Tips for surviving your dissertation project – Rebecca Chatwin

Looks like it’s that time of year again… So, you’ve decided to undertake a Biomedical and Life Sciences degree course and you’ve managed to survive the first year. The next biggest hurdle in your life is surely the dreaded BIOL387 – the biological sciences research project – your first step into truly independent research. From the first glance at the handbook, your stomach drops with the certainty that this will not be easy as you start to ponder if research really is for you. Well, have no fear! This project could be the catalyst for an amazing relationship with your biological interests and research itself – IF you go about it the right way!

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I started the work on my dissertation in 2018 with my heart set on a project with microbiology! Over the Michaelmas term came the first task of writing a literature review. My project was based on the hypothesis that a purple pigment, violacein, produced by the bacterium Chromobacterium violaceum was capable of killing off other organisms such as amoeba. My literature review plan was all laid out, I knew exactly where I wanted to steer the readers and yet… writer’s block. Which takes us to our first tip!




The first and possibly most important tip I can give is to constantly save work. Save it on the cloud, save it on your laptop, save it to an external hard drive, save multiple copies! You won’t seem so crazy when a technical error tries to halt your progress!


TIP NO 1. Even if you’re not sure where to start, or how to start – write something!

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Every writer’s worst nightmare is the blank page and this is no different for scientists. Write out anything that comes to your mind that can be relevant to your review, it doesn’t matter if the idea is underdeveloped or even wrong – drafts can always be edited!

Once I’d finally gotten into the swing of writing I found the literature review was going well, the word count was increasing at a decent pace and I felt as if this task was actually achievable! Great! At this point it’s so easy to tell yourself to take a break! And you know what you deserve a break, however, don’t let that break become two weeks of no writing!


TIP NO 2. Stay motivated!


It can be really easy to fall into a loop of listlessness when it comes to writing your literature review. Why not make a timetable? Plan out when is a good time to do some writing, and do it! Trust me, it’ll save you the stress of doing it last minute (believe me I know.. never again).

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This brings me onto the topic of the most enjoyable part of your dissertation – carrying out your method and gathering results (if any)! It can be really daunting walking into your first day in a wet lab or dry lab! But don’t worry your supervisor will be with you every step of the way to help you! However, you can do things to help yourself too!



TIP NO 3. Write EVERYTHING down.


Even if it seems SUPER obvious to add 3ml of this to 3ml of that at 25°c for five minutes, over time when it comes to writing up your method and discussing your results this little bit of information can be so easily forgotten over the many weeks of work that you do. It could be the eureka moment for a blip in your data or merely just being able to give someone else enough info to repeat your experiment!

Finally, the hard stuff is over and done with you’ve survived the lab work! So that’s it, right? Nope. Now you need to analyse your data, take a look at it – what does it mean to you? Does it mean anything? (and yes, it’s okay if it doesn’t mean anything). The most important thing about analysing your results is to understand them! As long as you can interpret these results in a meaningful way, the results themselves don’t matter!


TIP NO 4. Really pay attention to the feedback your supervisor gives you.

You should be getting feedback from your supervisor twice over this period. Once for the literature review and then again for the rest of your dissertation! Make sure when you receive feedback to really use this new information to improve your work! Your supervisor has years and years of experience in writing papers and so knows exactly what your dissertation needs! Try not to take the criticism personally, they are trying to help you make the dissertation the best it can be!

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TIP NO 5. Finish strong!

At the very end now that it’s time to hand in, keep in mind all that work you put in to your dissertation. The last thing you want to slip up on is incomplete reference lists, grammatical errors here or there, repeated paragraphs (sounds strange but I definitely caught a few in my final edit) as well as the appropriate line spacing and font size! At this point you should be checking every aspect of your dissertation – take pride in your work you deserve to get the highest mark you can after so much effort!

Finally, be proud of your work! Make sure to get it out there, that you completed your dissertation, talk about your work at conferences, explore more areas of science and enjoy the rest of your degree!


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