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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


The Optional Dissertation pitfalls

Most problems can be avoided by planning ahead and working steadily towards the deadline. Here are some common pitfalls and how to avoid them, or how to deal with issues that arise:

  • Insufficient preparation before the start of the fourth year

You will be at a disadvantage if you have not started reading for your Optional Dissertation before you begin the fourth year. Do think ahead, talk to your Director of Studies and embark on some general reading, even if you do not properly define your topic until the beginning of Michaelmas Term.

  • Spending too long defining a topic

While part of the Michaelmas Term should be devoted to reading around your topic as broadly as possible, it is a mistake to leave defining your topic too late. Most supervisors strongly suggest that you should have covered a substantial amount of the reading and produced a detailed plan by the end of Michaelmas Term.

  • Producing a first draft too late

The Christmas vacation is crucial: this is the point at which you need to work hard to produce a first draft of the dissertation, ready for reworking and refining over the Lent Term.

  • Becoming overwhelmed by the amount of material

It is not unusual to reach a point where you feel daunted or even paralysed by the volume of material you have gathered, and you have no idea how to begin writing. Following the advice given in the Planning your Dissertation section should help you: start working through your notes methodically, tracing links between different ideas and deciding how you might ‘categorize’ individual points within larger ones. Remember that you do not need to read everything that has ever been published on the subject, and that you do not need to know exactly where you are going before you start writing.

  • Feeling that you have nothing new or interesting to contribute

Original ideas rarely jump out of a magician’s hat: they will develop through the slow and careful process of writing, thinking, and rewriting. Check the advice given in the section on Producing original work.

  • Missing references

Many students spend the last few days frantically chasing missing references – avoid this by making sure you note down all the publication details and page numbers of every book or article meticulously, right from the beginning of your research. Ideally, you should use an online referencing tool such as Endnote, Mandeley or Zotero (free to download). This will be extremely helpful to you in recording and formatting your references and your bibliography, and you will be able to access the records from anywhere in the world. See the section on Reading for your Dissertation for a checklist of what to record when you are taking notes from a book, article, website, etc.