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Don't panic: Dissertation

The Psyc/Soc Student's Guide to Fourth Year by Hope Christie and Karl Johnson

Dissertation

Be honest, you've all probably skipped the last nine sections and gone right to this bit haven't you?

You need to be aware that everything in your dissertation will take time, more time than you think.  The aim is not to stress out about how long it takes; the aim is to just be aware of how long everything really takes.

This section will not provide you with the perfect guide to writing your dissertation, but it will encourage you to keep in mind some of the smaller points that you won’t necessarily be told about during your dissertation classes. Speaking of which, make sure you attend them. All of them. Students have a bad habit of only attending classes they feel they need, and if one of them are ‘so-so’ then it’s off the list, never to be attended again. We’ll warn you now, your dissertation classes are not cartwheels and balloons about how amazing dissertations are; they are realistic and informative. Some of you may be further ahead than the information that the class will be covering, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attend. You never know what you’re going to pick up. And if you are particularly anxious about being away from your work and feel your time would be better spent doing it, then bring your work to the class, you can always do bits and pieces while your lecturer is covering a section you already know about.

You need to be aware that everything in your dissertation will take time, more time than you think.  The aim is not to stress out about  how long it takes; the aim is to just be aware of how long everything really takes.

Ethics

One of the first hurdles you need to get over at fourth year. Most of you won’t have a problem with actually getting your ethics application passed through the ethics committee, but it’s writing the damn thing that takes the time. Some supervisors will require you to draft your ethics form a few times and dependent on your topic you may need to take some time to normalise the study for the ethics committee. Our point is this won’t be something you can just ‘wing’ and write in a day. Take some time over it, and remember to be realistic about what will be accepted.

Data collection

A big culprit in most fourth years having a mini break down. This will take you longer than you think, even if you have a million and one friends that have said “oh yeah don’t worry, I will totally do your research”.

The psychology lab gets SUPER busy around data collection time, so if you don’t need the specific software in there, and there is somewhere else you can do your data collection; I suggest you use it. If you need a quiet space, there are dozens of rooms in QMU that can be booked out. If your project requires the use of E-Prime then you are a bit snookered and will need to use the psychology lab. Just make sure you get a computer booked early, but bear in mind there are rules about using the lab, so email the psychology technician. Get some participants in line first, too.

Rejection is an occupational hazard! At some point during your data collection people are going to say “no” to do your study, and me saying it is not going to make the rejection feel any better. Unfortunately there will be days (yes, whole days) where you maybe only get 1 – 3 participants and that is it. That’s okay though, just try and use your time wisely; if it’s a ‘slow day’ and no one is agreeing to participate in your study, then go look for some journal articles for your dissertation, plan an essay for another module or start messaging everyone you know (even those people that you friend requested after you met them on a night out that one time) and see if people will come in and do your study for you. 

Sona Systems – if you can think all the way back to second year when you had to participate in research and write a learning log about it? Remember? Okay well, there are some second years at your disposal for research participation. If you identify and contact a knowledgeable member of staff for guidance on setting up an account on the Sona Systems, you can advertise your study there and recruit yourself some second years.

Questionnaires – if you are asking your participants to fill in paper questionnaires, and said questionnaires are double sided, make sure they have completed both sides. It seems like such a simple thing, but believe me, there is nothing worse than going to enter your data in
SPSS to find someone has only filled in one side of all the questionnaires you have given them.

If your research design is some form of analysis (e.g. theme analysis, content analysis, discourse analysis, bow-tie analysis) of data generated in interviews; then think about WHO you want to interview and HOW you're going to find them. Presumably, you want to talk to real people who are really involved in your dissertation issue, and that probably means strangers.

Appealing for interview participants in the 21st century is often best achieved through the 'interwebs', so have a wee look at online forums, social media groups, and special interest websites which are relevant to your topic. If you can successfully make contact with some of these, then you'll be in a good position to politely appeal for participants.

Have some kind of web-link ready with an outline of your research project, and preferably a note about informed consent*. You may be aware of, or discover some potential participants who are in real-life versions of online groups, with regular meetings face-to-face. This may be another opportunity to recruit interviewees, but have sense and mind your surroundings – it is not appropriate to sneak into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to ask people to give up their life story.

*If you don't know what informed consent is, then you skipped the Ethics part – didn't you?

The traditional 'word-of-mouth' approach to finding participants still works, but arguably so do carrier pigeons and smoke signals, so expect this strategy to take a bit longer.

 In any case, always remember that your participants are doing you a massive favour, and it's your responsibility to treat them with total patience and respect.

Analysis

Another cause of fourth year breakdowns. There is no way of dancing around it, analysis is tricky, but it is in no way impossible. Instead of splitting this up into ‘psychology and sociology’ we’ve decided to split this up by the type of analytical approach you will use dependent on your data. Hopefully you were all paying attention in your research methods modules to remember what the difference between the two is.

Quantitative

In quantitative studies, try and make life easier for yourself; enter each participant’s data into SPSS as you go. If you leave it all to the end you are making more work for yourself. We’re telling you this in hindsight, because Hope left all her data entry until the last minute and she hated it. Not to mention, she was so stressed about getting it all entered quickly she made some mistakes with numbers that set her back during analysis. Also, don’t bank on being able to blaze through your analysis in a day or two; depending on how thorough your supervisor wants to be the process may take weeks. Don’t panic about that; just be aware that’s sometimes how long it takes.

Qualitative

It’s no picnic on the qualitative side either. Transcribing an interview takes hours. Reading and re-reading a transcription in order to interpret and analyse the data takes hours. Coding survey responses and collating the results takes hours. Interpreting and explaining the significance of a visual image in relation to social inequality takes hours. The critical analysis of historical records takes hours.

Watching the Hollyoaks omnibus on Sunday morning also takes hours, but that doesn't mean it's worth putting-off your data analysis.

The potential for subjectivity in your qualitative analysis (both within and out with levels acceptable to your theoretical approach) means that it is vital you take your time over your data, and go over it again and again. It means the difference between finding that fascinating hidden detail that you'd never even thought of going into your project, and being accused of lazy and/or unqualified bias. It's particularly important when researching something close to home - such as being a comic book fan who studies comic books, or a Shetlander who studies the politics of Shetland.

Writing up

This is going to be tough, we’re not going to lie, and we remember thinking 10,000 words sounded like an impossible feat. It’s not though, you can definitely do it. Something that might help is this:

The Structure of a Dissertation

    Order of Writing
Experimental Process Section of Paper Ideal Actual
What did I do in a nutshell? Abstract Fifth Fifth
What is the problem? Introduction First Third
How did I solve the problem? Method Second First
What did I find out? Results Third Second
What does it mean? Discussion Fourth Fourth
Who helped me out? Acknowledgements Last Last
Whose work did I refer to? References Ongoing Ongoing

This is not a strict guide you must follow, hell, if you don’t want to you don’t even have to look at this. However, we would advise you write your method section first, it definitely the easiest.

Formatting

Formatting the final product that is your dissertation will also take a while. Unless you are some sort of ‘Microsoft Word’ guru (in which case don’t advertise your expertise too loudly or you will be inundated with requests for help). By formatting, we are referring to page numbers, headers, footers, fixing the margins, contents pages and making sure your tables and figures are labelled correctly (getting to grips with the Styles editing options tab on Microsoft Word will help in the long run). Speaking of which, without meaning to be patronising, this is an example of a table:

This is a table
This is a table
This is a table

 

And this is an example of a figure:

Example of a figure

Seem obvious? You'd be surprised how many people do not know the difference.

Psychologists, I advise that you familiarise yourself with the most current version of the APA’s publication manual before you begin formatting your dissertation. The APA has specific rules about how to format your reference list and how to label any tables and figures you are going to include, where to put your page numbers (yes, they really are that anal). The quicker you get to grips with this, the easier you will make life for yourself at the end of your dissertation.

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Once all the fun of data collection is out the way and you’ve trudged through your analysis, you will all be reminded that your first draft hand in date is looming fast. Be aware that the deadline for handing in your first draft is lenient date. The purpose of this deadline is to give you a goal to work towards and a point to aim for. However, if you can’t make this date for handing in your first draft, don’t panic, you can discuss a hand-in date with your supervisor. Once you have handed in your first draft, here are a few things that you should definitely keep in mind...

Ground rules for supervision

Do yourself a favour and read your dissertation handbook, ok? Yes, we know it’s boring, but it’s important. It’ll tell you useful things like: how you’re permitted between 3 and 5 hours of face-to-face time with your supervisor (so it’d be a good idea to plan ahead and agree a rough outline of how that time’s going to be used);  or how staff can normally only read and provide feedback for one full draft of your dissertation (but perhaps you can agree with your supervisor to either review it all in one go, or get feedback on individual chapters as you go along). Arrange an initial meeting with your supervisor as soon as you can, and try to form a strategy that suits you both (try to appreciate each other’s schedules). And don’t forget that you can always email them.

Your supervisor can only work with what you give them. They can’t pull a 2:2 level piece of work up to a first. Equally, they can’t tell you what grade your draft is sitting at, so ask away, but don’t expect an answer. While you may complain that it isn’t fair and it would be much easier if they just gave you a hint as to what you were sitting at; stop and take a second to think what position you are putting your supervisor in. What if, for example they told you your draft was sitting at 66%, and then you go off and make all your corrections. You are now assuming, convincing yourself even, that surely with all the work you put into that re-draft you’ve managed to earn an extra 4% and now you’re sitting on an A.

Here’s the thing, your supervisor isn’t the only person to read your final dissertation - all dissertations are marked twice, maybe even three times. Now your supervisor may think that your work is A-worthy, but your second marker may not; thus they need to come to some agreement which often means meeting somewhere in the middle that is reflective of the rest of your grades this year.

Make sure you give your supervisor enough time to mark your first draft and get it back to you. Despite what you may think, during dissertation time, your supervisor’s world does not revolve around you. Lecturers have other classes to teach and other pieces of work to mark, they will also be supervising around 4/5 other students, so you cannot expect them to mark your draft providing detailed feedback in a couple of days. We would imagine that you’ll agree on a series of deadlines with your supervisor; which will help both of you keep track of everything. Expect to give them at least a week to mark your draft and return it to you with comments.

Feedback comments

Some supervisors can be a little ‘harsher’ with their feedback comments compared to others. It is important to try as best you can not to take these comments to heart. Your supervisor is not personally criticising you, it is their job to point out areas that can be improved upon and help you to fix them. (This is the part where we remind you again that your supervisor is not your BFF and it is their job to get the best out of you that they can). Having said that, Hope understands completely how extremely difficult it is to read page after page of comments, or see red pen over all 10,000 words of your blood, sweat and tears (in writing form).

So we have some advice if this is how you take criticism (not a bad thing, Hope takes things way too personally); give yourself one day to wallow in these comments. It is harsh and it does suck, so go and get it off your chest; go cry somewhere about it, go scream, shout and stamp your feet, do whatever you need to do to clear your head. Give yourself that whole day just to gather your thoughts or mope about (whatever suits you), and after that day pick yourself up, brush yourself off and start re-drafting. And remember, the hard part is over! You’ve done it, you’ve written 10,000 words! Now all you need to do is edit it. Congratulations, you’re nearly there.

People always ask how many references they should include in their dissertation projects, and our response to that is: how long is a piece of string? There is no set number of references that any dissertation should have. It will vary from project to project, supervisors will expect you to read fairly widely.

Similarly, the number of quotes you ‘should’ use will depend very much on the project you’re doing and in how you write it up.

In relation to referencing, you should by now have gotten a good handle on finding references which are useful. If you haven’t please start thinking about this as soon as possible. We cannot stress enough the significance of having a good attitude and approach to academic reading. It’s important to keep up to date with developments within your particular field, so consider the following:

  1. Which academic journals do most of your references come from? Perhaps you should set up automated alerts, and have links to upcoming journal content emailed to you.

  2. Who do you tend to reference, or enjoy reading, the most? They may have a blog, Twitter account, etc. that you could follow, to gain further insight into where they’re coming from.

  3. Similarly, there may be a research group at a university somewhere, which is specifically concerned with your project topic. Educational institutions – including QMU – commonly host a number of field-specific and inter-disciplinary research groups tasked with investigating particular phenomena.
Listed below are some names you will almost definitely reference in your Sociology Dissertation (so make sure you've actually read some of them). It is vital that you have a good, solid understanding of the theoretical background to whatever your topic is.
Zygmunt Bauman Anthony Giddens
Pierre Bourdieu Erving Goffman
Michael Crotty Karl Marx
Émile Durkheim Georg Simmel
Michel Foucault Max Weber

Psychology is a little different, as each subject area has its own ‘key players’. For example, if you are doing anything about cognitive psychology or memory, then you definitely want to mention Alan Baddeley (I sincerely hope you know who he is).

In any case, generally these key players will have key papers, which you will of course read. A good tip I found was to also scan the reference lists of these key papers, or conduct a citation search* of the key papers to see what other articles have cited it. You may get yourself into a slight snowball situation (as I did to myself), but it was worth it as you find some really interesting articles.

*If you are unsure how to do this I’m sure the library would help you.

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