Monday, 13 June 2011

My brief guide to surviving your LIS dissertation!

It’s hard to believe how  fast time flies – it seems like only yesterday that I was fighting with my MA Librarianship dissertation, and now it’s dissertation time for the next set of full-timers (and quite a few of the part-timers and distance learners who I know too). I remember struggling at various points of my dissertation – my background is in English Literature, with a bit of languages and history, so social science research was completely alien to me - but it came out well in the end, so I thought I would share a few tips for those of you working on your projects now.

Don’t compare your progress to your coursemates’ progress. You can’t compare your dissertation project to other people’s in terms of progress; you’ll be doing different kinds of research, the length of your various chapters will vary depending on your subject i.e. some literature reviews will be longer than others. Data analysis goes at different speeds depending on what you’re analysing. If your dissertation specification is anything like ours was, the word count will be a wide range (15000 to 25000 for us) so you can’t compare by word count. Dissertation supervisors will work in different ways too in terms of how they advise their students. Not to mention that some people will get full-time jobs starting before the deadline so will want or need to finish early.  By all means, support each other and discuss problems and ideas, but don’t try to judge your own progress against that of others. 

Don’t get too bogged down in research methodology. The research textbooks you read will contain methodologies that are way beyond what you are required to do, and this can cause you to panic. Similarly, if your course is like mine was, you’ll probably have had research methods lectures that covered research methods in general rather than narrowing them down to how they apply to you. Thus it can be easy to become overwhelmed. You need to research your methodology, choose the appropriate one(s), and be able to support your decision with background reading, but you will probably find that this is all a lot simpler that it first appears. Seek advice from your supervisor and clarify anything you’re unsure about; although it does not have to be a complicated process, you need to be using the correct terminology i.e. “survey” and “questionnaire” are not the same thing. Your supervisor can suggest appropriate research methods textbooks and guide you to the relevant sections. I found Alison Pickard’s Research Methods in Information to be really helpful.

On a similar note - don’t be scared of your data analysis! I put mine off for several weeks because I was overwhelmed by the amount of data that I had, and, with graph-making and analysis and the like not coming naturally to me, I felt like I didn’t know where to start. Luckily, my supervisor gave me a bit of telling-off, and insisted that I show her some analysis during our next meeting two weeks later; so I was forced to get on with it! Once I started it really wasn’t that bad. My suggestion is to just get on with it! As I said above, analysis doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’ve done a questionnaire, you’ll probably have some quantitative data, which is easy to put into graphs and tables (depending on which survey tool you use, it might even have done some of this for you already). This can be done on a basic level in Microsoft Excel – for most of this kind of data, you don’t have to use specialist programmes (seek advice from your supervisor). Qualitative data from questionnaires and interview transcripts can be content-analysed using colour-coding in Microsoft Word; again, it doesn’t have to be complicated! Programmes such as SPSS are useful for identifying relationships between different sets of quantitative data, but if you don’t need to use them, don’t!

While we’re on the subject of going beyond what you need to do; bearing in mind the overall limits of your dissertation is important too. If you’re full time, you’ve probably got 3 months to complete and write up your project. If you’re part-time or distance-learning, you’ve got to fit this in around your day-to-day life. The word count may seem massive, and you may have some great ideas, but you need to be careful not to do too much. The word count isn’t as large as you think once you get going (I had to cut 3000 words at the end to bring mine down to the 25000 word upper limit, and that was after excluding things I would have liked to add, and  I know that others were in a similar position). You’ll hopefully have chosen something that really interests you for your dissertation, and the temptation is there to want to investigate and cover everything, but realistically, you can’t. This is why it’s really important to liaise with your supervisor (or potential supervisors in the early stages) when formulating your proposal, as soon as you have some ideas, to try to ensure that you don’t embark on too big a project.

I’ve mentioned seeking advice from your supervisor several times now. I can’t emphasise enough how important regular contact with your supervisor is, whether face-to-face, via email or via telephone. As tempting as it is, please don’t avoid them if you’ve not made much progress. They want you to do well, and they’re there to support you. A good supervisor will tell you off a little bit if needed (as was the case with my avoidance of data analysis!), but they’re not going to be insensitive or cruel. It’s a good idea to set up a schedule of some kind for meeting with them, if you’re able to meet face-to-face – my supervisor asked us to meet her once every two weeks. Perhaps you could set up a schedule for emailing them too i.e once every two weeks you’ll send a summary of how you’re doing, in addition to any emails you send with queries etc. Time goes fast and it’s easy to go a few weeks without any contact otherwise.

It’s a good idea to make a timetable for yourself – you might even include this in your methodology chapter. Setting yourself deadlines, and making a visual representation of the time available and any commitments which you need to bear in mind will help you to manage your time and see what you need to do. If you’re anything like me, you can’t work to a final, overall deadline that is several months (in the case of distance learners, sometimes years) in the future, and you need more specific deadlines in order to keep going. However, don’t panic if your timetable changes. As I said earlier, chapters will vary in size, some aspects of your project will take longer than others, and you can’t always anticipate this. As long as you re-evaluate the time left and continue to set small deadlines, you will be fine.

This leads into the general issue of juggling work, social life, and other commitments with your dissertation. This was something which people highlighted as being an issue for them when I asked on Twitter if anyone had anything they’d like me to address in this post. I’m afraid I am not the best person to advise on juggling work and family commitments; being a full-time student I was only doing 4 to 10 hours of paid work per week, and I lived alone, so I didn’t find this too difficult; my paid work always took place at evenings and on weekends, so it was easy to work all day on my dissertation uninterrupted during the week. I suppose I would reiterate my suggestion of making a timetable and arranging your time around other commitments. In terms of social life, although you may well find yourself feeling guilty for taking time off from your dissertation, you do need some time out sometimes; going back to your dissertation with fresh eyes every so often is really helpful. If you’re worried about the guilt issue, put your time off into your timetable. It might be an idea to make it a regular slot; we had a tradition of going to the pub on Monday nights (started when we had a long day of lectures on Mondays) so some of us continued this. Knowing that I always took Monday night off meant that I could arrange my time accordingly, and not feel bad for going to the pub. One thing I would suggest though, for those of you completing your dissertation full-time over the summer, is to think seriously whether you need to go on holiday this summer. Some of my friends went on week-long holidays, but I’m glad that I didn’t; although you need to take time off to relax, a week in one go is a big chunk of time to be away from your dissertation when you only have three months in which to do it. I’m not trying to panic those of you who have already booked holidays – work it into your timetable and arrange a significant deadline for yourself before you go, so that you can enjoy it – but if you’re undecided, my suggestion would be to not go away for an extended period of time. The weather will still be pleasant in many holiday destinations in September once you’ve handed your dissertation in, and you’ll be able to enjoy it much more.

Continuing the theme of other commitments, don’t abandon your CPD, job-hunting, or conference/event attendance while you’re working on your dissertation. Although you’ve got a lot of work to be doing in the present, you need to keep thinking about the future. Again, build things into your timetable as far in advance as possible. Don’t miss out on something that could be really interesting, useful or valuable.

I was asked on Twitter to address the issue of keeping up with the literature. You’ll do your literature review fairly early on, and by the time you’re nearing the end of your dissertation, new literature may well have appeared. At the time, I dealt with this by simply repeating my literature searches every few weeks, to check for new material. Now, I would recommend using the Zetoc alert service, if you don’t already. You can sign up to receive table of contents for new issues of any relevant journals straight to your email inbox. I use this service now, and find it invaluable for keeping up with the professional literature when I’m very busy.

Another issue that I was asked to advise on was that of tracking references. I have to admit that I haven’t liked either of the referencing tools that I have tried so far (Endnote and Refworks), and that I found it far easier to keep track of my own references manually. I kept a running document of everything that I had read, and wrote down all of the details for the reference as soon as I had started reading it and decided that it would be useful. I checked my referencing and bibliography multiple times to check that I’d missed nothing out. If you want to find a tool for tracking references, I’m sure that a search for blog posts on the subject will yield some good advice. 

Make sure you know the requirements for layout, submission and any other specifications early on. Does it need to be bound? Make sure you know what kind of binding needs to be used, where you will get it bound, and how much time you will need to allow, well in advance. How many copies do you need to hand in? Do you need to submit an electronic copy? Does it need to be printed single-sided? Plan ahead for when and how you will print – there will be queues at the library and departmental printers close to the submission date! What are the layout requirements? I suggest that you set up a document in the correct layout, using styles and headings, before you actually write anything. If you’re unsure about any of the requirements, ask for clarification – these specifications are important and you don’t want to risk losing marks for something which could easily have been avoided.

Plan something fun to do afterwards! Even the prospect of something as simple as a pub trip on submission day will be something to focus on when times are hard towards the end! Additionally, I have to warn you that finishing my dissertation was in some ways an anti-climax. It was exciting doing the final bits and bobs, writing the acknowledgements and finally deciding it was finished and ready to print. But afterwards I felt a bit deflated, and didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t really know what to suggest to avoid this; perhaps planning some fun things to do will not only give you something to look forward to, but will also give your free time some structure to replace the gap left by your dissertation!

Something that several people pointed out when I asked on Twitter about things to include in this post was that you should try to enjoy it! Hopefully you’ve chosen something you’re interested in. Yes, it will be a lot of hard work, but it shouldn’t be constantly nightmarish. If you’re struggling to get any enjoyment out of it, I suggest you try to take a step back – take an evening off and start again the next day. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago in which I pointed out that library school provides you with an opportunity to carry out some original research, that you may not get again to the same extent, in terms of time, resources and support, so, as I said in that post, make the most of it! Your research probably has some practical use beyond meeting the requirements for a Masters’ degree and can form papers, articles and presentations in the future.
I also want to reassure you that you will be OK! You can complete your dissertation in the timescale that you’ve got, you can do your data analysis, you can get it up to the word count (and will probably go beyond). Your supervisor wouldn’t let you embark on a project that you couldn’t complete successfully. I know that at times it will feel like you’ll never finish, but trust me, everyone feels like that!

The issue was raised on Twitter of why bother doing a dissertation when you are already qualified from completing the taught part of your course. It never occurred to me not to do a dissertation. I would repeat my earlier argument that doing a dissertation provides you with an excellent opportunity to carry out some original research, that you may well be able to use and publish further. It also allows you to develop research skills, time management skills, data analysis skills and good writing skills, which are valuable skills to have. It gives you something to talk about in job interviews, and demonstrates your interest in the profession. It’s a massive piece of work that you can look back on and be really proud of.  As difficult as it was at times, doing my dissertation was a hugely rewarding experience, and I would encourage everyone to take the dissertation option if they possibly can.

I shall leave this post here, as it has become more than the “brief” selection of tips that I originally intended it to be! I hope it has been of help to someone; if I have any further ideas I might write a “part 2”. If anyone has any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, good luck to all of you dissertation-ing this summer!


  1. The point of why bother doing your dissertation when you're already qualified is an interesting one. I had always planned on doing the full MA course but then I was lucky enough to land a full time job last July, my plans were up in the air. I decided to switch to doing the dissertation part time meaning I handed it in in May this year. There were so many times when I debated 'Should I quit? Is this worth it? I can already do the job anyway.' But I am so pleased that I did because the topic I chose (eBooks in public libraries) is so current and I am now the resident eBook expert in work! If you can choose a topic that you know will enhance your career and you can stay interested in for 20,000 words, then there's no reason not to do it really.

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  3. Having just come to the end of the taught part of my LIS masters course at UWE, the prospect of embarking on a dissertation fills me with apprehension (and perhaps a little dread...) So it's very reassuring to read a blog like this - it has helped to rationalise what has appeared thus far to be an insurmountable task. Congratulations for getting yours done and dusted, hopefully this time next year I'll be able to breathe a big sigh of relief too!

  4. Thanks for the comments both! Glad to hear yours was worthwhile, libraryhelen, and KSaunders - best of luck! You honestly can do it. Get in touch if I can help in any way!

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  6. Hi, I came across your post because I'm coming into my last year of my LIS course. I don't currently work in a library, and my biggest issue is actually finding a topic to write about for the dissertation! Do you have any ideas or recommendations?

    1. Hello, thanks for commenting, and sorry I'm so rubbish at checking my blog commenst!
      I would say think about what you are interested in. Even if you're not working in a library at the moment, I'm sure there are issues/developments you're following or would like to know more about. Think about what you've studied so far on your course - has there been anything that you've thought "I'd like to look into this a bit more"? Chat through your interests with your supervisor and see what they think.
      I think a lot of people worry about doing a topic which will be beneficial to them in job applications; I would say it's more important to choose something that genuinely intrigues you, or about which you really care - writing your dissertation is a long and often challenging process, so you want to choose something that you are not going to quickly tire of.
      Good luck with finding your topic! And try to enjoy it - as I say in my post, this is a great chance to do some research! :-)

  7. The way you shared your knowledge here is amazing.
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  8. Your story was amazing! Well, this would certainly be an inspiration for other grad student. And it would also be a lesson to them on dissertation writing. I like the idea that it would be bad to compare note of other student. You all have different papers so it would clearly have different time to be complete. You should worry if your lagging behind them, as long as you know that you are working hard.

  9. Writing research and grant proposals is one of the most difficult -- and unavoidable -- requirements of graduate study in the