The release of the A-level and GCSE results has got me thinking back to my schooldays. I was never particularly good at exams at school or degree-level, something to do with not being able to get the information in my brain onto the page without having to restart the exam questions 3 times. But set me some coursework and I am hooked. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE project work. The opportunity to get my teeth into an extended essay, research project, dissertation – let me at it! From scoping out ideas, conducting the ‘research’ and even formatting the text – I enjoy it all! Okay, I know it isn’t for everyone – plenty of friends at school didn’t choose geography as a GCSE or A-level because it involved a ‘dissertation’ *groan* … but I couldn’t have been happier. So it is always a pleasure when I get asked for either dissertation/project-planning advice from younger geographers coming through the system, or to extol the virtues of geography as a choice at school or degree level.
My geography dissertations have covered a variety of topics.
- GCSE dissertation was about pollution levels up and down the Thames towpath in Maidenhead. So out I’d go every morning for a week in the summer holidays – doing pH tests. My friend and I would cycle to our various field sites in the sunshine – it was good fun.
- A-level dissertation related to the proposed location of a motorway service station on the outskirts of Maidenhead. This time I conducted questionnaires with local residents – I even managed a chi-square test. Yikes.
- Undergraduate dissertation was based upon my year abroad in Switzerland. It was historical geography – drawing on secondary sources to examine the early women mountaineers in the Alps.
- Masters dissertation was cultural geography. I investigated the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest. This involved attending a royal gala screening of an Everest film at the Odeon in Leicester Square, a visit to the Pen-y-Gwyrd in Snowdonia – the hotel where Everest veterans trained and celebrated, as well as analysing the supplements featured in the newspapers during the anniversary week.
- PhD was the biggest piece of work – it was a qualitative study of three enthusiast societies and their relationships to the Science Museum. I interviewed participants, observed at group events, gathered documentary evidence, analysed web forums. I also had to read widely around the subject AND write all of this up into less than 100,000 words. I think it was 88k in the end. It took FOUR years!
In what follows, I give a few tips that I have found useful over the years – I think they apply as much to GCSE dissertations as PhD theses. I can’t say that I have always followed this advice – but they are some sure fire ways to avoid early pitfalls AND achieve a document resembling a dissertation.
Word Length:First and foremost consider how long a piece of coursework, dissertation or thesis needs to be. Is it 3k words? 10k? 20k? 50k? or 100,000 words? Once you have this information, you need to consider what topic will give you the greatest impact, subject depth and a project that is manageable within the time limit. Here’s a little equation I’ve developed:
Word limit x Subject area x Research time (+ Writing up time) = Excellent Dissertation
If you factor in all of the above, you will hopefully never lose sight of what needs to happen when and how to select a topic that will keep you interested. Never forget the all important writing up time – I never give myself enough time to ‘read and revise’ my writing as much as I would like, so I would definitely recommend allowing time to revise the dissertation before submitting it.
Structure and Signposting: It is worth highlighting the power of saying from the beginning of a dissertation what the project is about. Whilst some people have book-length pieces of writing to get into/explain what it is they are up to – the length of your dissertation and the time spent on the dissertation by the marker mean that by saying: ‘This dissertation explores X,Y,Z’ in the opening few sentences allows you to state what you’re going to talk about in the rest of the document, proving you know what that is. Plus, it means you can get straight into signposting the exciting things that are coming up. I also think this gives you the opportunity to be creative with headings, interludes, ‘vignettes’ (as us cultural geographers like to call them). The same goes for the signposting throughout – make sure the reader knows what is coming next and what you’ve just said. If when you re-read the document and you feel ‘hang on that is a bit long’ then just chop down the words. Beware of repetition too.
Consistency: Many academics describe themselves as writers. They know what makes a sentence, they understand grammar and they certainly appreciate excellent formatting. This means that a very useful way to gain points is to be CONSISTENT. This goes for content and format. If your thesis title is ‘X,Y, Z’ – make sure you actually talk about ‘X, Y, Z’ in your thesis. Make sure your dissertation does what it says in the title and in turn that the content’s page reflects what is in the dissertation. These are easy things to overlook, but time spent in organising your work will pay dividends.
Font: What font to use is a hotly debated area. I prefer Garamond – you get more words on a page, plus it looks nice. Some people prefer Sans fonts – fine – but for me too angular. As you know I can find ‘enthusiasm’ in most things – but in the case of fonts I’d say avoid – COMIC SANS – it is a crime against fonts! I know it is used across the globe – but it sends a chill down my spine to think that this is the best font for a piece of work that contributes to a significant portion, if not all, of your GCSE, A-level or degree. Inspiration can be found in the fonts used in your favourite books, journal articles… Think about headings too and differentiating between sections – these considerations can really make a document a pleasure to read.
Here are some top tips from the University of Derby (there is some sound advice here about not turning to FACEBOOK for the answers):