Writing your dissertation: A word to the wise

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So, you second years. You think you’ve got it made, don’t you? You think you know it all. You’ve made it through two years – you’ve seen all there is to see, right? Well, let me tell you boys and girls, you’re wrong. The holiday is over.

I hope I’m not mistaken when I presume that many of you will be writing dissertations next year, and I’m sure you’re wringing your hands and agonising over a title. You’re right to be scared – a lot of what’s ahead is going to be just as gruelling, tedious and soul-numbing as you think. But, as I’m here to tell you, this is not such a bad thing as you might believe. Who needs a life of leisure? On the flip side of all this travail is the satisfaction that you can only get from a real, indisputable achievement. There’s an oft-repeated cliché that you might be starting to find exasperating: that, once it’s over, you’ll be amazed at the fact that you managed to put together a coherent dissertation, and sincerely proud of the scope of your achievement. This, like many clichés, is surprisingly accurate; it is, after all, a real achievement! 10,000 words – that’s practically a novella.

I don’t mean to be patronisingly obvious, but you’ve got to choose a good subject – something you enjoy, something you’re not going to get sick to your stomach with 4,000 words in. There’s another dissertation cliché – that you don’t want to write about something you love, because close analysis would ruin it for you. But in my opinion, if what you’re studying is good enough it will stand up to your scrutiny, and with a little bit of luck and a good deal of elbow grease it’ll open up to you and your understanding of it will deepen – which is, after all, the point. It’s going to be a labour; make it a labour of love. Perhaps you’ll even come to realise exactly why this particular passion of yours – be it Pride and Prejudice, Brooklyn 99 or Einstein’s theory of relativity – appeals to you specifically, and, as we all know, there’s nothing better than a bit of self-knowledge.

In addition to this, try your best not to indulge in this trendily kooky ‘procrastination’ that seems to be the craze these days. I know this is harder than it sounds, but all it leaves you with is, in the words of Hemingway, ‘the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.’ I saw a YouTube video once – I can’t remember the title – where a guy was saying something along the lines of, ‘there’s no magic pill that can do your work for you or make everything OK – so stop complaining and do some work.’ As uncompromising as it sounds, this is a good – if a little starkly put – piece of advice. If you’re feeling depressed, or can’t shake that tortuous, itchy feeling that there’s something you should be doing – then work! Get off your Upfeeds and your Buzzworthies and your MySpace, and deal with your problems one step at a time. Sure, it seems like an insurmountable task – a sheer-sided mountain – but, as a wise man once said, the longest journey begins with a single step. Baudelaire – not to get too highfalutin – said it best: ‘We are weighed down, every moment, by the conception and the sensation of Time. And there are but two means of escaping and forgetting this nightmare: Pleasure and Work. Pleasure consumes us. Work strengthens us. Let us choose.’

Now, bear in mind that he wrote this in the premature twilight of his life, when he was regretting his opium-and-hashish binges and starting to go a little cuckoo – but still, food for thought.
I’ve always felt that my talent lies in stating the obvious, and in that spirit: don’t leave your dissertation until too late! Don’t freak out about it, but make sure it’s started at least before Easter, and ideally months and months before that. Mull it over, read some books, make some notes, and let your idea germinate. Far-fetched as it may sound right now, it will take root in your subconscious and start to sprout.

I’m not saying that you should work yourself to death; far from it. Third year is fun, and there’s no denying you’ll relish finally being at the top of the food chain, so enjoy it.
I must admit that this article reads more like a generic call-to-arms than anything else – but perhaps, reader, that’s just what you need right now. So have a fun, inspiring summer, and remember – you’ve got plenty of time to write your dissertation, but not that much. I believe in you.

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