Doing It For the First Time: A Beginner’s Guide to Research Pt. II

Well, it’s hard to believe but the summer is officially over and now begins the chaos of the start of term. In the midst of moving house, catching up with friends and generally getting back in to the swing of things, it is easy for an ongoing project like a dissertation to be pushed to the side-lines but at HE History Hub we’re here to make sure you keep it front and centre.

In earlier posts we have looked at some of the things to bear in mind when embarking on a dissertation and some of the practicalities of getting to the material that makes a dissertation possible. In this post I want to think more broadly about managing a project like this, both in terms of the data you’ve collected and in terms of time.

Information Management:

Dealing with Technology

At the risk of sounding old, I hit the archives over the summer for the first time in a couple of years and I was really struck by how far technology had moved on since I was last doing research, when what you took home with you at the end of the day was determined by how much you could afford to spend on photocopying or how many films you’d packed for your camera. The developments in digital technology, in scanners, tablets, cameras, and in online resources now means that you can access more material much quicker and at (usually) far less cost – all of which is great news – but it also comes with problems. And the biggest problem by far is volume.

It is far too easy to generate material now and before you know it you’ve got hundreds, maybe even thousands, of images that you need to deal with. I’ve been as guilty as anyone over the past few weeks of taking photos or scans of things that ‘might be useful at some point’ and this is particularly tempting when you’re at the start of a project and still not entirely sure where it’s going – how do you know whether something is going to be useful six months down the line or not?! As tempting as it might be to take copies of everything you come across, do try to impose some limits or rationale, if only for your own sanity. Bear in mind that taking a photo of something does not equate to having read it – something that’s really easy to forget at times – and at some point you are going to have to sit down and plough through all the material you’ve gathered; try and make sure that this is actually feasible!

Related to this is how you store and file your research material once you’ve come home. There are no hard or fast rules about this and you need to figure out what works best for you but do yourself a favour and label your files in a way that will mean something a few months down the line, rather than just sticking with the default file name assigned by your camera or other fruit themed devices. Does it make sense to label material with dates, with fond or file numbers, to sort them by publication, or by theme? Think carefully about how you do this and as tedious and time consuming as it may be now, it will save a lot of headaches in the future. Believe me there is nothing more frustrating then frantically searching your hard drive for a specific extract from a particular newspaper that you think you might have possibly seen four months ago and are pretty sure you took a scan of at some point…

Taking Notes

Another key issue here is the notes you take to accompany all this material. Chances are because it’s so easy to take a digital copy that, if it’s permitted, you are going to do so rather than take notes there and then on the item you’re looking at. Make sure that you do make some notes though: again this is going to vary for source to source but it is really easy to overlook basic information like page numbers, or publication details, or dates in the excitement of coming across something relevant to your project. Don’t forget that a key part of referencing is signposting other scholars to what you have found – do you have all the material recorded to produce a footnote that can do this? The last thing you want when you have a project that is so time pressured is to have to go back to the material because the notes you made are inadequate in some way. Also bear in mind that this applies for electronic resources as well so do make sure you note down or bookmark the sites that you use, and when you used them.

I would also advise that you take notes that go beyond just simple citation requirements. These are going to vary massively depending on your source base and the nature of your project but you might want to consider making note of particular reoccurring themes or trends in the material you’re examining. If for example you’re looking at representations of Germany in cartoons published in the British press during the 1920s, then you might want to make a note of how many cartoons were published in total, what some of the other themes of those cartoons were, which cartoonists were working for a particular paper, whether the representation of Germany bore any similarity to the representation of other foreign nations, and so on. It is also worth noting any absences – are there issues of the newspaper missing for example, or are there years where there are no cartoons at all? All this seemingly incidental material could end up being significant further down the road and these broader trends, themes or omissions can be hard to spot based just on the material you copied.

Time Management

Be a Tortoise, Not a Hare

Ok this is the tricky one. Your final year is going to be the most academically demanding of all and on top of this you may find you have to apply for jobs, attend interviews or selection panels, and earn a couple of quid to keep yourself fed and watered as well. Given everything that is going on it’s really easy for the dissertation deadline to seem months away and something that future you can deal with. Don’t be fooled! The dissertation deadline may come around Easter (usually) but so do exams and before you know it you’re trying to juggle revision, research and writing up. The easiest way to avoid risking a complete meltdown in May is to be constantly working on your dissertation throughout the year.


Slow and steady wins the race, and is better for your stress levels…

I’m not going to lie this is tough, and is something that many academics continue to struggle with as well, because it’s easy to deal with looming deadlines and work that has to be done for next week and push longer term projects to one side, promising yourself that you’ll come back to it tomorrow and then tomorrow never comes. The best piece of advice I can give you in this respect then is be ruthless with yourself; treat your dissertation as if it is a timetabled class. Pick an afternoon – pick a whole day if you want – and come hell or high water, presentations, essay deadlines, or hangovers, make that dissertation time. Be realistic though – are you really going to diligently work from 6 am on a Monday morning, or be able to give up every Thursday evening until 9? Select a time that you know you stand a good chance of being able to commit to – it doesn’t need to be much more than 2 or 3 hours each week – and stick to it.

For some of you, your dissertation will be linked to your Special Subject – bear this in mind when putting time aside. Do you want to back dissertation work onto a seminar because you’re going to be in the right head space or is this going to leave you feeling frazzled? Only you knows what is going to work best for you.

Timetable and Expectations

Beyond scheduling your time on a week by week basis, it’s important that you have a rough idea of where you want to be with the project at what stage in the term. Sometimes this will be laid out by your supervisor – they may expect a plan by Christmas, a first draft of a chapter by the start of the second term, and so on – but beyond this it’s important that you manage the project in a manner that will (at least in theory) fit with your other commitments.

Let’s be honest, for most people the Christmas vacation will be a complete write off – far too many people to see and too much cake to eat to be really productive – so don’t set yourself some crazy target to have met by January. What’s more, with many libraries and archives likely to be closed for good chunks of this period carrying out research is going be a bit trickier as well. While it might be tempting to think that the Christmas vacation is going to be the time when you catch up on all that work you’ve not done during the term, it’s vital that you’re realistic about what you can achieve in this break. Yes, it’s probably wise to do something during this time but keep it manageable and ultimately try not to get into the situation where you need to work flat out over the vacation because you’ve done nothing in the previous ten weeks.

The start of the new academic year is the time then to be making some kind of rough timetable for your dissertation and is something that you can do in consultation with your supervisor. Think while you’re doing this not only about what other time pressures you’re likely to have in the coming weeks and months but also what kind of person you are when it comes to working independently. If you are someone who works best to deadlines, discuss this with your supervisor and set yourself some targets for along the way. Other people may feel happier just having a rough idea about what they want to have achieved by the end of a particular month or term – again, it’s about putting together a programme that works best for you as an individual. The key thing is to be realistic: there is nothing more demoralising than trying to stick to an impossible schedule  and nothing more stressful than realising you’ve failed to stick to the plan you so carefully crafted.

Putting Fingers to Keyboard

One of the trickiest aspects in managing your time on a project like this is knowing when to start writing. I’m a great believer in starting this process earlier rather than later: writing is a great way of organising your thoughts, of figuring out exactly what you know and, equally importantly, what you don’t know. Obviously there is a balance to be struck here – you need to have done enough secondary research to ensure that what you write and argue is correctly contextualised, and you need to have done enough primary work that what you say is detailed and informed, but don’t put off starting too long.

Let’s face it, there is always going to be another book you could read or another source you could look at – you are never going to have exhausted all the material on whatever your chosen subject is – so don’t let that stop you from starting. If you start writing and discover there is a gaping hole in your knowledge or source base then that’s the time to go back to the books, but you’re unlikely to spot these gaps until you start fleshing out your ideas and arguments.

Deciding to read and make notes for the next six months and then sitting down and writing it all over Easter is really not the best way to approach this kind of project. Write early, write often, produce several drafts, hone and polish both your style and your substance as you go, and crucially, share your work and ideas with your supervisor so they can provide your with some feedback. Do be advised though that in many institutions the amount of work your supervisor can read will be limited so make sure you submit something that is going to be worthwhile but don’t forget that you can always discuss other parts of your project orally rather than asking for written feedback if this is the case.

Keeping Going

As I mentioned in my Seven Deadly Sins post, one of the biggest mistakes students make time and time again is that they stop coming to see their supervisor to discuss their work. Usually this is because they feel they’ve not done enough on their dissertation and are embarrassed or concerned about what their supervisor might say. It’s a bit of an ostrich approach and hiding from your supervisor is not going to make the fact that you’ve not done enough work go away and in truth is also likely to create other problems as well. I cannot stress this enough – stay in touch with your supervisor.

You probably don’t want to go so far as to be giving them weekly updates on what you’ve been up to but aim to see them maybe 3 times a term, ideally with something concrete to discuss. You may find that your supervisor is proactive in setting meetings in which case exploit this opportunity as fully as you can; more usually though you have to seek out the supervision you require, as after all this is an independent research project. Remember that your supervisor is not just there to read over and comment on your work but also to talk over any difficulties or problems you may be facing, including that the project has completely stalled. If you’re really struggling with time management issues, they may also be able to give you some help on that front or at least point you to someone in student services who can. Whatever the circumstances, however much work you have or haven’t done, whether you’re sailing through or feel like you’re pushing molasses up a sandy hill, keep discussing your project with your supervisor



Your supervisor is there to help – don’t struggle on your own


Doing a dissertation is a challenge – it’s meant to be, it’s the culmination of your degree, and the way you demonstrate all the skills that you have learnt over the past three or four years – but it can also be exciting and invigorating. This is a piece of work that you should be invested in, that you have dedicated hours to, and that you should submit with pride as well as relief – be sure you take the time to do yourself justice.

Good luck!!


2 thoughts on “Doing It For the First Time: A Beginner’s Guide to Research Pt. II

  1. This is a question related to the writing of the dissertation rather than the research aspect. In the statement of aims, should I simply outline the existing historiography and where I wish to situate my position in relation to it, and, explain the theoretical approach I will be taking? Or should I also include a brief statement of what I plan to argue in each subsequent chapter?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.


    1. Michael – it’s probably worth checking with your supervisor about exactly what is expected but usually a statement of aims will be a brief overview of the kind of themes, issues, and questions your dissertation sets out to examine and a summary of your argument. This can be framed within existing scholarship if relevant, but it’s not usually the place to give too much historiographical detail though. As I say, do check with your supervisor – your institution may expect something slightly different!

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