What they don’t tell you about MA dissertations…

MA dissertations are different to BA dissertations. … well, that one might win the ‘obvious statement’ of the century, but I’m quite serious now. Apart from the different demands, the higher level of work, the greater word count, it also takes up more of your time. It doesn’t suck one down quite as much as I imagine a PhD thesis might (I’ll tell you if that’s the case in three years!) but there are side effects to the months of effort that you put in, the final weeks of frantic writing. And these are the ones that you might not find on an official blurb about your Master’s dissertation… strictly tongue in cheek, of course!

The First Draft
When the first draft is done, there’s a sense of achievement and the temptation to just submit the entire thing now and have done with it, is absolutely overwhelming. Don’t give in to it! Take your time, get it proofread, leave it for a few days, go back and re-read. And re-read. And re-read some more! There was about a week between finishing a first draft and submission, for me. I took a couple days out to work on map creation and tables and so on, deliberately not looking at the dissertation otherwise, and let my proofreaders work on it. I think it was definitely better for it.

The letdown of Submission
There will be a surprising sense of ‘that’s it’?! and let-down when you hand it in, or at least, there was for me. It’s such a big effort, or feels it, that you half expect there to be fireworks and cheers and flashing lights. Instead, you get a bored administrator yawning and going ‘sign this’. I’m told the same thing happens when you submit a PhD thesis too. Just accept it happens, go home, tell your friends and crack open something nice, whatever your poison is (mine, for the record, was a coke float. Those things are very bad for diabetics like me, so they’re strictly once in a blue moon treats!).

Particularly in the final stages of writing up, when you’re writing dawn to dusk and you just want to get the bloody effin’ thing done, little things like dusting, hoovering, laundry  and general housework go out the window. Unless you are lucky enough to be living at your parents house, or with a partner who very kindly does all those things for you (in which case, you should get down on your knees and thank them from the bottom of your soul) … come the end of the dissertation, you’ll probably look around and immediately want to reach for the duster/hoover/rubbish bag (at the end of the PhD thesis, I anticipate needing a skip). Allow for a week of housework once the MA is done. It’s mindless, but something to do to counteract the post-dissertation blues.

Post-dissertation blues
And speaking of post-dissertation blues, this is most definitely a THING. The undergrad dissertation blues, less so. You usually have exams after to focus on, and a summer of relaxation and things to look forward to, travelling, internships, whatever. The MA dissertation, on the other hand, is often the last thing you do for your Master’s degree. It is really suprising, how much of a bittersweet pang comes in the days post-submission. During it, all you can think of (as above) is how much you want to get it done, but writing, reading, studying for the dissertation is a very clear goal, and it has a certain purity about it. The immediate days post-submission is fairly simple: celebrate and rest (and sleep), not necessarily in that order. Once that’s done, however, the days start to stretch out and while there’ll be things to do, that purity is gone. The waters are muddied again. You have to catch up, and deal with all those things that you put aside while you were in the heat of the dissertation. Reply to emails. Pay bills. Life, in other words, in all its messy glory.

If you’re going on to further study, perhaps a PhD, then those empty days have a limit to them, and there’s a certain determination to make the most of those days. Maybe (like me), you just want to sit down and start the PhD. Don’t. Give your brain, your body, that break. To do otherwise, is to risk burn-out.Take the time to reacquaint yourself with all the hobbies and things you enjoyed before you got sucked into writing. Come up with a project that you want to do during your break (I’m planning on making a Venetian blind for my study window), and follow through. The PhD will keep, and more importantly, for your mental health, you need to maintain a balance between study and life throughout. Start that now.

If you’re returning to the workplace, then there’s a different acclimatisation path in store for you. Maybe you’ll get people who don’t understand the sense of acheivement, the pride that you have in yourself – this is particularly the case if your Masters subject was not work-related. All they see is that you had a good break from work. Lucky you, they might say! But, then, too, you have to go back to dealing with the demands of a job, and not the relative simplicity of life as a student.

Either way, plan for the blues to hit (I’m told this is the case post PhD too). Plan to take care of your mental health, to do things so you don’t go from 80mph days to zero. There’s lots of blogs and articles out there on this, a simple google will see you straight.

Linked to housework, but this is a different kind of housework. Again, if you’re anything like me, your workspace will be, or will have been covered with papers, books, notes, etc. While it may feel like the last thing you feel like doing, I would clean them up pretty quickly after submission. I would also recommend doing so in such a way that you can find things afterwards. It may be tempting to just shove them in a file or a box, but neatly filing things will help if you’re in a position to publish something from your dissertation, or you need to use information from it in your PhD. Again, its part of that mental process of transitioning from the MA back to life: clearing your desk of books, papers etc. and replacing them with the things that now concern your life is a big step forward in making that mental leap. Although my own notes went into neatly marked files and are now in a filing cabinet at home, I still have books from it on the ‘working’ bookshelf, and I’m very aware of them. I’ve not mentally yet ‘let go’ and I think taking the books back is a big part of that. I’m aware too that in a few weeks the PhD will be kicking off so I need to start that with a clean slate.

What about anyone else, is there anything you wish you knew before you started your MA dissertation project?


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