Online Learning – Staying on track with your dissertation…
…by Andrew / from London / studying Biodiversity, Wildlife & Ecosystem Health (MSc) / Postgraduate Online Learning Programme
I am in the third year of my programme of online study with the University of Edinburgh, and it is very easy to notice that this final instalment of my MSc journey feels rather ‘different’. The first two years of my programme were both broken down into separate taught modules. Four in the first year, and six in the second. Each of these modules lasted between six and twelve weeks, and all had a least two assignments associated with them, weekly lecture materials, and lots of discussion with my classmates on a common topic. However, the third year is dissertation season, and all those skills you’ll pick up in years one and two for balancing the commitments of studying and working and maintaining your social life (and staying sane!) will become more valuable than ever.
This is because the first two years are broken down into neat blocks, and within all of these blocks are clear milestones: submitting an assignment, finishing a module, completing a semester, finishing a year… But, like I said, the third year is… different. Rather than working your way through a steady stream of assignments, weekly work, and deadlines that are given to you to meet, you are instead afforded a huge amount of independence and responsibility for managing your own time. The handbook is issued in September, and your project is due in June – the gaping void between those two points, that is yours to decide how to spend.
For some people, this is their perfect way of working. For others, and serial procrastinators such as myself, this is a nail-biting realisation compared to the relative safety of having a specific deadline every few weeks (think premonitions of back-to-back Red Bull fuelled all-nighters in May and June). So, in a situation where you have much more freedom than before, not to mention not having the environmental reminders that “you should really be studying” our on-campus counterparts benefit from by being at a university – how do you stay on track? I’m currently about two thirds of the way to my finishing my dissertation and these are the things I have learned along the way:
· Start Early: When planning my dissertation, my supervisor said to me “this is not your life’s work, but it will sure feel like it.”, and this is absolutely true. Research and reading takes time. Data collection takes time. Analysing and statistics takes time. Drafting, writing, amending, cutting, revising, finalising, and writing again…takes even more. To paraphrase Smash Mouth ‘The years start coming and they don’t stop coming.’. You’ll start the year thinking the nine months you have to complete this project will be a cake walk. It’s not, and it only seems to fly past you at ever increasing speeds. Take this procrastinator’s word for it and do something ‘future you’ will thank you for. Avoid the pre-submission panic, start early, and enjoy the time you have to produce a piece of work you are proud of without the stress of clock watching.
· Stay in touch: One thing that is easiest to miss is the interaction with your classmates. Not only do they become your friends, but they are people who personally understand the journey you are on and are an invaluable source of advice and support. You’ll all be working independently on your own projects, and it is easy to fall further and further into your own separate rabbit holes. Staying in touch through your group chats and realising you’re not in this alone is a great motivator. …did someone say virtual beers?
· Your supervisor is your friend: Speaking of not being on your own, reach out to your supervisor as often as you need to! You’re not bothering them; they want to help you! A dissertation is a huge project and making sure your supervisor has an up-to-date understanding of what you’re working on will help to stop you drifting off-topic, stay accountable to your own need to put the hours in, and help you catch areas for improvement before the pre-submission corrections rush. Happy days.
· Enjoy the transformation: This one is by far the best, and most important part of your third year. You started out a curious fledging postgrad student. You’ve adjusted and conquered the challenges of studying at an advanced level and balanced all of life’s other demands. Now step back and imagine that eager enrolling student could see you now. To get here you have proven you have the skill, intellect, and dedication to complete a Master’s dissertation. Gold star for you. And what’s more, people have enough faith in your ability that they are willing to let you design and manage this process yourself! Soon enough you’ll be throwing that graduation cap in the air. Go you, you nerdy little rockstar.
This blog was originally published on the ‘Chat to our students’ site here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/studying/postgraduate/student-life/student-chat