How to do a History Dissertation

As I mentioned in the last post, this week I took part in a session where a few of us who have been through the process once or more gave some undergraduates advice on how to do their IRPs (i.e. dissertations).  Although we ended up answering questions as a panel, I prepared a guide to the seven stages of a dissertation and I thought I’d share my advice here.  Obviously, deadlines, expectations and supervisory arrangements vary from place to place, as I found - the students I spoke to had to have far more of an idea what they were doing by the end of second year and an earlier deadline than I had!

**1. Have an Idea
**Hopefully, by the end of second year you know which period of history you like best, and which areas of history - for example, gender history, crime history or military history.  Once you’ve established that, you need to refine your topic even further - 10,000 words isn’t actually that much when you take out the introduction, literature review and conclusion, so you have to be specific.  With my MA, I knew I wanted to do early modern gender, but that covers a lot of things, which leads us to stage two…

**2. Get a Supervisor
**Universities do this differently - some allocate you a supervisor based on your interests, and at others you have to seek out a supervisor yourself.  However, having a set supervisor doesn’t mean you can’t get advice from other members of staff, or even from staff at other universities.  I had a lot of help from all over the place for my MA - my BA supervisor helped me refine my idea by suggesting that masculinity was the ‘in’ thing in early modern gender, the academic who wrote the book about early modern masculinity was happy to answer my queries over email, and my eventual MA supervisor suggested the 1641 Depositions s a source.  That’s another especially useful thing about supervisors - they often know what sources to suggest you use, and have an idea of what sources are newly available online and ripe for new uses.  But supervisors’ usefulness doesn’t stop there - they can also suggest secondary sources (as we’ll see in a minute), offer advice on your drafts, and generally answer queries and address worries.  Make the most of them.

**3a. Look at Secondary Sources
**The general structure of a dissertation is cover page -> acknowledgements -> contents page -> introduction -> literature review -> chapters -> conclusion -> bibliography.  You need secondary sources not only so you actually have something to put in the literature review and bibliography, but so you can find a ‘gap’ in the knowledge that your dissertation aims to fill - there’s no point doing all your research, then finding that someone else has already done it in a book you should have read right at the beginning.  This is another time when supervisors are useful, as they know what the key texts are for your topic, and from there you can find further texts from their references.  Google and library catalogues are also your friend - if your university library doesn’t have an important-seeming book, don’t give up - see if it’s in your local library, see how much it is to buy online, or ask the university library to order it for you.  Another reason it’s important to look at at least a few secondary sources before you go on to primary sources is that if an academic’s used the same sources as you for a different purpose, they ought to have discussed the benefits and limitations of the source.  You’re going to need to do the same, not to mention be prepared for using the sources.  Learn from them.

**3b. Look at Primary Sources
**The fun bit…or the tedious bit.  Primary sources are fascinating, but bloomin’ hell collecting the data is boring - for my BA it was filling a spreadsheet with details of hundreds of early modern crimes, for my MA it was copying and pasting many, many depositions.  You can save yourself some time by going into the archive or online collection with pre-defined questions you want to ask the sources, so you can avoid wasting time noting down information irrelevant to your thesis.  While I do love a good archive visit, the information for my dissertations - in both cases suggested by my supervisors - was available online or in edited collections.  Again, use your supervisor and do preliminary research to save time - are the sources you want available online or collected in a book?  Do you want to use old books that might be freely avalable at places like because the copyright has run out?  Would it be easier to base your research wherever you happen to be living during the summer (I based my BA research in Essex for this reason, then never needed to go into the archive anyway)?  What are the archive’s opening hours, how do you sign up for a reader’s ticket, how do you order documents what are the rules?  If you’re using more unusual artefacts like recordings, how readily accessible are these?  And whatever you do, don’t forget to make a note of the record number for EVERYTHING you use, or risk wasting time later on going back to the documents and playing a long game of hide and seek with indexes, URLs, tape numbers and what have you.

**4. Plan
**So you’ve got all this data - what are you going to do with it?  People approach the planning stage in different ways.  I like a good plan, with tallies and arrows showing the direction I want to go through things and points I really must make.  Sometimes I’ll hand-write my draft before typing it up, so by the time it’s on the screen it’s already been refined once.  Others, however, just dive in.

**5. Write
**It’s all very good having all the data and ideas of how it answers your questions, but the writing is what gets marked.  Again, different strokes for different folks - some people do a ton of writing and whittle it down, others only write what they’re sure about, some people write quickly, some slowly.  Do whatever works for you, so long as you get it down in plenty of time.  And don’t get too attached to anything you’ve written because it might get chopped.

**6. Edit
**When I’m in the mood for it, I love writing.  However, I hate editing.  Sometimes you have to add something in, but you have to change a load of stuff around it to accommodate it.  Sometimes you have to move things to a different chapter entirely, and it completely messes up your footnotes.  Sometimes you think you’ve written something really good, only to be told you’ve overlooked something major or that it wasn’t relevant enough to the question.  Editing sucks, but it’s what you have to do to make your work better.

You might find yourself switching back and forth between stages 5 and 6.  I certainly preferred to write a chapter and edit it before moving onto the next one, knowing that I at least had something right behind me.  I’m also sure your supervisor will thank you if you give them lots of little bits of work rather than one huge thing they’re expected to suggest changes to right near the end.  That can depend on your university too - how much the supervisor is allowed to see of your dissertation, and how many drafts of the same thing they can look at.

7. Hand-in and Reflect
Of course you should relax a little once you’ve handed in your dissertation - but that doesn’t mean you should never think about it ever again, especially if you’re going on to further study.  Look at the comments, think about what you could do better organisation-wise next time, and maybe consider how you could build on your research in your future studies (if you don’t totally hate the topic by then).

As with random skills you don’t realise can be mentioned in job applications, you tend to forget things you did for a project that might make for useful tips for future cohorts.  Often, my fellow panel members would mention something and it would send me back to 2010 (when I did my BA dissertation) or 2013 (when I did my MA dissertation) and I’d be like ‘oh yeah, this was my experience, do that!’.  Dissertations are particularly individual, as unlike with essays there are no set questions loads of people are doing, you’re using different books to other people, and you’re using a set of sources in a way it hasn’t been used before, yet the dissertation experience is fairly common.  Read your friends’ work, discuss your ideas, complain about having to do a dissertation with them!

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK