By Carrie Winstanley
Writing a dissertation is likely to be the biggest piece of work you’re going to tackle on your university course. To do your dissertation justice means spending a lot of your time and energy on your dissertation – and sometimes tears.
It need come as no surprise that you’re expected to write a dissertation as part of your course having been given all the information about your course when you first started. So there’s no reason for waiting until the first day of your last year to start thinking about it!
Most universities allow one academic year for students to complete their dissertation, but some university courses require a longer or shorter project. Whatever the timescale of your university or institution, a year stretching ahead of you can seem an age.
Anyone who’s done a dissertation tells you with glee that this is merely an illusion and you that you need to do some careful planning to make the best use of your time. Time has a way of evaporating like thin air – and all too soon the submission date is hanging over you like a dark cloud.
Be realistic about your dissertation deadline
Right – time for a reality check. How long is a year? ‘Twelve months’ I hear you say. ‘Nope, the year I’m talking about is four months long!’ I reply. ‘How so?’ you protest. ‘Well, it’s like this. . ’
Usually you have one academic year to write your dissertation. I say ‘academic year’ because an academic year is shorter than a calendar year. You probably start the academic year sometime between the middle of September and the middle of October, and you have to submit your finished dissertation (polished and perfect, completed and bound) in the following May or June. That’s actually about seven months in total.
Take out a few weeks for sickness, holidays and trips to the pub, and you have about six months. Now deduct the time you need for your other course work: essays, presentations and attending lectures. Also take off the hours a week you spend doing paid part-time work. On top of this subtract the time you need for keeping up with your family and friends, and the many groups you’re involved in that make inroads on the time you have for your dissertation.
Oh, and don’t forget – you also have to spend time eating and sleeping. Now – how long is a year?
Rather scarily, your ‘year’ may seem a lot less time than it first appeared. This doesn’t have to be a problem however. What you need to do is plan your time effectively and then manage your time well. The best way of managing your time is by having a timeline.
Create a dissertation timeline
A timeline is a schedule of events or a plan and it is presented chronologically. Your approach to your dissertation timeline depends on a number of factors such as your work space and whether you prefer ideas, for example, to be presented in a visual map or a linear list. A way of working out what is best for you is to think about how you like taking notes – straight prose, lists and numbered information, or using more organic lists with coloured diagrams, linked together with arrows?
You may like to create a table with overlapping lines called a Gantt chart, showing the different tasks you’ve set yourself and how the tasks run alongside one another. You can see an example of a Gantt chart in the following figure.
Make contingency plans for dissertation writing
Sometimes you find your careful plans for managing your dissertation going pear-shaped. You need to be able to cope with setbacks and salvage what you can. Aim to complete each task as early on as possible so that you have time to make any necessary changes.
You can help yourself by building enough time into your dissertation timetable to allow for mini disasters and keeping ahead of the game so that any crises don’t slow you up too much. The plans you make when crises occur differ depending on what you need to change or develop.
At this stage, you can think about what you’d most like to get done, but also think of an alternative if you run into difficulties. For example, you may prefer to distribute your questionnaire to 50 students at your university but your contingency plan would be to add up all the friends and acquaintances you have from the classes and clubs you attend and see if that would be a reasonable sample.
You may try asking a tutor if you can give out your questionnaire during a taught session. It would mean reducing your ideal number from 50 to, say, 25, but at least you have some data you can use.
How to make a simple Gantt chart
13 September 2011by Jonathan O'Donnell
In every grant application, I want to see a simple visual guide (a Gantt chart) that shows what you are planning to do. It is the perfect time to plan your project clearly. It shows the assessors that you have thought about your research in detail and, if it is done well, it can serve as a great, convincing overview of the project.
Clearly, these charts are hard to do. If they were easy, more people would do them, right?
Here are five steps to create a simple guide to your research project.
1. List your activities
Make a list of everything that you plan to do in the project. Take your methodology and turn it into a step-by-step plan. Have you said that you will interview 50 people? Write it on your list. Are you performing statistical analysis on your sample? Write it down.
List of tasks for “Simple Privacy”, a one year project
Check it against your budget. Everything listed in the budget should also be listed on your uber-list? Have you asked for a Thingatron? Note down that you will need to buy it, install it, commission it… What about travel? Write down each trip separately.
2. Estimate the time required
For each item on your list, estimate how long it will take you to do that thing. How long are you going to be in the field? How long will it take to employ a research assistant? Realistically, how many interviews can you do in a day? When will people be available?
- Initial meeting: about 3 weeks to find a time.
- Desk audit: 4 months.
- Draft key elements: about 1 week each.
- Testing: about 1 week each, but can start organising as soon as first element is drafted.
- Write up: 2 months.
- Final report: no time, really – just need to find a time to meet.
Generally, I use weeks to estimate time. Anything that takes less than a week I round off to a week. Small tasks like that will generally disappear from the list when we consolidate (see Step 4). Then I group things together into months for the actual plan.
3. Put activities in order
What is the first thing that you are going to do? What will you do next? What will you do after that?
In the comments, Adrian Masters provided some great questions to help with this stage:
- What do I need to do by when?
- What do I need from others & when?
- How do I check that I am still on track?
One by one, put everything in order. Make a note of any dependencies; that is, situations where you can’t do one thing until another is started or finished. If the research assistant is going to do all the interviews, then the interviews can’t start until the research assistant is hired.
Where possible, you should eliminate as many as possible dependencies. For example, if you can’t find a decent research assistant, you will do the fieldwork yourself (but that might mean that work will be delayed until you finish teaching). It isn’t a necessary step to getting your time-line in order, but it is good project management practice.
In the comments, Amy Lamborg pointed out that you might want to work backwards. If you have a fixed end date, you might want to “…build back towards the project start date, then jiggle everything until it fits!” If you want an example of this, have a look at the post “Work backwards“. It is about writing an application, but the principle of starting with the fixed end date and working backwards still applies.
4. Chunk it up
Now that you have an ordered list, and you know how long everything will take, you need to reduce the list without losing any specificity. At the same time, if you are combining tasks, you might want to add a bit of time as a contingency measure.
- Meet with partners: 3 weeks.
- Review data protection regimes: 4 months.
- Draft three key elements: 3 months.
- Test three key elements: 3 months, with some overlap.
- Analyse test results and report: 3 months.
How you divide up your time depends on your project. If it is only one year long, you might list items by month. If your project is three years long, then you might list items by quarter. If you are planning over five years, you might break it down to six-month periods.
5. Draw me a picture
If you use project management software to manage your project, and you are comfortable with it, then use it to produce a summary of your project, too.
Most project management software (e.g. like Microsoft Project) will allow you to group activities into summary items. Chunk your tasks into major headings, then change the time interval to your months, quarters, half-years, or whatever you have chosen to use.
Or you can just draw it up with word-processing software (which is what I always do), spreadsheet software, or even hand-draw it.
Example of a Gantt chart
Frankly, I don’t care – as long as it ends up in your application!
Also in the ‘simple grant’ series: