Troubleshooting Your Dissertation Writing Process

Usually most dissertation supervisor–student relationships proceed without problems and need little attention. However, from time to time, relationships break down. If you find yourself in this situation you need to face up to the problem and deal with it. Ignoring the problem means you're in danger of losing out on passing your dissertation as well as feeling pretty miserable in the process.

You’re inevitably going to regret getting into such a situation – so start acting now to find a solution to your difficulty. How you go about solving your difficulty depends quite a bit on the nature of the problem itself.

Dissertation troubleshooting: No response from your supervisor

You’ve tried contacting your supervisor but she simply isn’t available. Your next step is to go to one of your tutors or a member of the support staff who knows you well and explain that you can’t get in touch with your supervisor.

Keep copies of any emails, perhaps printing out the emails to show that you’ve made several attempts to contact your supervisor. Give your supervisor ample time to get in touch with you, but when this stretches to a few weeks, take some action.

Dissertation troubleshooting: Your supervisor doesn’t mark your draft work

If you arrange with your supervisor for her to make comments on a piece of your draft work but she fails to complete the work as arranged, your first step is to contact your supervisor directly. If you get no response after about a week, contact your supervisor again.

Take copies of any emails you have from your supervisor about marking your draft work and then arrange to see a different tutor or a member of the support staff. Explain the situation calmly and ask the tutor or support staff what they think you should do. Take a copy of your draft work because it's possible that another member of staff is able to comment on your work in place of your supervisor.

Don’t destroy your relationship with your supervisor by accusing her of doing or not doing something that she had no idea she was supposed to do, or not do. Contact her before you march off to the office to file an irate complaint.

Dissertation troubleshooting: Don’t wait to contact your supervisor until the eleventh hour

Your supervisor is your main source of support when you’re writing your dissertation – ignore your supervisor at your peril. Usually you’re assigned to a supervisor early on in the first stages of your dissertation (or even in the preceding term). It’s your responsibility to arrange a first meeting with your supervisor, so get in touch as soon as possible.

Leaving contacting your supervisor until the eleventh hour is a potential disaster. You’re going to loose out on invaluable support and advice, cutting down on the time she has to help you – and making her very cross indeed.

Don’t have one meeting and then drop off the radar. Most supervisors aren’t in the business of calling or emailing students – the responsibility lies on your shoulders – so make sure that you contact your tutor to arrange regular meeting times.

Dissertation troubleshooting: Pay attention to your supervisor’s suggestions

You may sometimes feel that your supervisor never, ever stops. ‘The importance of having a literature review’, and ‘What are you going to include in your research methodology section?’ Your supervisor may try to persuade you to limit the data you’re presenting or talk you into narrowing the focus of your research question. Bear in mind that your supervisor generally has good reasons for making such suggestions.

Think about it. Your supervisor more than anything wants you to pass, not fail. A successful student is just one more feather in the cap for a supervisor.

Listening to the advice of your friends may be more agreeable and privately you may be thinking that your dissertation is groundbreaking, exceptional and unique. Don’t forget your supervisor has likely read more dissertations than you and your friends have had hot dinners.

Maybe you just like to be different or you hate to ‘doing as you’re told’? Just because your supervisor says that a dissertation on evolutionary theory really ought to mention Darwin, doesn’t mean that she’s necessarily right. Or, does it?

Dissertation troubleshooting: Talk to others about your dissertation

Don’t make the mistake of cutting yourself off from friends and family while you’re working on your dissertation. Get your friends and family involved by making them feel that they’ve got something useful to contribute. Of course, ultimately you’re going to be working alone when writing up your research findings, but along the way it can benefit you greatly by engaging with other people and talking about your dissertation – both the content and the process.

Explaining your ideas with others helps you spot any weaknesses in your argument or gaps in your data. One of your friends or someone in your family can so often come up with a brilliant comment helping you to clarify your thinking. By talking about what you’re researching and writing you get see where you work may need improving, and being asked questions can help you to anticipate some of the discussions you’re going to be having later with your supervisor.

When it comes to talking about the process of writing your dissertation, your friends and family are likely to come up with any number of tips for the actual writing, from the best time of day to get started – to the best time of day to switch off and join your friends in the pub.

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