Feeling the fear? 9 steps for managing dissertation panic

Feeling like you want to scream is a normal dissertation reaction… Edvard Munch, The Scream (image from Wikimedia Commons)



For history students, the dissertation or final year project should be the crowning glory of their undergraduate studies. However, for many, it becomes more of a crushing weight they simultaneously can’t ignore but can’t seem to progress with. This is the time when it feels like the wheels are coming off the whole thing. This post will focus on some practical steps you can take to make sure those wheels stay on and you’re able to steer it all safely home.


1. Manage your deadlines – all of them

Dissertations are challenging at least in part because they involve long-term planning and time management – that submission date seems miles away at the start of final year, but by spring term, it’s suddenly just around the corner. You need to have a strategy for how to use your time.

*TIP* First of all, manage your dissertation deadlines. Submission Day is obviously the big one. You might also have internal deadlines set by your Department or your tutor about when you should give them plans or drafts – keep careful note of those and stick to them – if you miss them, you might be giving up the chance for important feedback. But giving yourself a more detailed breakdown of your time can help you keep on top of things. A tried-and-tested method is to work backwards from your submission day – you want to give yourself a few days to arrange printing and binding so aim to have that done three days before the final deadline. That means you should probably be editing and proofreading the entire thing the week before that. And *that* means finishing your chapters by the week before that, and so on and so on.

*TIP* Secondly, include your other commitments – from other assignments to work commitments, job interviews and your best pal’s 21st. It’s highly unlikely you will only be working on your dissertation, so think about how to dedicate enough time to each aspect. Be realistic, but be firm with yourself.

2. Get planning

Your dissertation is probably the longest piece of work you’ve produced so far. It will most likely involve ideas being developed over a couple of chapters, contributing to an overall argument. Planning what points are going to come where is vital.

*TIP* There’s pretty much never just one way to write up a piece of work. You might think about organising your material chronologically, thematically, or by source type. I always advise students working with me to plan their dissertations in different ways, to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, and then to go with the plan that allows them to make their argument in the most compelling way.

3. Get writing

This is the tough one, particularly if you come from the ‘read everything there is to read before putting pen to paper’ approach to essay writing. The risk with that approach is that with dissertations, your reading list is so much longer than usual that you don’t give yourself enough time for the important bits that come after the reading – namely the thinking and the writing.

*TIP* Don’t wait, just get stuck in. Even it it’s just a sentence – nothing is more intimidating that the blank page/screen, so start to chip away at it as soon as you get ideas about where you’re going.

4. ‘Share the pain’

My colleagues sometimes laugh (nervously) when I say this – what I mean is that you’ve likely got friends who are also writing up too, and you can use them to motivate you and support you as you progress with your own work. You might need to be careful how you do this – don’t let yourself get intimidated by people who are seemingly further on than you, and don’t let yourself get distracted by people who aren’t all that invested in being productive. But many people find it easier to work if they’re doing so as part of a group.

*TIP* A shared approach can really pay off, particularly if you’re prone to procrastination (like I am). When I was writing up my undergraduate dissertation, I arranged to go to the library every day with a friend. We arrived together, and had breaks and lunch together, and left together at the same time, but worked in different parts of the library. Having a routine was crucial for me to keep control of things.

5. Be flexible

As students get into depths of research and writing, that’s usually when the problems emerge. Maybe there’s not the depth of sources you’d originally hoped to find on your topic. Maybe you realise that the interesting side line you’d hoped to mention is actually taking over the whole project. Whatever it is, it’s disconcerting.

*TIP* Don’t beat yourself up. This is what research is about – there are dead ends and there are goldmines, and you can deal with both. It just takes an open mind and some support, which brings me swiftly on to…

6. Keep talking to your supervisor

For many students, the first reaction is to go to ground when the dissertation going gets tough. PLEASE DON’T DO THIS! Your supervisor is there for exactly these times! Chances are, if you go to talk to them about a problem, they will either reassure you it’s not that big of a deal, or they will recognise the issue and help you devise an alternative approach. Or, you will realise, by putting your concerns into words, that what you thought was a massive problem really isn’t at all…

*TIP* Aim to see your supervisor at least once a month throughout the process, and up the frequency, in agreement with them, as the deadline draws nearer.

7. Get your team together

You know those acknowledgement pages at the start of books? Those footnotes in articles thanking people for reading over drafts of the work? That’s because it’s important for writers – including writers of dissertations – to get other people to look over their work. And it’s not just a case of getting someone who knows your topic to look at what you’ve done – sometimes it’s more helpful to have someone fresh to the subject look at how you’ve constructed the argument.

*TIP* If you know you’re weak on grammar, find someone who *loves* perfect punctuation to give it the once over too.


This is a big one – every year, someone experiences the nightmare scenario of the laptop dying at the vital moment. You need to have a backup version of your dissertation, and then a backup for the backup! I use cloud storage, an external hard drive and I email drafts to two email accounts. I have learned the hard way…

*TIP* Make sure you’ve got the most up to date versions clearly marked. I have an ‘Old Drafts’ folder for each thing I’m writing, and I save each new version with the date in the title, moving the older version to the ‘Old Drafts’ folder.

9. Trust your instincts – and don’t be afraid to ask for advice

Finally, remember you’re the one who has worked on this the longest – you’re the one who’s most familiar with the material. If something with your research or writing feels a bit off, stop and think about why that is. Maybe there’s an easy fix. Maybe you need to talk things over. But at the end of the day, it’s your project, so you get the biggest say in how it gets done.

*TIP* If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by what you don’t know, take a moment to think about what you DO know – get together with friends also doing dissertations and explain what you’re doing. Don’t compare who’s written what, or how many sources each person’s looked at. Just explain your ideas and your findings – it’s amazing how much you don’t realise you know!

I hope that’s been some help, and good luck with your dissertations!



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.

2 thoughts on “Feeling the fear? 9 steps for managing dissertation panic

  1. Great stuff!

    Can I add a tenth suggestion? Beta readers! One thing I have learnt from fandom is that getting critique from a casual reader can help you make your thoughts accessible to someone else. I have adopted this since my MA dissertation, and getting a reader’s perspective from a friend or fellow student often helps identify that ‘you lost me HERE’ sentence or logic leap.

    1. Apologies, it appears my reply to this didn’t post properly several weeks ago, and I’ve only just seen! Absolutely, I agree, and pointed to this in point 7. Useful to be really direct about it though. Thank you!

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