Five things you need to think about when starting your dissertation

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.

  1. You need to be interested in whatever topic you pick
  • First things first – what bits of history interest you? By the time you come to start work on a dissertation, you will probably have sampled various different periods and approaches to history as part of your degree, and you should have a good idea about what things interest you – or more likely, what things don’t. You need to take this into account when working out what you will look at for your dissertation, and go for something you find fascinating – rather than something you find easy.
    You've got the whole of history to choose from - it's a historical Smörgåsbord!
    You’ve got the whole of history to choose from – it’s a historical Smörgåsbord!
    • Easy tends to be simple, which tends to be a bit boring for you working on the topic, and a bit less impressive for the person marking the finished product. Don’t play things too safe or you end up scuppering your research project before you start.
  • Students are often told their dissertation needs to be ‘original’. This sends many people into a big panic, trying to find a topic that’s never been done before, stressing themselves out right from the start. They really don’t need to – original doesn’t need to mean ground-breaking in terms of topic.
    • Sometimes you might have something entirely new to work with – a document from your family, for example, or access to a private archive, or people who are willing to give you interviews on a particular topic. Go for it!
    • Some people enjoy basing their dissertations on their own extra-curricular interests, leading to dissertations on various sporting and cultural topics. If you’re interested in music, film, fashion, or a particular sport, you might want to think about building your dissertation around that, and using the archives or museums dedicated to that particular area to find sources.
    • Each year, the same topics appeal to large numbers of students, but they don’t all write the same dissertation. Each will put their own spin or emphasis on a different area. If you’re looking at the wives of Henry VIII for example, one student might look at their influence on Henry’s religious policy, one student might look at the networks each woman was part of, and one student might look at their representations in literature (or film, or art… you get my point). Similarly with dissertations on the Battle of Jutland, British reactions to the French Revolution or the Hitler Youth – all topics which prove to be perennially popular, but which all have scope to be developed in very different ways.
    • You might want to revisit a ‘traditional’ topic using a new or unusual theoretical model – popular approaches include using gender or class or postmodernist theories to look at particular topics.
  • I think Exeter’s marking criteria for undergraduate dissertations puts it really well:
    • “Good dissertations will incorporate an element of originality, nevertheless, either in the question or questions posed, the sources examined in order to answer the question, or in a combination of both. The ideal is to produce not a cut-down book, but a pithy, well-argued and well documented examination of a topic which has a bearing on a historical question or debate. This ideal can be achieved in a number of ways: by original archival research, but equally through synthesis, by combining data or modes of analysis, or posing questions relatively unexplored in the historical literature.”
        • You might want to check what your own institution says about this.
  • Don’t rehash work you’ve done elsewhere.
    • Lots of students think they can play it safe by doubling up with work they’ve done or are doing for other parts of their degrees. This is risky for several reasons – you run the risk of self-plagiarising (presenting the same work for credit twice), which most institutions forbid.  You also run the risk of boring yourself stupid, which means you’re less likely to want to work on your dissertation, and more likely to rush something out at the end. You might also struggle distinguishing between what is really vital for your dissertation and what can be left out as interesting-but-background information.
      • Some institutions require you to do a dissertation linked to your special subject, in which case you have the security of knowing you will get to dedicate a lot of time to your subject, and most likely you will have pretty expert supervision, but you will need to make sure you don’t self-plagiarise.
    • Even more risky is going back to what you did for A-Level. Yes, some people will have a genuine love for what they studied at school, but the expectations and requirements are totally different when you’re at university.  A lot of people come unstuck by retreating back to the comfort blanket of what they were told in a classroom at 17-18 and forget to employ all the individual analytical skills they’ve been honing over their time at university.

Ultimately, as you’re going to be living with this topic for the best part of a year, you don’t want to be bored silly by the end of the first month. There will be times when you struggle to commit as much time to your dissertation work as much as you want/should, and if you’re really sick to the back teeth of the subject, it is that bit harder to make yourself go to the library, or do that bit more reading, or look at that next document.


  1. Primary sources are key

The biggest hurdle for undergraduates starting out on a dissertation is working out their primary source base. Pretty much all UK history departments expect you to conduct primary research in order to complete your dissertation – your conclusions will be based on the evidence you have assembled from the various primary sources you’ve consulted, rather than on the secondary reading you’ve completed. This is why a dissertation is not simply a long essay – where you might have made reference to particular documents, images, objects etc. when putting together an essay, you’re unlikely to have based your entire argument on their analysis before, but rather used them to back up or develop points you’ve picked up in the secondary reading.

  • You will be expected to have read widely from the secondary literature as well, as you will need to demonstrate awareness of the wider field in which your dissertation sits – by which I mean you will need to show you know who the key thinkers are, what they’ve said, what people have said about what they’ve said, and where your research sits with that. Also, you will get a sense of where to look for sources from the secondary literature. Your main work, however, will be with the primary sources.

You may have the most fascinating idea for a dissertation, but if you don’t have the primary sources that allow you to investigate that topic, you need to rethink it. Things to consider include:

  • Do sources exist for the topic you want to do?
    • It often seems like there are massive gaps in our historical knowledge – that’s because there are, and it’s not because professional historians are lazy. It’s just that we can only research areas where there is evidence for us to go to, hence lots of really interesting areas remain closed to us. This is particularly obvious if you want to look at things to do with women or the lower orders of society in the pre-modern period.
      • The best way to find out if you’re going to run into source-availability problems of this nature is to go and discuss your ideas with a member of staff early on. Don’t be discouraged if they confirm there are limited sources for your first topic idea – listen to their alternative suggestions.
  • How and where will you access your sources? Are they online, or will you need to go to a particular archive or library?
    • If you need to go to archives and libraries (most dissertations students do), where are they? When will you go? How will you fund your trip? Some libraries and departments have limited funds to support undergraduate dissertation research – check with your department’s dissertation coordinator.
  • Are all the sources you need going to be available to you?
    • Government documents in various countries are subject to restrictions over when and how they are made available to the public and to researchers.
    • Webpages can suddenly get taken down, or move. Don’t assume you can come back to things later.
      • Keep an eye out for trial access to resources through your institution’s library. These are often valid for a limited period of time, and you need to make the most of them whilst you can!
    • If you’re going to an archive or library, will you be allowed to take digital photographs of documents?  This can save tons of time, but not all repositories allow it.
  • Do you speak the languages necessary to complete the topic?
    • If you want to look at a non-British topic, you will need to consider how strong your languages are to cope with both the primary and secondary source work. If you’re looking at a medieval or early modern topic, you will need to be aware of how the language has changed over time (there are often dictionaries available to help you do this).
    • You might be able to work with translated documents, but this raises issues of translation quality and selection that you will need to discuss with your supervisor.
  • Will you need to develop any particular skills?
    Shakespeare's will is written in early modern 'secretary hand' & most students would need some paleography lessons before tackling something like this.
    Shakespeare’s will is written in early modern ‘secretary hand’ & most students would need some paleography lessons before tackling something like this.
    • If you’re working with manuscripts, particularly those several hundred years old, you might need to do some paleography training. The National Archives have a useful online tutorial to get you started, but you should also see what support your library can give you.
    • If you’re going to be working with statistical data, you might need some training in using databases and producing graphs to illustrate your research.
    • If your proposed project involves oral history and interviews, you will need to talk to someone about how to go about setting up and conducting interviews, in particular if your department has any ethical standards guidelines of which you need to be aware.


  1. Your dissertation needs to be manageable

Because dissertations are so much longer than essays, students often think they need to ‘scale up’ their topic accordingly. But there are some things you need to bear in mind:

  • If a professional historian has spent their entire career and many books trying to answer the same question you’ve set yourself in your dissertation, your question is too big.
  • You probably have about a year to plan, research & write the dissertation, alongside your other academic and extra-curricular activities, which will probably include hunting for jobs and going on interviews. Be realistic as to how many sources you can access and analyse in this time.
    • One student once told me they were going to read the entirety of Martin Luther’s output at the start of their dissertation. When I mentioned there were over 50 volumes in the version in our library, let’s just say they rethought this idea.
  • It can help to compare the scope of a dissertation with the scope of a journal article, as they tend to be of a similar length – journal articles are often about the 8,000 word mark, dissertations about 9-10,000 words. Most journal articles are highly focused, but clearly tie in to themes in the wider scholarship.


  1. Working with a supervisor

Throughout your dissertation, you will work with a member of staff who acts as your supervisor. This is usually a very different way of working for most students, and we’ll have more advice about working with supervisors here over the next few weeks. There are a couple of things you will need to consider as you start:

  • Because students can pick any reasonable topic they want for their dissertation, it’s very hard for departments to provide ‘expert’ supervision in every area. You might well end up with someone who doesn’t work directly on your topic as your supervisor. This is not a disaster:
    • All members of staff are able to give advice on good research practices, discuss scheduling and planning, give advice on scope and focus, read draft work and give feedback. These are, after all, things we have to deal with in our own work.
    • Don’t assume staff research interests from their teaching responsibilities – read through the webpages of all staff available to supervise dissertations, see what periods and areas they study, but also what approaches they take, and go and talk to them about your plans at an early stage. Students often come to me about doing particular things because I’ve mentioned something related in a lecture, when actually there are other staff members who work on areas more closely related to that topic.
    • If you do end up working with someone who literally wrote the book on your topic, it can be daunting to engage in debate with someone whose work you’re using. Also, they will know the subject inside out, and will be able to identify any minor flaws or gaps in your work, which some people find helpful, but others find stressful.
    • There’s usually a limit on the number of students any particular member of staff can supervise. You can probably work out which are going to be the most popular general areas for research (Tudors, Nazis, Modern Britain!) and guess which staff members are going to be in high demand. If you pick another area, you could get a supervisor who has fewer students clamouring for their time.
  • Find out how supervisors are allocated within your institution. Do you need to put in a proposal? Does your intended supervisor need to have signed off on your project? Are you able to change supervisors, and at what stage and in what circumstances.
    • Arrange meetings with potential supervisors as soon as you can within your institution’s dissertation process. You will get advice & feedback at an early stage, and staff will also see that you’re keen and that might be useful if they get any say in who they supervise.
  • Your supervisor is there to guide you, not to teach you. You shouldn’t expect them to provide you with reading lists or find you sources – even if they’re a world expert on your dissertation topic. They might give you some places to start looking, and most supervisors I know pass on details of things they come across that they think might be of interest to students, but their main job is to support you as you do your own research, and to give you feedback on your progress.


  1. Above all, trust in your own skills

The dissertation is your masterpiece – in the traditional sense, as in a piece of work that you produce to show your mastery of the skills you’ve learnt in the course of your degree. In your essays, seminars, lectures and presentations, you will have been learning to present periods of history, identify key evidence, construct arguments, and engage your audience. You will have a sense of what kind of historian you are, what sources you want to work with, the kinds of ideas you find engaging, and this is where you get to show all of that off. The dissertation is where you get to be a historian. It takes planning and
organisation, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.


About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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