The stress that comes with a dissertation, at whatever level (BA, MA, PHD) is just about as dreadful as my attempt at the tumblr-esque photo that you are regretfully seeing as my featured image.
Nevertheless, in both cases, we persevere.
First of all I think it is important to inform you all that my day today has consisted of coffee, Billy Ocean, studying, failing to study, reading, failing to read, Billy Ocean again, and finally succeeding to study. The reason it’s important is because along this ever-so-tiresome journey, it is crucial to admit A) when you’re going a little mad and B) when you categorically cannot study. Both are linked as if two broken chains on a watch scratching at your skin. They’re annoying, and you try to ignore them as much as possible, but eventually you have to accept that there will be times when productivity is impossible.
After all, forced productivity during these periods of academic absence, shall we say, will only lead to highly half hearted and digressive work that will, in the future, be cut down to about two useful words.
It’s ridiculously stressful, and at times you will have to get passed it, especially if you’ve left it to the last few weeks, and your supervisor is close to murdering you. But in a project that lasts for so long, it is important to look after your mental health.
And goodness, let me tell you, your mental health will take a beating, but it’s worth it.
Remember that your sanity and mental health is just as important as finishing your dissertation. Though the prospect of actually finishing your dissertation seems completely preposterous at times, there is always time for a spiritual break. It doesn’t have to be long, an hour or two. At the same time it doesn’t have to be short. If you’re near the start, allow yourself a day off, or two days off. Remind yourself that the sun is outside, or that fresh air stops you dying. and that other people exist and light takes the form of more than a lamp on your desk.
Clean. Cook. Bake. Dance to some Billy Ocean or Michael Jackson. (my personal favourites.) Just have some kind of break every now and again.
Also, organisation. This is both a blessing and a curse for me, because I love to be organised but I also struggle with actually keeping on top of everything. I have my diary but sometimes forget to use it. I have my post-stick notes on my wall, but some times forget to replace them. Again, accept that you’re like that, and, furthermore, knowing that, work around it, find humourous ways to remind yourself to not be a forgetful hindrance.
KEEP ALL YOUR NOTES AND RESOURCES IN A FOLDER.
This is so helpful. It’s a dissertation. If you’re doing a BA it’s going to be 10,000 words. MA, 20,000. PHD, an amount that doesn’t even bare mentioning for fear of throwing up in my mouth a little. You don’t want to lose a single thing. Keep it all in one place, even if you’re not sure if you’ll use it, you can always come back to it, or replace it with something better. On top of this…
MAKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY AS YOU GO ALONG, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS PRECIOUS.
Bibliographies are quite possibly the most tedious, long winded part of any essay that will make you consider just dropping out and becoming a bed tester. So it’s helpful to write the reference for each source as you go along. Chances are, by the end of your essay, you’re going to have a 40+ list of books and articles to reference. You don’t want to do that at the end.
READ ONLY WHAT IS RELEVANT.
This is the one thing people don’t think about as much, compared to the others. Funnily enough, not everything is useful. Not every page of a book is worth the time reading. The truth with research is you could have 20 books, and only 1 of them be useful and relevant to you all the way through. The other 19 have a few crucial chapters, but everything else, by comparison is irrelevant. Some would argue that you might stumble upon something even better if you carry on reading, but you also might stumble upon a better book by stopping reading. Reading a chapter that, really, has little to do with your thesis, in the hopes that maybe something will pop up is ironically lazy and a waste of time. You’ll end up finding something new, it will be irrelevant but you’ll find it interesting and a whole chain of events will proceed like a clumsy fall of dominoes. Then you will have wasted a week on a subject that has little to no actual correlation to your topic. Be open-minded, but be specific.
KEEP A CONSISTENT STRUCTURE
This one, for me so far, hasn’t been so bad. My supervisor is handing me tasks and deadlines, left, right and centre and keeping me working at a stable pace. It gives you something to work for each week and doesn’t trick your brain into thinking that because the eventual deadline is so far away that you can just doss about for a month. Write it down, too, keep a track of what your routine looks like in physical form. Stick it all over your walls or above your desk or on the ceiling facing your bed to remind you even at night you can’t escape…
YOU CAN ESCAPE, THAT WAS A JOKE. SLEEP. SLEEP WELL.
Simple again but essential. Sleeping sometimes is completely void in the course of a dissertation, when you think of 24 hour sessions, or whatever amount of sleep you can avoid before your words become dancing chinchillas on a bed of clouds. BUT they’re a last resort, avoid them as much as you can, because they drain you, and leave an effect on the days after. Just like one bad nights sleep will. So as much as you can, do the things you know will help you to sleep, listen to Bon Iver, buy a memory foam mattress, watch Bridesmaids or The Shining, depending what you’re into.
There are a lot of minor things I could add, but each process is also different, I would also put ‘don’t drink coffee no matter what your cravings tell you’ in there but that’s because my body launches into the shakes over the sip of a caramel latte. The truth is, a dissertation is difficult. This is my second time doing it (after my BA) and honestly it’s actually worse. It feels a little lonelier, and there’s more pressure, not forgetting the crisis of thinking of what to do after it’s all done, but there’s also the bigger factor that I enjoy it.
Behind every dissertation is a passion to be served. If you’ve gotten as far as to be researching and writing a dissertation then that means there is a topic you have enough passion in you to pursue at whatever cost. Even if some times it feels completely worthless, and that it will never end, it’s all a part of a strangely addictive process that ends with, arguably, your greatest academic achievement. Remember that, strive for it. In all the struggle and stress is a need to create and to achieve and to question. So do that, create, achieve and question but do so with care, and above all else, enjoy it when you can, because there’ll be a large part of you that will miss it when it’s all over.