When I started my dissertation way back in July, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do: something something misogyny online something blah blah maybe gamergate something something generate data blah blah something something something….. There. And an upper limit of 15,000 words to do it in. Great. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the iceberg, that lump of frozen water that’s famous for hiding most of itself under the sea? I felt as if it was hanging, upside down, over my head and I was struggling even to touch the tip.
I really wasn’t sure where to start, so started by having a look for some research papers that might be appropriate. I found and downloaded a few, and began to read them. When I wanted a change, I turned to this book (see left), which gave me some clearer ideas on how to proceed. By now, I’d also created a table in Word to record details of some of the papers I’d read, and a section in OneNote where I could make some notes as I went along; and I made notes on everything. Sometimes I just added questions to myself. The thing is, I kept writing something pretty much every day, and although my actual dissertation wasn’t being constructed, I was still working on it.
At some point, several things happened at once. I found a think-tank report that pretty much did what I’d wanted to do, but as it wasn’t a research paper, there was scope to take the basic idea and refine it. I had a chat with my supervisor, which helped to clarify some thinking. I decided which piece of software I would use to gather my data, and a discussion with a different academic about how best to gather and use the data sorted that bit out for me. I used the example dissertations I’d been given access to, to create the chapter heading for my own dissertation and I was finally on my way.
I read papers, and made notes as I read using the ‘highlight’ and ‘comments’ section in AdobeReader. Some of the highlights were copied and pasted into my literature review table. I also started a Google document to make a visual connection between the documents I was reading so that I could see how they related to each other, and the titles of these documents were added to the online tool RefMe. One of the most useful tools at this stage was Padlet. This useful little app lets you create digital post-it notes and group them according to topic. I made loads, as you can see below.
Days and days went by… reading, adding to the literature review table, adding to RefMe, adding to Padlet, adding to OneNote….. I also gave myself time to walk away from it all and do something completely different for a while, which is actually extremely important. That sub-conscious not-thinking-about-it-whilst-thinking-about-it-really process is great for giving you a mental break, whilst preparing you to take a fresh perspective when you pick it up again.
The second most useful tool for me now came into it’s own: this blog. The thing about a blog is that you know your audience isn’t going to judge what you write, so you can relax and use less academic language. You can try out thoughts and ideas, and use it as the basis for some sections of your dissertation, which is what I did. I didn’t get comments on my blog, but I did get quite a few via Facebook and Twitter. They didn’t change what I was intending to write (or had already written) but they did keep me thinking about, and questioning, what I was doing.
Eventually, I was ready to start writing my dissertation. I’d already added my sections (although they changed as the dissertation grew). and while I can’t claim it was easy, I’d already done so many notes and so much preparation work, that it was relatively straightforward. It’s worth mentioning here that I decided not to do, or use, more that I actually ended up with. The thing is, though, you won’t know what to leave out, or what line of research not to pursue, until you have a good understanding of your topic and an overview of all the related areas. In a way, it’s that iceberg the right way up this time, and you’ve gone from a really broad base of research and honed your final essay down to the essentials.
All my documents, including my finished dissertation, are here, and if you want a look at my OneNote file, it’s here. I also made these documents available to my supervisors so that they could keep an eye on my progress if I asked them to. Certainly, it was useful for the couple of meetings I had.
To sum up, then, this is what worked for me:
- Talk to people all the time about your research. It’s another way of thinking aloud.
- Do loads of notes, even very short ones, as you go, preferably digital ones. They’ll be easier to copy and paste later on.
- Keep your list of documents read, and references, up-to-date as you go. Again, do this digitally.
- Blog, and use your blogs to jump in and start your dissertation.
- Start your dissertation anywhere. There’s no law that says you have to start at the beginning and finish at the end.
And finally, for now….