How to Write Your Dissertation
Andrey Zorin, Professor at Oxford University, Supervisor of the Public History Master’s Degree program at the Moscow School of Economics and Social Sciences (Shaninka) shares his recommendations for writing a dissertation successfully and avoiding stress
Andrey Zorin’s Recommendations
TitleThe title of your dissertation should be easily converted into a question. Unfortunately, it is improper to formulate the title as a question. However, you should keep an interrogative sentence in mind. You should clearly understand what you would like to explore and share with your readers.
StructureWhen there is a question in mind, it becomes clear how many parts your dissertation will have - and they will be the chapters of your dissertation. In the end you will have a system of questions, and this is the structure of your work.
This structure as a whole should be imprinted in your head from the very beginning. You should not think that you will firstly explore something and then structure your dissertation. If you have no questions, it means you are working with dead material: if you do not ask it about anything, it will not tell you anything.
Questions (and correspondingly the content of chapters) shall be refined and reshaped. If the original plan has not been changed, that is pretty surprising. This means that, probably, you have not been studying and thinking thoroughly, you have just adapted the material to comply with the questions you raised and, most likely, your answers. The original structure should be revisited. However, the original structure shapes the direction of your research. In some cases, you may even realize that you have approached a dead end.
Remember that you can write a good dissertation project following a bad plan, but you cannot write a good project without any plan. The earlier you structure your dissertation, the more of a chance you will have to write it well and stress-free.
Selecting a TopicThe topic should be visible and feasible. Do not sound pretentious and do not set super-global tasks.
I recommend downloading and reading How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco. Umberto Eco says that a topic should not be too small and too narrow. You can write a diploma about how Marlboro cigarettes are sold in a cigarette stall nearby. Yet you should know everything about these sales. A topic that is too comprehensive may lead you astray. It is better to expand the topic later rather than trying to cover something you will not have enough time for.
Personal ExperienceIt is very helpful to find an optical tool to help you reflect on your professional activities by means of analytical procedures and research questions. It is one of the best possible heuristic techniques. Personal experience is an undisputable advantage since it is your own experience that may not be falsified. There is always an expert on any topic who knows more than you. But it is you who knows best about your own experience.
Supervisor’s GuidanceThe most important trait that will lead you to successful cooperation with your supervisor is intrusiveness. If you do not bother your supervisor, then you are not a good student. You should torture him or her with your questions, reminders, and you should not be shy about it. You have this opportunity to interact with an outstanding, remarkable person. Use this resource to its fullest.
Work ScheduleIn addition to the work plan, it is absolutely necessary to have a work schedule to understand what you will do when. Russian people tend to perceive the word deadline as insulting. However, a deadline is a deadline: you should stick to your schedule. You may lag, but at least you will know where you are and you will not harbour illusions.
Content StructureThe work should be structured according to the enfilade principle of succession: any point in your dissertation should be interconnected with the rest of it in embracing its general idea. In every paragraph of your dissertation you need to align the content with your primary research question.
IntroductionAn introduction is surely the main part of your dissertation. It covers the basic idea. Opponents often do not read further. This is bad, but that is the reality. Even if a person reads the dissertation to the end, still his understanding of the work has been shaped at the introduction stage. The introduction may cover from a fifth to a quarter of your work. Anyway, at least 15%. What should it convey?
1. First of all, you need to justify the topic: why is it worth writing about it at all? What is interesting about it, why is this topic relevant? At this stage you should formulate the research question. Your task is to explain why this subject is worth studying.
2. Then comes the next question: what is already known about this subject? What answers were given to this question? What parts of this question have already been explored? You should outline the key items: this issue has been explored by specific authors. You should not go into details when sharing their point of view. You should specify details only that are relevant to your research question- do not retell the entire research paper.
Some topics have been studied very well. Then you choose several sources. If the topic is poorly explored, then it is recommended to study everything. And then, when you realize what has already been done, you understand what you have to do.
3. And the third essential part of your introduction is to explain the structure of your work: how you break down your primary research question into smaller ones.
It is up to you to decide if you want to add more information.
ConclusionThe second significant element is the conclusion. It should be shorter than the introduction. And here you have two options:
1. To briefly summarize the questions that you have asked and the answers you got.
2. To show potential: if I were to write a continuation, then I would dwell upon ...
You can combine both options.
StandardsThe dissertation should comply with certain criteria and standards.
Nietzsche was indeed one of the greatest and the craziest philosophers. Yet if you look at his doctoral dissertation, you will see that these 2,000 pages dwell upon written works of Diogenes Laertius; it is boring conscientious work, a very careful study of ancient Greek sources. Do this job first, and then you may become a Nietzsche and be as crazy as you like. You may invent new paradigms, change the history of mankind, but first thing you need to do is to fulfill the mandatory primary requirements. Pasternak expresses the same idea: “A rope walker must be a rope walker, and not just a brave man.”
Your dissertation should comply with the standards. Anyone can do this. No research or analytical talent is needed for this. You just need some time, some diligence, accuracy, and intelligence.
You are not signing up for a risky venture, you are not climbing Mont Blanc. All you need to do is to write a certain amount of text in a certain amount of time.
Your passion, interest, talent, and personal style will be appreciated when you have written your dissertation.
PlagiarismThe problem of information sources. We do not discuss the issue of plagiarism: it goes without saying that the consequences may be pretty disappointing. However, in some cases we may encounter unconscious plagiarism: when the author thinks that he or she is writing his/her own text, but in fact he or she is including someone else's thoughts.
CitationAvoid excessive citation. Extensive quotes borrowed from other researches may only be justified in certain cases:
1. If the idea is expressed so accurately and precisely that under no circumstances will you write it better, and for you both the content of the statement and its verbal texture is important.
2. If you absolutely do not like the idea expressed by author and you are going to wipe the floor with it. Then you need to accurately copy the quote to avoid giving the impression that you misrepresented and distorted the author’s thought.
Otherwise do not overuse quotes. It is better to briefly retell someone else's thoughts by outlining the main idea as a reference within your own thinking process. A dissertation peppered with numerous quotes leaves a painful impression. Also try to avoid making references to works about which you have nothing to say. These you may simply add to your reference list.
Information SourcesAnother type of source that you will be using are documentary materials. It is essential to quote them, and you need to present them correctly. If there are lots of them, then it might be a good idea to arrange them separately in an appendix, or summarize them in a table, etc. The data source shall be separated from your text. The origin of any statement in your dissertation should be clear: either you retell it, or you quote it, or express your own thoughts. You should certainly specify if the words you are referring to do not belong to you.
When you use data sources and find something relevant, make a note straightaway: copy a quote, record the data source, the date you saw it. Never put it off. This one-second action will be a blessing later on. Our memory may get worse over time and one day you may not remember some information.
“I” vs “We”Should you write: “I” or “We”? There is a form of editorial “we”. In Soviet times, it was advisable to write “we”. Later writing “we” was considered improper, and they began to write “I”. There is nothing wrong with either option. You will not violate dissertation standards if you appeal to your own experience. It is also possible to avoid personal pronouns and write in the third person: “it seems”, “it is assumed”, “it appears.”
Working at NightI would not recommend working at night. You should do so if only you plan to finalize your work by morning. The person may survive two sleepless nights, however the following third night may result in complete loss of control over the text. Your performance may increase, yet you will lose control over your product.
Brilliant or DisastrousWhen I write something, I sound brilliant to myself. When I read what I have written for the first time, I see that it is a disaster. Neither feeling can be trusted. You should approach your work critically. However, do not be tempted to delete what you have written right after you read it for the first time.
Time ManagementTime management is of utmost importance. Of course, getting closer to the finish line brings excitement. You can speed up and do more at the end. Still, to speed up at the end, it takes some time to warm up. Then you can expect to accelerate. However, it is surely not possible to write your project paper in two days.
Remember: there is nothing complicated and titanic in writing a dissertation. All you need is to work diligently, to stick to your schedule and demand the same from your supervisor.