When you look back at all the things you do at university, well, the academic things, your dissertation should be the thing of which you are most proud. For history students, it is the headline event. You’ll spend a large chunk of your final year, and probably a whack of your penultimate year, working on it: it will most likely be the lengthiest thing you produce as an undergrad, and it will sit on a shelf in your house long after you graduate, finished and bound like a proper published work. It’s the thing you can show your friends and family for years to come – an essay’s an essay, but the dissertation looks and feels that bit different, that bit more significant.
Yet the dissertation can also be scary. It looms ahead of you throughout first and second year, when all you really know of it comes from the harassed looking third years camped out in the library. They might terrify you with mind-boggling scare stories, or they might have really helpful advice, like this recent Guardian blog post. You don’t really get to practice it, like you do with essays and presentations and the like – you only get one shot at the dissertation. You probably don’t have classes in how to do the dissertation, you’re just expected to get on with it (you’re not really, but I’ll cover that in another post).
This post will cover the things you need to consider at the start of the dissertation process, when you’re coming up with the initial ideas and as you start your research. In particular, I’m going to focus on how you go about deciding what to work on. The dissertation’s big selling point – you get to work on whatever you want – is also what terrifies a lot of people – how on earth do you pick one thing? Finding the topic that will allow you to complete a good dissertation is challenging, but not impossible, and there are some things to bear in mind as you start to narrow down a topic.