For undergraduates, the dissertation is likely to be the most important piece of writing you will complete; certainly, it will be the longest and most demanding. Many students can find the prospect of an extended piece of academic research daunting; but there is no need to feel intimidated. Rather, you should see the dissertation as an opportunity: to spend a good amount of time with a topic you feel passionate about. For this reason, it is important carefully to decide upon an appropriate dissertation question, one that will sustain your interest and lend itself to the longer word count. A carefully considered dissertation question, moreover, affords an excellent opportunity for top marks. You do not want to pick a question that has been too widely covered by other scholars because this will make it very difficult to offer anything new to the topic; at the same time, you do not want to select an overly obscure subject because this will make it difficult to find adequate research materials. You need to find a balance, therefore, between originality and conformity. This is where your dissertation supervisor comes in. As an academic professional with in depth knowledge of the relevant discipline, your supervisor will be able to steer you toward a suitable question. In addition, tell your supervisor you are aiming for a first-class grade. They will be impressed by your ambition and will be able to guide you in the right direction for that extra level of achievement.
With the right question in place, it is time to get seriously acquainted with your chosen topic. Attaining a first means a grade of 70% or higher and this equates to knowing your subject thoroughly, to the extent that you can meaningfully add new insight to the body of existing scholarship. The easiest way to do this is to read as much relevant literature as possible. You will almost certainly benefit from reading journal articles because this is where the most current research is located. When reading, keep a notebook to hand at all times and try to identify consistent critical approaches across the literature. Attempt to deduce why certain perspectives seem to recur. Is there an overall ideological position evident in the scholarship? If there is, why do you think this is so? If unsure, ask your supervisor. On the other hand, you can look to discover if observations that you consider important appear to be omitted in the literature. It might even be useful to ask your supervisor if there are any particular areas of your research question that they feel are generally neglected by the academy; this will give a good indication of a topic that is of scholarly significance but which bears further investigation. At the end of every week, try to type up your notes into broadly cogent prose, arranging them by order of specific relevance (“Introduction”, “Literature Review”, “Case Study”, et cetera). This need not be anything too rigorous; rather, see these notes as scaffolding for the final product. Having a body of writing already composed will make it physically and psychologically easier finally to get started with the first draft.
With ample and well organised notes, half the battle is already won. Arrange your notes into a sensible chronology and begin to expand upon them, fleshing out the details piece by piece. It is important not to rush this process. Give yourself a good deal of time, so that you can think through your analyses carefully. For example, if you give yourself at least four months of writing time, you can work your way at a manageable speed through one paragraph per day. This is a very agreeable working pace and will allow you to deliberate on the things you say. Insight comes from consideration and consideration requires time. Do not expect necessarily to have a “eureka moment”; instead, expect the dissertation to come together in gradual increments, building to an integral whole. Confer with your dissertation supervisor as much as possible. Indeed, speak with as many experts as you can get hold of. Attend academic conferences; email specialists in the field; make your presence known to the relevant people. Time permitting, academics are usually keen to discuss their subject with passionate students. Most people will only write one dissertation in their lifetime; it is worthwhile giving one hundred percent and achieving the best result you can. A first-class dissertation is as much a product of passion as it is planning.
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