Letter to my younger self – How to survive and thrive in MA dissertation

A series written for students by students in collaboration with PIR and the Edinburgh Political Union

Dear 4th year Liam,

It’s January. It’s dark outside, and cold. You’re probably tucked away in the basement of the CMB, pondering the meaning of life, wondering if you should get another meal deal or a Nile valley wrap right about now… I am writing to you to let you know I’m in a better place now, I’ve completed 4th year. You don’t need to worry about me, everything turned out great. There’s no need to panic, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (although it probably seems quite far away for you at the moment).


I’ve reflected on my final year dissertation at Edinburgh University and I’m here to give you a couple of pieces of advice for the coming months. Listen up:

  • Okay, fun time is over. You should probably start working on your dissertation (seriously). It’s time to embark on this new journey of yours. As long as you just take a deep breath and start, everything is going to be fine. From experience, slow and steady wins the race and hands it in on time… The second semester flies by, so if you make steady progress of your work, everything will be fine.
  • Don’t worry about where others are at, there’s no point. Concentrate on nothing but your work. Don’t compare your progress to that of your peers. Every dissertation is unique and the same is true for people’s working habits. Although, some of your friends may work 16 hours a day, that doesn’t mean it has to be the norm. Comparing yourself to others will only stress you out and there’s no point in stressing out. Stress won’t write your dissertation for you! Stress is a waste of time. As I’ve said at the start, everything is going to be okay.
  • That said, get through it together. No one likes to suffer alone. Writing a dissertation is a long process so find yourself some friends or classmates or even strangers who are going through the same process. You’ll find it to be much more manageable on a daily basis and it’ll give you someone to take lunch/coffee breaks with, which is always nice J.
  • Also, be compassionate with your friends. This may seem mundane, and I know I just said everything will be fine—but that doesn’t mean you won’t need to lean on each other along the way. Hear them out, re-assure them. Having them explain things to you works wonders. It allows for them to clarify a lot of things. Plus, if you’re there for them, they’ll be there for you if you come across emotional hiccups along the way. Yay friendship! :3


  • Back your work and your data up! You don’t want to be that person sobbing in the corner alone. Do yourself a favour, download google drive or dropbox right now and set it up so that your ‘Dissertation’ folder is continuously backed up online. Losing work you did for your dissertation is everyone’s nightmare. Don’t let it happen to you.
  • Do something else. Enjoy your final months at Edinburgh Uni. Life goes on after the dissertation. Make the most of your time in Edinburgh. Do some sports, grab a pint with friends, go out clubbing! It’s sad to say, but it might be the last moments you get with all your friends in the same place, so enjoy it. Plus, it’ll give your friends and you something to talk about. The ‘’how’s the dissertation?’’ chat gets old very quickly. You’ll see what I’m talking about in a few weeks’ time…
  • Make use of your dissertation supervisor. They’re there to assist you. They know what they’re expecting from you, it’s up to you to figure it out and deliver the goods. If you need to meet them go ahead, do it—especially if you use their office hours! They’re there to help and guide you through the process and they want you to succeed.
  • The outline is key. I would almost start with this. Having a clear outline will help you define what needs to be written, where and how. Elaborate your ideas and explore various frameworks. The more detailed it is, the easier it’ll be down the line.
  • Split up the work into easily defined parts. If you’ve done the outline (see #8) properly, it’ll be much easier for you see how your workload will be split up into clearly defined tasks with specific word counts. If you think of it, the all-mighty dissertation really boils down to just a few thousand-word essays. No sweat, you’ve done that plenty over the past four years. You’ll quickly come to realise 10,000 words isn’t really enough for everything you’d like to say. For a comparable piece of writing from your coursework, think of the journal articles you read (these come in around 8-11,000 words), NOT whole books, massive textbook chapters, or commissioned reports.
  • Enjoy it. This is your project, have fun with it. Write about what passions you. Learn something new. Be creative. This may all sound cheesy, but it’s true.

As a final note, don’t let your friend(s) try to convince you graduation is a waste of time. Although admittedly the gown is expensive to rent, it’s truly a special event you won’t want to miss.


Liam Stock-Rabbat