Writing a US history dissertation doesn’t necessarily have to feel like a treacherous journey. It can be a fun process, with a shift of perspective, a good attitude and a clear system to follow. As with any task which appears too daunting to tackle all at once, the saying applies: “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time”.
Here’s some essential advice for anyone starting out on that journey:
Remember that the topic you pick will determine the first impression of your dissertation, be it to the examiner or to prospective employers. It’s also something that you’ll be spending every waking hour thinking about for the next 6 months so you should take some time ensuring that it’s a topic you’re a complete nerd for.
Spend some time looking over past modules and old notes for anything you found particularly interesting or even googled out of your own initiative. This isn’t the time for any of the heavy lifting yet, this is simply the time to explore your natural inclinations and curiosities. You are likely to be many times more productive and creative when working on something you have a genuine curiosity for.
After spending some time getting to know the areas of history which interests you, you should start to develop a clearer picture of what you want to write and research on. Start streamlining your readings to a specific province, period and theme, honing in to a narrower and more focused area of analysis.
Look through the literature reviews pertaining to your chosen focus for any gaps, connections or perspectives that other historians may have overlooked or that you disagree with. Think about the questions that you have as you read through them and find out if those questions have been addressed by the community.
It is also helpful at this time to seek help from an academic tutor who can guide you through the final stage of the process of taking the rough ideas you have floating around in your head and refining them into a viable topic.
Voila! There you have it! Now it’s time to start gathering the meat of the project.
A common pitfall when dealing with the actual body of the dissertation is that you let the fear of the immense task ahead scare you into inactivity.
Even if you don’t know where to start, just get started. Get yourself into the habit of taking massive action before thinking about the finer details of the paper later. There will come a time for you to refine your work and string a cohesive narrative through all of the material you have gathered. For now, simply get into the habit of writing so that you can counteract the inactivity and procrastination induced by being overwhelmed. Out of this process, sense-making and synthesis will naturally follow.
Plan. Structure. Write. Edit.
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