This month, Oriana, Daisy and Roxanne are reflecting, on what has been for all of them, a challenging first semester undertaking their final year project. Presenting a truly honest account as always, they share how they have tried to balance work on their research projects with other personal and academic demands. For this post, Daisy and Oriana have also asked their friends and classmates to share some of their experiences.
I had this really romantic idea of writing this on the train home to London, but in reality I was so drained that I slumped in my seat watching old episodes of the Office to soothe myself instead, whilst messaging my friends to complain about how stressful my day had been. I’ve decided for this piece, like before, I’m going to give you a bit of a general update before moving onto reflections of my dissertation progress specifically. I won’t do what I usually do with my list of tips (even though I absolutely love lists). Instead, I’ve popped in a few at the end, drawn from a few quotes by my lovely friends.
In general, what no one warned me about for my final year was the amount of preparation I’d have to do for my future, which honestly feels like two extra modules in itself. I’ve been applying for Masters courses, some of which are abroad (it’s giving me yet another reason to curse Brexit), and I’ve also been considering doing a PhD. I didn’t know this before final year, but there’s the opportunity to get 1+3 funding for a PhD and an integrated Masters (at least in my area of social research), so I’ve been mulling over whether to commit to a further four years of study which feels like a huge thing to decide in the space of two months. I’ve also been looking at graduate summer jobs and trying to organise and evaluate my finances at the same time, so I do feel a little frazzled. However, this first semester has been wonderful in many ways – I’ve met a lot of lovely new people (shout out again to the flatmates especially), and I know I’m very lucky that I’ve really enjoyed my modules and had support from both old and new friends and family.
The writing challenge
Last time I wrote about my dissertation, I was pondering methodology. I’ve since started writing my introduction and literature review sections (!), and my aim was to get a first draft of those sections before Christmas. I was a bit confused about whether my dissertation would have a literature review, but I found out that it does because I’m sort of following a policy based structure, even though that isn’t my sole focus. Before I found this out I was stressfully trying to bash out my introduction which I was actually doing whilst on my lovely 4 hour A&E trip due to that disgusting plage-esque illness that the majority of Leeds seemed to have before Christmas. 700 words and an unempathetic discussion with the doctor later, I realised perhaps I should have just napped whilst waiting.
In general, I didn’t feel like I’d read enough at all but I forced myself to start anyway. I’ll be honest, the first time I started writing I felt like my quality of writing and construction of arguments was like my 16 year old self was writing it, which was humbling. But I’d recommend just going for it anyway because chances are you’ll be able to lift some stuff out and use it in the final dissertation, even if you don’t like all of what you’ve written. Another thing I was really struggling with was the structure, specifically regarding conceptual themes and how to organise it in a focused way. It turns out the way I wanted to do wasn’t really recommended, so I think make sure you propose the structure to your supervisor before you start writing.
The balancing challenge
It’s been a bit of a juggling challenge to balance my dissertation with everything else, both over Christmas and during the semester. This semester I kept trying to do a massive amount of things like volunteering, languages, sports etc. whilst trying to keep up academically. I started off trying to have some Dissertation Days, and found this quite useful especially during the reading stage. I also tried to set myself some goals like ‘read at least one journal article a day’ from my list of background reading I had to do. I think the best thing I did was managing to chip away at it gradually, because realistically things got in the way of my Dissertation Days sometimes. If that happened, I’d come back to it a bit later. I guess ultimately it’s good to have an overall week plan that’s a bit flexible, and where there’s space for you to make up any days you might have to miss.
To balance things over Christmas, I started working on my deadlines irritatingly early. I finished my essay plans by late November and then started writing. The aim was that by Christmas I could have the first drafts done. That being said, I’ve still spent most of this holiday studying anyway so perhaps it’s not a fool proof plan, but I do feel less stressed than other holidays when I haven’t left enough time. I’ll be honest, I do feel a bit hesitant giving tips and even reflecting on the balancing part here because ultimately my schedule, commitments, and living situation over the holidays will of course be very different to yours. It’s easy to say to get started early, but sometimes life throws stuff in the way. I think though above everything mental health should take priority, as always. If you feel overwhelmed balancing everything you have to do then reach out, and take it step by step.
Reflections from my friends and top tips
I asked a few of my friends in final year if they had any tips, or any reflections of the past semester. I’ve tried to draw my own tips for you from their quotes too. I’m hoping it will be helpful and at least reassuring to hear others’ experience too. Here is what they said:
“ The last semester has been difficult. You’re always told it doesn’t count until final year and then…. It does. Knowing this has led to me feeling a lot of pressure to surpass the work ethic of my 1st and 2nd year self. (Spoiler: I don’t think I’ve managed). This is also the first time I’ve been in a relationship and I’m constantly struggling what to prioritise. It’s not an easy year but we’re all just getting by and learning on the job.” – Amy, final year Law student
Tip: I think we all need to remember to be a bit kinder to ourselves – as Amy said, we are all “learning on the job”, for most of us this is our final year of a higher education degree and at this stage a lot of us are in the same boat. But, the point is that we’re doing it and still pushing through.
“I’d say I found it very challenging to balance first semester workload with other commitments as I worked part-time alongside uni and volunteered every two weeks. Since I am used to going to lectures and preparing for seminars, I knew how to structure my time around modules but the dissertation as an independent piece of research with no strict deadlines or lectures was much more difficult to get used to/come up with a study plan for. What I found very helpful was a sort of deadline we were given for law to submit one draft chapter prior to the last meeting with my supervisor. That means I already have one chapter written and can focus on the other modules during the exam period now.” – Eva, final year Law student
Tip: Maybe talk with your supervisor to ask them to set you a deadline for a chapter or the literature review, if you think that will help you balance everything, or you could try to set one yourself or work towards one with your friends.
“This last semester was quite a challenge. Especially in humanities degrees, you need a lot of self motivation when deadlines are not regular and class hours are minimal. It can be hard to stay on top of work but being around friends who are also in a similar position is really helpful.” – Eliana, final year Geography student
Tip: Maybe arrange study sessions together with your friends, but in a relaxing environment. Eliana and I sometimes go to cafés to work, as the library can be quite intense sometimes (it’s also good because I’d have coffee attached to me via a drip if I could, and coffee shops are the next best thing).
“I really struggled last semester to be motivated with my dissertation. I found myself and a lot of my peers felt overwhelmed with such a dauntingly large project. That, paired with final year being so self led has been difficult for me to adjust to. However, there I’ve found we are given a lot more free time to work on our dissertations” – Ella, final year Fine Art student
Tip: I think the thing that really stuck out to me here was the fact that Ella pointed out that a lot of us have felt overwhelmed, and I think sometimes it’s good to just take a step back and acknowledge how tough everything can get, especially at the end of a semester. I personally find it quite easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of stress, and I’m learning to try to actively put it aside for a little while sometimes. Free time is important, and in this case I think my ultimate tip would be to enjoy any spare time you have now before the start of the new semester. If you need to, and if you can, take a break: go on a day trip, take yourself out to the cinema or for dinner either with friends or alone, go hiking – whatever gives your brain a little rest. I hope this has been helpful, and I’m hoping the start of the new semester goes well for all of us!
(Thank you to all my friends who very kindly let me get quotes from them <3)
I am now a term into my final year and halfway through my final year project. For this blog, as well as sharing my own experiences, I have also asked one of my course mates David Bell (who is on the same project as me) to share how he has found the project. David offers another perspective and example of the different methods and feelings that students may experience during this time. We have different data to analyse but both are studying weak localisation effects in thin films.
This semester has been tiring and it has definitely been a struggle at the end to finish my work before Christmas. It’s involved a lot of late nights and constant tea consumption to get me though! At the end of the semester, I struggled with balancing my modules and project deadlines alongside work and everyday life. I ended up counting down the days until the winter break so that I could leave behind all the lectures! Below, I share a few of my key struggles and ways that I have tried to overcome them.
By the end of semester 1, the majority of the research should be complete so that the next term can focus on wrapping up the analysis and writing the report. Currently in my project, I’m at a point where I have run out of ideas on how to overcome the problems I have in analysing my experimental data. I can’t seem to think of the solution and have ended up just staring at my code for hours and then hoping my computer would break so I wouldn’t have to do anything. I am hoping that after my exams I will be able to devote more time to figuring out the right way to analyse the data.
I also experienced a thinker’s block when tackling my project. I found that making a list of questions/reasons as to why there is a block and talking through this with our supervisor has helped to get around this. (David)
In this semester, I have found it difficult to stay motivated with my final year project. I have had a lot of breakdowns over the work as I’ve been stressed about not doing it correctly or not being able to overcome the hurdles I have faced. In perspective of this over the winter break, I have realised that I am the only one putting this pressure on myself. I would like to use this blog to remind anyone who needs to hear it that your mental health should be your priority over university. I have always struggled with this idea but have found that if your mental health takes a down-turn your university work isn’t likely to go well anyway so it’s best to try and stay on top of it! I think that a lack of motivation is a common problem with long-term work.
Remember you can ask for help! Though the project is independent, you should remember that your supervisor is there for a reason! (David)
In order to overcome my lack of motivation, I have found it useful to:
- Give myself breaks from thinking about it. The problem I have with university, is that there is always something that you can be doing for your course. This has made me constantly feel that I am not doing enough which leads to stress, which leads to me not working efficiently, which leads to me thinking I’m not doing enough work. It seems to be a cycle that I get trapped in. However, I have started to set boundaries on when I can think about my university work.
- Section off an hour or two a day to focus on the project and then not thinking about it outside of this timeframe can help to reduce stress as you don’t allow yourself to get anxious outside of time. This is easier said than done, but just reminding myself that I don’t need to think about it when I am on a break from working has help to section off the project in my head.
- I have found it useful to work with others on my project. Though we have different data and different ways that we have to analyse it, it helps to have other people who can understand the niche area of science you are looking into, that you can discuss ideas with. This has also helped with my time management, as I aim to be at the same point in the timeline of our project as the others in my group, so I don’t fall behind.
It’s a good idea to use the quiet period with your other modules to get a head start on understanding your project. This is a great time to be proactive and read ahead so you have more time to devote to other deadlines when they come up! (David)
Finally, (I learned the hard way) save a back up of all your work!
I would definitely advise emailing yourself copies (or storing in the cloud) of your analysis or project handbook as whether unconsciously or not I have accidentally deleted all of my code about three times now and had to try and rewrite it from memory. I won’t let there be a fourth time! Back up all your work!
Here Roxanne talks us through her experience of semester 1.