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How To Survive Your Dissertation At University

How To Survive Your Dissertation At University

For many students, a dissertation is the hardest, longest and most stressful academic piece they will ever encounter (and for a majority, will never want to undergo again). On the other hand, it is also one of the most rewarding projects to complete; something to look back on with pride. 

When initially starting your dissertation, (once after amusing yourself with relatable dissertation memes), you may be left feeling a little overwhelmed at the huge, independent journey ahead. I know I felt utterly terrified at the beginning of mine – I think that’s the worst part: the beginning. But i survived mine and here’s how you can get through yours: 

Don’t stress yourself about nailing down your exact topic and question straight away.

It WILL come with time. I think this is what I found most stressful about mine: the worry of not having an exact working title at the start. What doesn’t help is when your university set early deadlines for dissertation proposals, or hearing everyone else talk of theirs as if they’ve got the whole subject matter under hand. Take surroundings such as these with a pinch of salt. Most people alter and morph their subject focus during the course.


As long as you’re actively working on your dissertation and not leaving it until last minute, it will eventually come to you. In fact, I didn’t officially have a working title until the final stages of editing!

Extensive reading/research is more important than you think.

Research. Research. Research. Read around your topic as much as your brain permits you. Take down notes of anything that jumps out at you (and write down page numbers and book references alongside these notes – you will thank yourself later!). It’s incredibly obvious to markers how much research has gone into each student’s work; it’s what makes your writing crisper and your grasp of the subject stronger.


If you’re struggling with narrowing down your subject focus, reading and research will be your best friend. The more information you note; the more ideas you absorb; the thicker you’ll be laying your path ahead. It may take weeks and weeks, even months – that’s okay! 

If you’re still struggling with focus and structure, start writing anyway.

Sometimes, just writing whatever ideas you have already helps to carve your way. I found that my direction only started to fall into place as and when I was writing. You’ll write down one idea, then often enough you’ll have a burst of others come off it. 


Don’t leave it until you’re absolutely certain of your exact focus because goodness knows when that might be! You have to also bear in mind that your plan will very likely change as you’re writing so there’s very little point in wasting time trying to form an initial concrete plan.

Don’t worry about it being perfect writing either – that’s what the editing stage is for! Try and view your first draft of writing as a mere experiment with the information and ideas you already have. 


Utilise your adviser.

There’s a reason we’re assigned to advisors and it’s not so that they can judge us, stress us with progress meetings or just generally make our lives hell. They’re incredibly well informed on your subject (and likely your chosen dissertation topic too) so use them to your advantage. 

Advisors can help with narrowing down focus, directing you to specific books and research (because with all the reading you’ve got to do, filtering out unnecessary books is the ultimate blessing!). They can also help with structure, final editing and even moral support.

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Leave plenty of time for editing.

This isn’t just for checking spelling and punctuation. Really use your editing time to scrutinise your piece, checking for any parts where some miserable examiners may find fault with. It’s for re-drafting paragraphs, making your writing and focus crisper, perfecting footnotes and experimenting with alternate structures. 

Ask questions like: ‘Could I make this point stronger?’, ‘Could I back up with more research?’, ‘Is this completely on topic with my title?’, ‘Is this relevant or just waffling?’.


Utilise your friends and professors by asking them to have a read through – they may pick up on something that in the midst of all the stress, you’ve completely overlooked. 

If you’re feeling stressed, don’t bury your head in the sand.

Talk! Open up to people about how you’re feeling. The dissertation itself is an independent project but that doesn’t mean you have to face it alone. Everyone around you is there to help you: friends for de-stressing and moral support; professors for a nudge in the right direction. 


Try to enjoy it if you can. This is why it is important above all else to select a topic that you can bear researching and writing about to this level. Despite the natural stress and worrying that comes with a dissertation, I found my experience to be a positive one. There’s no reason why yours shouldn’t be. 

Tackling your dissertation can be an incredibly challenging experience – we hoped these tips helped! How did you manage your dissertation? Comment your own tips and advice below!

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