An ode to my MA dissertation

It's hard work and the end might not always be in sight - but it's important to love what you're studying, says Harriet Williamson
  • @harriepw

I’m beginning to fall in love with my dissertation. My room is in a shameful state, covered in papers and library books and sticky notes, I’ve been wearing jumpers stolen off my dad for about two months, and I’m not great conversation at parties because no one wants to talk about Thatcherism and heroin addiction when they’re trying to have a good time. All my undergraduate friends have finished their final exams and are celebrating in a haze of alcohol and festival-planning, but the jealousy I expected to consume me just hasn't appeared.

I admit it, I’m a geek. I love being deeply engrossed in a single subject, excavating new readings and perspectives like I’m an archaeologist at a dig. I’m not enjoying my dissertation because I think what I’ve put down on paper is particularly good or special, but because I am able to sit at my desk every day and focus on something I’m deeply interested in. As a rule, it’s crucial to have strong feelings about the topic or period you’re writing about when penning a dissertation. These feelings are what keep you motivated through the long weeks of summer when you could be in the beer garden or wading through a sea of Glastonbury mud.

During an undergraduate degree and even in the first two terms of your MA, there are bound to be modules and texts and topics that you weren’t particularly inspired by or passionate about. Your dissertation shouldn’t include material that doesn’t interest you. It can be an opportunity to give your academic enthusiasms free reign, to be outrageous and creative, as one of my course friends is, by going completely leftfield and using Fifty Shades of Grey as her primary text. After nearly four years in higher education, I feel finally able to be truly autonomous in terms of what I choose to write about.

Equally rewarding is the opportunity to do your own research and come to independent conclusions, particularly if you’ve chosen an innovative dissertation topic that hasn’t already had masses written on it. The taught MA is expected to prepare candidates for the lonely rigors of doctoral study, and it is through the dissertation that students get a real taste of what the PhD might be like, should they choose to do it. The opportunity to receive rigorous criticism and much-needed encouragement from your dissertation tutor, someone who shares your research interests, can be completely invaluable during dissertation term. My tutor likes to give me 9am meetings. I can’t decide if it’s a good sign or not. Some of my peers have minimal contact with their dissertation tutors and are perfectly happy with that, but knowing that the option is available provides a certain sense of structure and support.

There will be moments, of course, where I just want to hurl my laptop out of the window. Just as you can’t spend every second of the day with your significant other because it gets weird and you both start talking in a bizarre made-up language, time away from your dissertation is necessary. As long as you take breaks, see people and remain at least a little bit connected to the outside world, writing an MA dissertation can be a deeply fulfilling experience, both academically and personally. As my friend James, an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature, likes to remind himself: “my current 'job' is to sit around in the sun listening to Belle & Sebastian whilst reading and writing about David Foster Wallace, and that's pretty damn fun”.