In May, I will be delivering a short talk to the cohort of Masters students in Arts and Humanities at Manchester Metropolitan University about the different skills I learnt when completing my MA dissertation and provide them with some advice going forward. I only have 15 minutes to deliver this, so I thought I would cover it in more depth here:
Tip 1: Don’t try to do too much
The content I’d initially planned for my Masters dissertation probably could have filled a whole PhD. My topic initially was to look at depictions of cannibal families across three types of text: one novel, one film, and one television show. Very quickly, this dropped down to just the novel and television show, when feedback from my dissertation preparation day (see below) told me I was trying to cover too much. I later ditched the novel and just focused on writing about Hannibal. Why? I had too much to say about it! It is better to go in deep on one text than to only provide a surface-level reading of a number of texts. Don’t be afraid to drop things if they don’t work or don’t fit.
Tip 2: Present your work
My university ran a Dissertation Preparation Day, in which we delivered the content of our dissertations (obviously not in
a complete form) in a 20 minute powerpoint presentation which was then open to questions from fellow students and staff. Not only does this give you experience in delivering conference papers, but it can point out gaps in your argument and provide you with new perspectives to consider even before you start writing a draft. If your university doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to present your dissertation or thesis topic, arrange a time with fellow students in which you can share your plans with each other and get feeedback.
Tip 3: Don’t be afraid to ask for help
The help I requested was very specific. I was in the midst of medical investigation, but without diagnosis, I was dealing with some pretty nasty symptoms without explanation. I applied for, and was granted, three months extra time so that I could finish my write-up while prioritising my health. Even without an underlying health condition, students were able to pay for extra write-up time (the payment being to cover additional course fees, although medical exemptions were free). Things crop up in a researcher’s life, and sometimes your work cannot be your priority. The most important thing is to communicate with your dissertation supervisor, postgraduate support admin, and if necessary, your disability service, and work out a plan that will lead you to the success you are capable of.
Tip 4: Make the supervisory relationship work for you
One of the things that can make or break a student is their relationship with their supervisor(s). This is something that is absolutely crucial in a PhD, as I am learning, but it is just as important for success at a Masters level. I was very upfront and honest with my MA dissertation supervisor about what I expected from the relationship, and not only did that lead me to an exceptional mark in my thesis (with an Outstanding Achievement Award at graduation #humblebrag), but my MA supervisor is now my PhD Director of Studies. Some of the things we worked out were: Skype meetings for when my health/weather/time prevented me from attending, adding each other on social media for easier and quicker contact, sharing of resources not available in the library, and guidance on what to do next. At the end of the day, your success or failure also reflects on the supervisor too, so it is essential to get that relationship right. And if the supervisory relationship isn’t working for you, do something about it! Speak to your course leader, postgraduate support, or anyone in the university you trust with the power to take your concerns forward.
Tip 5: Have fun!
You clearly had your reasons for choosing to do a Masters degree, and with any hope, one of those reasons was that you enjoy research. I see many people advising not to research something you love, as it is difficult to be objective and critical, but I disagree massively. Researching texts I enjoy motivates me to continue doing that research, makes me feel proud of what I have achieved, and encourages me to share my research with others. Even at my lowest moments in terms of my health, the fact that I could go home, binge-watch Hannibal and call that research was a delight!
But that’s not the only fun I’m talking about here. Take breaks. Practice self-care. Socialise and have fun with friends. Read for pleasure instead of research. Have a lie-in. Whatever it is in life that brings you joy, don’t neglect it in favour of the looming dissertation. I don’t know if it’s my background in A Level teaching that has taught me this, but I have learnt that doing work little and often over a long period of time, instead of working flat out on research for days at a time, has not only resulted in better research, but in better physical and mental health.
Tip 6: Manage your references
Finally, and this one’s a bit obvious, keep track of your references! There’s nothing worse than not being able to find the source for that excellent study you want to quote! There are hundreds of reference managers out there so you don’t have to do it all yourself, some free and some with a subscription. Find the referencing system that works for you and STICK TO IT.