential solutions you will go a long way getting the best out of a good supervisory relationship.
2) Confronting your fears in the unknown: If the research experience makes you quite uncertain of what you are doing, and you find yourself asking more questions than there are answers then you are most likely on the right path. Research is messy and filled with uncertainties. The first route you choose will most likely not be the right one and if it does seem to be, its often not complete. Do not be afraid to ask difficult questions of your work, the closer you get to these questions the more likely you are on the cusp of figuring out a critical piece of the puzzle. Hiding from these questions or trying to chop and change your project to avoid complexity is the wrong approach since other people reading your work might be likely to ask the questions you are trying to avoid. With both feet dive in and construct a list of those hard questions, because once you have an answer your path of options will become much clearer.
3) Embracing change: Often the hardest part of presenting your work is getting the feedback that something needs to be changed. Students who check in with their supervisors regularly get frequent feedback so when they have to make changes it does not seem overwhelming. However, sometimes only until you are near the end of the project do you realise there might be major changes in justifying your approach, or reworking your research questions. Expect that change is constant and nothing is set in stone. Though this raises anxiety for many, you need to understand that change is not always a bad thing. Often you might happen to change something that makes your work unique and original because you have sought out to address what might make it cliche and obvious. Also, when you know what needs to be changed it is a much faster process than trying to figure out what you need to write.
These are some brief pointers, be sure to check out HAQacademia on my website for articles and resources that you can use for your research.