How to Plan a Dissertation - by Mark Johnstone

So it’s happened. You’re standing at the portal to postgrad-dom. Endless possibilities present themselves for the subject of your studies. And you’re about to write a thesis that will change the way humanity perceives the world forever....or are you? Well, I’m afraid the answer to that is most definitely – NO.


Rule Number One for any new postgrad (be it Master’s or Doctorate student) is eyes to the page, not to the sky.  It may sound boring but I promise you it’s not – the page is just as interesting.  And the next year or three are your chance to become master (or doctor) of your chosen topic.  It’s going to be a great ride – as long as you’re passionate about your subject.


So Rule Number Two is – Choose a question that really drives you.  Because you’re going to be answering it (or trying to!) for a very long time.

And Rule Number ThreePlanning, Planning, Planning.  Again, this may sound like the advice of someone you wouldn’t want to hang out with but if you take it on board now then by the end of your dissertation I’ll definitely be your best friend.  Trust me.  Here’s how we start.

First you need a list of all the things you want to do.  And here it is (see, I told you we were friends):

1.   Choose your question along with any smaller questions that feed into it.
2.   Do a Literature Review.  This basically means you need to read around your subject so you know the context, in particular what are the focuses of current research in your area?
3.   Rewrite your question – yup, your Lit Review’s let slip that someone else’s already nabbed your idea – so what can you do as a jump on from their work?
4.   Work out your methodology.  Basically, how are you going to go about research (sitting in a library/handing out questionnaires on street corners/blowing things up in a lab/etc)?
5.   Do your research (you knew that was coming!)
6.   Analyse and interpret
7.   Write it all up

But, I have to be honest, this plan is trickier than it seems.  Although things appear pretty linear so far, if we’re going to visualise your process it looks less like a stack of pancakes and more like a bowl of spaghetti.  All these stages on your list are going to interlink, feedback, influence, overthrow and generally get in the way of each other.  And that’s exactly why you need to be a good planner!

And any successful planner knows how to break the work down into bite-size pieces (or, in our case, individual strands of pasta).  Let’s say you’ve got a basic idea of your question and interests.  Now try and see if you can form six or so subheadings including an introduction and a conclusion.  Don’t get in a twist if these are not uber-precise – anything can change so it’s too soon to get hung up on details.

Next take the time allotted to your post grad and cut off a sixth.  This is backup.  Things always take longer than you think!  Divide your remaining time by your number of subheadings.  And, miraculously, you’ll find that instead of having a mammoth dissertation looming over the next tranche of your life, you’ve got a number of smaller, digestible interconnected essays to write (much more manageable if you follow steps 1 to 7 for each one!).

Some people refer to this timetable as a ‘schedule of completion’. You’ll call it your lifeline.  But don’t get trapped into becoming inflexible about it now you’ve made your plan.  It’s vital to expect your schedule to adapt as your project changes so don’t bind yourself to it religiously.  But on the other hand, don’t let it slip out of view – keep updating and maintaining it, never let it out of sight and your world is already looking rosy.

I think we’re now officially buddies, and so you can trust me when I tell you – stick to the plan and the dissertation will take care of itself.  

Now stop messing around on the internet and get to work!

Mark Johnstone writes on behalf of Postgrad Solutions.  Postgrad provide information to students who wish to study in the UK,  including articles on how to plan a dissertation .

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