To dissertation, or not to dissertation? That, is the real final year question. It’s a concept we’ve all heard of before and during our time at university- we’ve seen the dreaded 72 hour stunts in the library just days before it’s due, we’ve witnessed the tears over bibliographies and word counts, basically seen the bedlam that ensues.
But then you’re told, if you’re doing an English Literature degree like me- and potentially other disciplines- that, actually, you don’t have to. Instead of the afeared dissertation, you can actually just choose a replacement module instead. This module will be just like every other module you’ve taken over your three years; no 10,000 word essay, no completely independent study, but usual lectures and seminars instead. But just like every other module you’ve taken, the subject matter is not of your own choosing, is not something that you completely create and sculpt yourself. And so the question follows, which do you choose?
When the question was put on my shoulders, there were a great many fearful myths flying around- namely, the fact that you couldn’t graduate with honours if you didn’t do a dissertation. This is not true. On my course at least, doing a dissertation is not only completely optional, but it has absolutely no bearing on your degree classification, aside from the obvious (in that you’ll be marked on your dissertation essay, rather than a different essay set by the department instead). So you can throw that worry out of the window right now. All you have got to think about is what would best suit you.
For some people (well, most rational students I’ll wager), the prospect of one long 10,000 word essay is enough to send them running to the hills crying university drop out. The pressure of the word count alone is too much. And if this is you, then maybe consider that a dissertation isn’t what’s best for your degree. But for some of us, we realise that, when we break it down, it’s not really so scary. What you’re actually writing is an introduction, three 2,000 word essays, and a conclusion. And given the fact we’re used to the old 2,000 worder by now, seeing it in this way actually makes it seem quite short.
But a dissertation isn’t only about the number of words you’re required to write; it’s about what you’re required to write about, which is absolutely anything. At first, I’ll admit, this is incredibly daunting. With no direction given whatsoever, it’s down to you and you alone to come up with your entire concept for your dissertation. There will be those of us who, no matter how many times we attempt to spitball ideas, mind map it out or even scour the internet for inspiration, we will still find ourselves banging our heads against the wall at the end of it without a single worthy idea to pursue. And that is absolutely fine. Then this really isn’t for you.
But for those of us who look back over all the topics we’ve covered so far- or even ones we haven’t, but want to- and find something that we want to explore more, that we find exciting to write about, then the dissertation is a great opportunity to do just that. You choose your ideas, your texts, your questions, and you do what the hell you’d like with them (within university guidelines, of course). The freedom is there that you won’t find anywhere else. So if you have an idea, one that really interests you, don’t give it up just because of fear.
Obviously, it’s important to work hard on your dissertation, but it isn’t the be all and end all. You will still have your two other modules (if you’re an English Lit student like me) in your final semester to work on, so you aren’t completely left out on your own. If you don’t get the results you want from it, it isn’t going to be the only grade contributing towards your degree.
And you will always have your supervisor to help you, who, if you get as lucky as I have, is not only an expert in the field, but so eager to help and encourage that they’ll provide you with so much helpful advice and reading material (at times, way, way too much reading material) that you’ll have ideas coming out of your ears so that you cannot wait to get started. Use them, ask them questions, and you’ll find that you are not alone in the process, but supported every step of the way.
A dissertation is a big decision to make, but it is one that is completely subjective and depends entirely on what is best for you, so take your time to think about it to make sure that the decision you make is the right one. But even if it isn’t, and you regret your choices, it’s not the end of the world. We learn from our mistakes and the decisions we did or didn’t make, and we know how to work on them in the future, and, hey, that’s just life, right?