10 Tips to Help You Conquer Your Dissertation

Right now, I'm the envy of all my fourth-year friends. I was lucky enough to have my dissertation deadline in December, so my last semester of university is (relatively) smooth sailing! At first, it didn't seem like a good thing that Sociology had an early deadline relative to other courses (other than anthropology). But it really was a blessing in disguise. Sure, I was a bit more stressed out over summer, but I was able to come into the second semester with a fresh mind and little-to-no dissertation stress! That is until I got my results...

... and I did really, really well! So that's why I'm here today to share with you my top 10 tips for not just completing your dissertation, but conquering it! The dissertation (or thesis as my American friends say) is no easy feat, and it's much more than just an elongated essay. It takes creativity,  organization, and a whole lot of grit. But the good thing is, you really do "own" it by the end of the process. After all, no one will have done exactly your research before!

I'm sure some of you are in the thick of it right now, and others might just be starting to think of what you might be interested in researching for next year. So wherever you're at, here are my top tips for tackling your dissertation. 

1.) Pick a topic that you're passionate about 

I feel lucky that I study Sociology because it really is this lens through which you can study any topic. From climate change, to economics, to religion, to food, Sociology can really do it all. I decided to focus on food for my dissertation because it's something I've always been drawn to both personally and academically ("The Social Life of Food" was a 10/10 class and I'm always looking for the next food-related documentary on Netflix). Your specific research question will likely change a lot throughout the process, but the wider topic you cover will probably stay (about) the same. So choose wisely. It's your own research, after all, so you want to be able to have fun with it!

2.) Every time you meet with your supervisor, schedule your next meeting

I had a great supervisor who ensured that we always had our next meeting schedules before we parted ways. This way, you don't have to rely on emailing back and forth before finally setting a date. Bring your diary with you and compare availability. These meetings are super important, even if you don't take notes and just chat about your progress. Your supervisor's input is so valuable, so make sure you lean on them!

3.) Prioritize good data 

I know some people try to "fake" data or act like they have more than they actually do. But there really is no substitute for good data (and lots of it!). I know everyone's parameters for the diss is different depending on your subject, but I found that for qualitative research (i.e. interviews) it was actually better that I had a good number of 40-minute transcripts rather than a million 10-minute transcripts. Achieving depth in qualitative research is really just as important as breadth!

4.) Write out your research question and keep it visible always

When you're writing up your final report, it can be so easy to get lost in literature, data, and your own thoughts all of which can make you stray from your research question. Not every single sentence should be an "answer" to the question, but make sure that at least every chapter's concluding thoughts link directly back to that question. To help you keep your question in mind at all times, it can be helpful to write it out on a blank sheet of paper and keep it on your desk next to you when you're working.

5.) Make a schedule, but don't be afraid to change it

For my dissertation, we were required to write out a schedule for our research along with our proposal. Looking back at it now, it couldn't be further from what I actually did! I was clearly super optimistic (Collecting all my data before summer even started? Yeah, right). Still, I think it's helpful to write out a schedule initially, and then revise it as you go along. I found keeping a schedule particularly helpful when I was in the thick of it in terms of writing up my research. I would stay on track by setting further "mini goals" each day (like, "write 350 words of analysis chapter 3).

6.) Use the "snowball" method for your literature review

I don't think I learned this technique until at least the end of 2nd year, and I wish I had learned it sooner. The "snowball" method basically means taking a piece of literature you found helpful and scanning the bibliography for more relevant sources. I always find the most useful resources using this method- after all, there are only so many ways you can search for the same thing on Google Scholar.

7.) Talk it out with anyone who will listen 

This is especially helpful when you talk about your dissertation with friends and flatmates who don't have the same academic background as you. If you're not able to explain your dissertation research and findings in "plain English" (not academic jargon) to your average person, chances are you don't really know what you're talking about. Plus, friends and family can point out inconsistencies or trouble spots that you probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

8.) Be prepared to make changes 

You're not "married" to your research question. And if you are, I would firmly suggest resorting back to a more flexible relationship right now. My research question changed so much from the start of my dissertation journey; I actually had to make it broader in order to encompass my findings better. Trying to make your data say what your research question (or hypothesis) wants it to is the kiss of death for any researcher. Let your data lead your findings. Always.

9.) Finish writing well before the deadline 

And by "finish writing" I really mean hit that word count. No one expects you to have your dissertation perfected way in advance. In fact, that's probably a red flag that you haven't critically thought about the issue enough. That being said, it's important to hit your word count and have the main sections completed a few weeks before the deadline so that you have time to not only make writing-related changes but mull over your ideas. My best concluding thoughts didn't really "come to me" until the last couple of weeks, and that wouldn't have unless I had finished writing and taken a break!

10.) Try not to compare yourself to your coursemates 

Even though I think chatting about your dissertation can be really helpful, you can easily slip in to having conversations with people on your course and comparing your progress. There's always that one kid who finishes months in advance and won't stop talking about it. You could panic about it but you could also just let it go and be like "Hey, cool good for you, but that's not where I'm at right now." Everyone tackles the diss differently. And whatever your pace is fine if it's working for you. Just breathe.


  1. Congratulations on doing so well on your dissertation. Have a cold one on me!

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