Following on from what was discussed during Saturday’s launch of the MA Victorian Studies dissertations we thought it would be useful to compose our top tips on how to approach a masters dissertation – because we promise, it’s not as scary as it initially seems!
Read! Read more and then once you’ve done that, read some more!
It’s okay at this early stage to not be set on a topic or idea for your dissertation. If you are then that’s great, use the broad topic to kick-start your reading, once you begin researching more around the subject your own ideas and arguments will naturally form. If anything within your reading peaks your interest use that as a possible idea to narrow down your topic.
If you have no idea at this stage what topic you want to pursue then reading at this early stage is crucial. Just follow-up any interests you have, whether that be gender issues, political reforms, changing nature of culture, religion, local studies, class issues etc. wherever your interests lie use that as a starting point.
REMEMBER: always try to get hold of the ‘key’ historiographical texts. Even if they were written 40-50 years ago there is a reason historians keep going back to them. For example, any work on class cannot avoid using the classic work of E. P. Thompson. Key point to remember however is to always compare and contrast it to the most current historiography. That way it’ll provide you with a core understanding of your topic, new arguments and discussions that are happening now and naturally should help you position your argument within the historiography.
Make plenty of notes!
As your reading develops, always make sure you are making notes. These don’t always have to be detailed, but just a page number and very brief outline of what is covered is enough to remind you where to find the information again if needed – because chances are it will be!
Discuss your ideas!
As simple as this may sound, talking through your ideas with someone is one of the best ways to clarify your thoughts! Whether this is with your supervisor or with another student, talking about it, discussing and bouncing ideas off one another can be hugely beneficial, especially if you are torn between following up several avenues of research. If you can defend your reasons for a possible dissertation and why, then you are onto a winner!
Make a brief plan!
If you can plan an outline of your dissertation at an early stage it will be hugely beneficial in helping you structure and map out your research. Chances are you won’t stick to the plan by the time it comes to you writing your dissertation, but having a basic structure and outline to follow will make organising notes, reading and archival sources much easier!
Don’t be afraid to go off track!
As your research begins to progress, particularly when you start archival research you may feel a bit lost and that you aren’t staying on track. This is completely normal! Following a rigid structure of research may work for some but it definitely doesn’t for all! You can meticulously plan every single stage of your research but chances are you will never stick to that. Archival research can change everything. You may visit an archive with a list of specific sources you want to look at but until you get there to view them, you could come across many interesting and unexpected sources! It’s hard to know exactly what you will find until you get to the archives, but don’t be afraid to break away from your initial plan if you find something unexpected but exciting as it could potentially provide a much richer dissertation.
Proof read, edit and redraft as much as you can!
Constructing your first draft is the hardest part. Once you have done so, as well as asking supervisors to read it, feel free to send it to your fellow students on the master’s course or even students from the post-graduate department in general. It may feel daunting to allow someone to read your work but it can be the most valuable thing! But remember, at such an early stage do not panic about writing, you have plenty of time to construct your first draft!