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Dissertation: gargantuan workload and symbolic rite of passage

BySarah Henderson

Mar 21, 2016

The month of March is known as dissertation month for final years throughout the university. Yet, as Sarah Henderson attempts to finish her dissertation, she investigates whether the dissertation has become more synonymous with a compulsory rite of passage.


‘How is your dissertation going’? ‘Have you resorted to the Hugh Rob building yet?’ ‘Are you coping’? These have been questions which I have been repeatedly asked within the past few months. Understandably, numerous students in first and second year have looked at me in awe and terror when I describe the word count (120000 words if you are interested), the amount of reading, and the simultaneous workloads we are expected to balance whilst completing our dissertations. Quite honestly, people have been asking about three topics since the start of my fourth year: my dissertation, my plans for when I graduate, and whether I’m staying in Edinburgh. Frankly, I’d prefer to have a cup of tea watching Netflix, go to the pub, or go for a run to escape such trifling matters.

The dissertation has been a staple piece of assessment for students throughout the country for numerous years. Within Edinburgh University, the dissertation planning begins at least a year before the hand in deadline, and at first such an undertaking seems insurmountable, even if the topic is something you are genuinely interested and excited by. How will I write 12000 words on a topic I’ve decided to research? Where will I find this material? Will my laptop cope? Personally, I was concerned about whether I would have to go to archives which were not the University library, and the mere thought of going through all that administration made me seriously anxious. I’d been told the horror stories of needing to go to other libraries in London and even further afield to gain access to archive material. Luckily, or rather savvily, I chose a topic where the material is all accessible in Edinburgh.

Then there is the sheer amount of hours that go into a dissertation. Unlike coursework essays, where all-nighters can still result in a decent grade, a dissertation requires major research, planning, writing and formatting. I am more concerned, for example, about the referencing and binding of the dissertation than completing the actual content. Notwithstanding the advice from supervisors, students can often feel left alone and floundering, overwhelmed by the dissertation. A lot of hard work is required and undoubtedly, it is still a piece of work which requires a great amount of continual effort. Topics may change and word counts may vary for different degrees, but for those required to write a dissertation, it is no small feat, and it is a considerable amount of tough work to complete.

However, there appears to be an undercurrent to all this dissertation talk and work. Whilst discussing dissertations with friends and family, it seems as though us students are expected to go through a sort of rite of passage when writing and finishing the dissertation. Emotional rollercoasters are expected to be the norm, as is resorting to the food groups of caffeine and sugar, and cutting out all other aspects of your life in order to be ‘at one’ with your dissertation. In a subversion of normalcy, if you aren’t flapping your arms in panic, perpetually crying or getting sleepless nights, friends and peers look at you suspiciously or with mild concern. A friend of mine recounted how her flatmate cleaned the kitchen for her as an act of kindness because she was told: ‘You must be so so stressed with your dissertation. I don’t think you are coping. I cannot imagine what you are going through’. This was despite my friend’s repeated reassurance that she was ‘genuinely fine.’.

Nor is this limited to friends. Whilst discussing my dissertation progress with my parents, they were nodding almost too vigorously as I recounted how I had been making slow but steady progress. It was almost as if they were expecting me to breakdown over skype about it. The fact that I just sipped a cup of tea and shrugged my shoulders about the progress of it because I felt quite relaxed about it that day was met with surprise, and subsequently, greater concern. Perhaps they were equating my workload to their own final year experiences as medical students many moons ago, which I personally feel must have been far more stressful and pressurising than what I am currently experiencing.

That is not to say that it is always plain sailing. There have been a couple of instances this year where it has all felt very difficult to manage, resulting in a mini-breakdown of some shape or form. Moreover, final year is exhausting, and being perpetually tired is a feature of university life for many final year students. Yet this is normally due to combination of factors students face in final year rather than the dissertation. More often than not, trying to figure out career paths and plans for leaving, on top of other existing commitments, can make the dissertation feel more ominous, a looming deadline of inescapable gravitas. However, not all students are experiencing final dissertation completion as a hellish rite of passage. Most of my friends completing their dissertations are, understandably, anxious; but they all have a timescale to complete various sections of the work, and appear, at least, to have managed their time efficiently. Instead of ‘coping’ they are even enjoying parts of the process.

The dissertation. It remains a work of significant magnitude, a piece of research which should never be underestimated or perceived as an overblown facet of modern university study. Yet the rite of passage students are expected to feel is a somewhat misconceived and misplaced notion. I will happily take a piece of chocolate I am offered, or have someone tidy my flat to make sure I ‘cope’. But I am able to write a dissertation without losing my mental faculties or adhering to the expectations associated with dissertation ‘life’.


Dissertation Nuggets:

# A word dissertation can be used to describe a treatise without relation to obtaining an academic degree.

# ‘Dissertation’ comes from the Latin dissertatio, meaning ‘path’.

# Many Italian universities have very vague guidelines for dissertation character size and page formatting.

# Chocolate and cocoa are under initial research to detect if consumption affects the risk of certain cognitive abilities.


IMAGE: Gustavus Moritz Redslob

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