A marathon not a sprint: defeating the dissertation doldrums

So the deadline for your dissertation or final year project is looming and it isn’t all quite going to plan. Here’s our advice for getting over the final hurdle and handing in your magnum opus on time…

With any large piece of academic work, the most important thing is to stay focused and keep going, but, unfortunately, it’s also one of the most difficult. Unless you’re only just starting (in which case you need a completely different blog post), the chances are you’ve already been slogging away at it for months and you’re probably sick of the sight of it. At the same time, it can feel as though you’ll never get to the end and there’s no way you’ll be finished in time for that all important deadline…

Don’t Panic!

The best thing you can do is stay calm and don’t try and overstretch yourself. You might find it helpful to work out exactly what’s still left to do and map out exactly how you’re going to achieve it. Setting SMART targets can be a big help here. For example, “Write 500 words a day on ‘Topic X’” sounds a lot more manageable than “Finish chapter 4”. You’d be surprised how much better it can make you feel.

If time restrictions or word count mean you really can’t cover everything you wanted to, revisit your plan. There’s nothing worse than spending hours slogging over something that you have to cut out of the final version, or having to miss out an important point because you haven’t left time to do it justice.

Round up your resources

Bureaucracy - Bürokratie II by Christian Schnettelker CC BY 2.0

Everyone has their own method of storing and tracking their research, but whether you bookmark your favourite articles, download them to your desktop or print them out, it helps to be organised. We’ve all had that horrible sinking feeling when you just know you’ve read something somewhere

If you’re super efficient you might already be using a reference management tool like EndNote, or have everything recorded in a spreadsheet. If not, just sticking all of your printouts in a ring binder or setting up a folder for your bookmarks/electronic files can make a huge difference when you’re trying to track down that elusive quotation.

Shut up and write

Ultimately, your dissertation won’t write itself and at some point you’re going to have to get seriously stuck in.

Whether it’s in complete silence or blasting out your favourite tunes, sitting on your sofa or staking out at the Library, alone or with friends, work out what you need to maximise your productivity and just get on with it. There are plenty of things you can try if you’re struggling to focus, from making a to do list to the Pomodoro Technique. Or why not get together with a few friends and challenge each other to write as much as you can in a set time? You’d be amazed how productive you can be if you can only get those creative juices flowing!

Sweat the small stuff

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” and it’s almost inevitable that most of us will still be writing and/or tweaking right up to the deadline.

Do make sure, however, that you’ve allowed time for all the fiddly bits at the end, such as formatting, checking references, proofing and editing and, if you need to, printing and binding. Sloppy presentation and (particularly) missing or incomplete references are an easy way to lose yourself marks and can usually be avoided.

If you need to submit a hard copy, bear in mind that there will be a lot of other people trying to use the printers, so it might take you longer than usual. And if you’re using Warwick Print to get your document bound, make sure you check what sort of wait you can expect.

…and relax

Image by Clem Onojeghuo CC0

Once it’s in, there’s not a lot you can do, apart from wait for the mark. You certainly can’t influence the outcome by worrying about it, so have yourself a well-earned break.

Go to the pub / invite a friend for coffee / see a film and take some time to recharge your batteries. At least until you need to start revising for exams!

Quick tips

  • Planning your time well should help you avoid the dreaded all-nighter, but if you find yourself working late, make sure you take plenty of breaks and try not to make it a habit
  • Try and keep a sense of perspective and don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure
  • If you’re really worried you’re not going to finish in time, speak to your tutor or supervisor, they’ll be able to help you explore the available options

Good luck with the final push!

Images: 2012 IMT Des Moines MarathonPhil Roeder / CC BY 2.0

Bureaucracy / Bürokratie II / Christian Schnettelker / CC BY 2.0

175917 /  Clem Onojeghuo / CC0 1.0

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