Asking someone how their dissertation is going is not a kind thing to do. Letting slip the bad word in a university library will only bring about wide-eyed fear, nauseous denial and unbridled resentment. It’s a big enterprise that comes with massive pressure, the indomitable final boss of university.
But is a dissertation always the best choice when the contact hours are minimal and a module might teach you more? Are dissertations just embedded into our expectations of final year?
Rob Ellis wrote a creative writing dissertation at UEA and said: "When I was writing my dissertation I had three hours of contact time for the whole of a 12-week semester. Although I felt I was being given complete creative freedom, I think I would have learnt more had I been allowed to take a different module instead.’
Many students are allotted just three meetings with their supervisor. Easy as it is to exploit the "lazy student" stereotype, most begrudge diminishing their contact hours. A dissertation is a chance to research and work independently, but students don’t pay £9,000 a year for a glorified library pass.
Modern languages second year Pippa Hamey said: "I don't think I have to do a dissertation, and if I don't I won't. I think paying so much for tuition means you prioritise the modules where you're getting taught, not doing all the research yourself."
Rewarding and productive?
Richard Allen, a lecturer in psychology at Leeds University, has worked on many final year dissertations, and considers them one of the most rewarding and productive experiences university offers students.
"The process embeds the student in the research experience, encourages them to take ownership of their work, and develops a range of specific and transferable skills that can be utilized in their future careers," he says.
"This extended collaborative process between students and supervisor is therefore a key part of a degree’s training, and is certainly preferable to just running yet another taught module. Even for me personally (15 years afterwards), I have detailed memories of working on my final year dissertation, but don’t remember what any of my final year taught modules were!"
On contact hours and the benefits for individuals he adds: "It does depend on the strengths of the student, and the support available from the supervisor, with the latter varying with subject, university, department, individual, and workload, which is, unfortunately, ever-increasing."
The decision holds the same conflicts as any module choice. Good marks and employability will always be priorities, and in the final year the pressure is on to make the most of a degree.
Lewis Buxton, a third year at UEA, will write a creative writing dissertation. He said of the opportunity to engage with his tutor: "It is possibly one of the few times in my life I will work intimately with one person on a collection of poems and have the time and the resources to do whatever I want with it.
"I don't always agree with 'independent study' as it's marketed by the uni but I definitely hope that this is a situation where I am supported yet allowed a lot of freedom to do what I want with my work."
A whip-round of anxious third-years gives surprisingly heartening insight; stress is rarely founded in resentment of hard work. It’s the fear of not doing themselves or their topic justice. Where dissertations are undertaken, they are dedicated to, enthused over, and become a unique, valuable project. But that only happens when the question, the tutor, and the university policies are right. If students plunge in blindly, all options not considered, the final semester of university can be very bleak indeed.