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Don't panic: Start in summer

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

Fourth year starts in summer


...we would advise you read, read, and then read some more...


As good as a ‘long summer break’ sounds right about now; especially after you worked so hard this year, you should really start considering a potential focus for your dissertation project, and who you may want to supervise that project. You should probably try and think of two or three topics that you would be interested in investigating* - but don’t panic, you don’t have to have fully formed ideas; no one is expecting that from you. One idea may be to think about any topics that were covered in modules that you enjoyed; your next step may be to identify the member(s) of staff who brought the topic(s) to your attention.

If you are in the camp of not even knowing what you want to do, then we would advise you read, read, and then read some more. In case we didn’t make that clear enough, reading is very important, and summer is the best opportunity that you’re going to have to read as many journal articles that your heart desires (maybe not that extreme, but you get the point?). The thing to remember is not to force it, you can’t make yourself have a light bulb moment, it will most likely come to you when you least expect it – and that’s okay! Reading will definitely help though. Allow yourself to go off on tangents, read far and wide and you will soon be brimming with ideas*.

Because you have to read. If you go to a lecturer with an idea, the first thing they’ll respond with is: “What does the literature say about it?”

If you are struggling to come up with any ideas, your next step would be to contact a lecturer, within the subject area that most has your interest. The staff generally present a list of topics (or even project titles) that they’d be interested in supervising. Please be aware this is by no means an ‘easy option’, your lecturer will not simply hand you a project with a pretty pink ribbon on top. Writing a dissertation is hard even when it is a topic you are interested in. Writing a dissertation about a topic you have practically zero interest in will be more difficult, trust us. You need to think about the bigger picture; following data collection you’re going to need to analyse that data and then start thinking about what the results your analysis means in terms of your research question. Although not impossible, this is quite difficult to do if you don’t have even a little interest in your topic.

When we say ‘contact a lecturer’ we mean so you can start a conversation about what you are interested in, and hopefully arrive at a feasible project that you will be able to do within the time allowed.

There are not infinite sociology and psychology lecturers to cover infinite sociology and psychology students, so it helps to get an idea together and approach a potential supervisor as soon as possible, the earlier you are in contact with them the more likely your chances are with working with them for your dissertation. But we’re talking about a back and forward of emails about the project and some preliminary reading you’ve done around the subject area, not just one email at the start of summer saying “I’m interested in your dissertation project, would like to work with you, see you in September.” – And then radio silence for the entirety of summer.

Yes, summer is a break, and it is important to take one, but it is advisable to at least do some reading before you start in September. It gives you a chance to hit the ground running; bear in mind you have a handful of other electives plus your core module to do as well.

*There's a good chance you'll never get your favourite idea past the ethics committee, so try to bear that in mind, but don't be disheartened. Try to be realistic with what you think they’ll accept, and allow you to do for a project. Nobody’s going to let you recreate Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment, but analysing the Twitter trolling of James Blunt could be fun (someone really did this).