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Tips for Getting a First in your Dissertation

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Oct 01, 2019 01:20 PM |

by Adama Kabba - UCL Geography Graduate and Environmental Engineering MSc Student

Your undergraduate dissertation is likely your biggest academic project thus far. If you approach it right, it is your opportunity to explore your interest and display your excellence. Approach it wrong and well you’ve played yourself.

I was a UCL geography undergraduate a few months ago. I graduated with a first class honours and in all honesty getting an 80 in my dissertation was the deciding factor. In this post, I share my top tips for getting a first in your dissertation.

Tip 1: Start Early:

Don’t roll your eyes at me. The reality is that you need to give yourself the time to collect your data, process and present it and then write and edit your dissertation at first class standard! If you leave it too late you limit your ability to refine the process.

Tip 2: Start writing your methods section first:

You know the saying 0 to 100? Yeah, you’ve got to get from 0 to 12,000. Staring at a blank page until your super suave and imaginative introduction pops into your head is pointless. Start with your methods section! It’s usually the most straight forward section to write. I suggest making regular notes about your data collection process and then drawing up a draft as soon as you're done. Having 2000 or so words on paper is a real confidence boost!

Tip 3: Keep all original data copies:

Keep all written notes, all original recordings I mean everything until your final submission. Just because you’ve typed up your values from your latest lab session or you’ve transcribed that interview does not mean it’s time to bin it! You may have missed something or input your data wrong, which is very easily done when dealing with large volumes of data. It’s always better to have the option to revisit the originals.

Tip 4: Set personal deadlines and deadlines with your supervisor:

First set personal deadlines. I find that weekly deadlines are most effective. It can be hard to accurately estimate how many hours a task will take, and so rigid, daily deadlines often end in disappointment. Aim to complete a task over 7 days and if you slack on some days pick it up on others. Second, set regular deadlines with your supervisor (even if you don’t receive feedback every time) that way your less likely to default as you know someone you respect is expecting to see your progress.

Tip 5: Keep a track of all your references either manually or using referencing software:

The importance of crediting your information sources cannot be overlooked and anyway you have no choice because Turnitin will drag you through the mud. Get a handle on it from the start. Each time you interact with a source and make notes on it record the reference in a separate document conveniently named ‘References’. If that's too old school use one of the many referencing software at your disposal. Endnote and Mendeley have received glowing reviews from previous geography students and all of the strangers I blindly trust on the internet.

Tip 6: Don’t be afraid to seek guidance and advice from department staff:

You have some of the best researchers in the world happy to talk to you about your ideas. There is likely some aspect of your dissertation that someone, other than your supervisor, specialises in. TALK TO THEM. Doing this can add the nuance and quality to your dissertation that takes it from a 2:1 to a first.

Tip 7: Consider alternative data processing software:

Excel is not the only data processing software in existence. Consider all the software and programs you’ve used throughout your undergrad including R, Matlab and C2 to name just a few. Those can help turn your raw data into figures that tell the story for you.

Tip 8: Look at past dissertations for inspiration:

It can be hard to know where to start with a project of this size. Lucky for you, you’re not the first student in the department to have completed a dissertation. Make use of the store of past dissertations in the Map Room- they can inspire you when you need it most.

Finally, good luck and try to enjoy the process!

If you want a more in-depth breakdown of each tip (and memes) then check out my YouTube video: