Practical exercise 17.5.3: Planning and organization
Consider the different approaches adopted by three students to organizing their time. Who do you think is most likely to complete their dissertation in time by following their planned approach? What problems might you expect each of them to encounter? What advice would you give to each student?
Remember that time management and organizing work is a highly personal matter. What works for one person will not work for another. Each of the three approaches outlined here is based on a real-life example at an institution where students were required to produce a breakdown of their approach to their dissertation and to include this as a reflection upon its effectiveness as an appendix to the dissertation so it is possible to see how each student viewed the success of their approach.
Andrew wants to finish his dissertation in good time so he decides to work on it for two hours every week. He looks at his timetable and sees that Friday afternoon is always free so he decides that Friday between 1pm and 3pm will be his dissertation time. He sticks to this and feels that he is making steady progress.
Do you think that Andrew will finish his dissertation on time using this approach?
The criticism that is usually made of this approach is that two hours every week is not sufficient time to research and write a dissertation. Many people have said that they think that Andrew will end up having to do a lot of work nearer to the deadline in order to finish on time.
What problems do you think that Andrew is likely to encounter?
Some students have commented that this approach would not work for them as they would lose their chain of thought if they went a whole week without thinking about their dissertation. Another potential problem is that Andrew might find himself with nothing to do one week if he had not found any additional material during the week.
What advice would you give to Andrew?
One of the most common suggestions was that it would be preferable to have two sessions each week so that the first could be used to find literature and the second session could be used to read the material and make notes. Students also thought that Andrew should devote more time to his dissertation. A further suggestion was that Andrew ought to work out what tasks needed to be completed in order to research, plan, and write his dissertation.
How effective did Andrew find his strategy?
My way of working on my dissertation worked for me. I felt that I worked steadily at my dissertation right from the start and all the way through the year whereas other people around me had an initial burst of enthusiasm and then left it until the Easter break to do any real work whereas I had written the bulk of my dissertation by the start of the Easter break so all I had to do was polish it up a bit and write my conclusion. I also felt that I had more time to think about my dissertation because I was always working on it so it was always at the forefront of my mind and that meant that I didn’t actually find it difficult to remember what I’d been working on the previous week. But I did find, very early on, that I needed to do some literature searches whenever I had a chance as it was true that there were a couple of weeks where I didn’t have any new material to look at when Friday came around. I did also sometimes do more than two hours: sometimes I’d start before 1pm and sometimes, if it was going well, I’d keep working after 3pm. But I liked knowing that there was a set time to work on my dissertation and it was satisfying to make progress every week.
For me, slow and steady wins the race. I know it might not work for other people but it worked for me.
Bettina decides that the best way to ensure that her dissertation is completed in time is to set herself a deadline each month:
- October: general research, identify, and acquire source material.
- November: write chapter 1
- December: write chapter 2.
- January: write chapter 3.
- February: write chapter 4.
- March: write introduction/conclusion, proofread ready for submission.
Do you think that Bettina will finish her dissertation on time using this approach?
A lot of people liked this approach as it set clear targets and broke the task of writing the dissertation down into manageable chunks. It was regarded by many as a good way to finish the dissertation on time.
What problems do you think that Bettina is likely to encounter?
A few people have commented that it might be necessary to intersperse writing and research rather than keeping them as totally separate stages and others felt that it did not break the task of writing each chapter down into enough detail.
What advice would you give to Bettina?
There were two key pieces of advice offered. Firstly, that Bettina should do a little research each month to ensure as well as writing and, secondly, that she should try and work out how much time was needed to write a chapter so that she could plan out her work each month.
How effective did Bettina find her strategy?
Both the criticisms that people made of my strategy were valid. I did find that I needed to do research for each of the chapters during the month that I’d planned just to be writing and I also found that I didn’t have a clue how long it would take me to write a chapter. Everything was fine in the first month because I was writing the background to the new law and summarising all the relevant case law so it was easy to work out what needed to be in the chapter and also it was the sort of writing I was used to doing from coursework. The next month, though, I didn’t really know what to put into which chapter so I got really confused. I also found I didn’t have all the material that I needed. I ended up not doing much work on my dissertation at all until the end of February, partly because I didn’t know how to tackle the chapters and partly because I felt quite reassured because I had finished my first chapter and the deadline seemed like a long way away. I ended up doing what so many other people did which was working all day every day through the Easter vac and that left me worried about getting my revision done. So, no, it didn’t really work too well as a strategy.
Carole makes a ‘to-do’ list of everything involved in the completion of her dissertation with an estimate of how long each task will take her to complete:
- Literature search to identify source material: 3 days
- Acquiring copies of all material: 2 days
- Planning structure of each chapter: 1 day (4 days in total)
- Reading material and making notes (10 days)
- Writing each draft chapter: 7 days (28 days in total)
- Redrafting and polishing each chapter: 2 days (8 days in total)
- Writing introduction: 1 day
- Writing conclusion: 2 days
- Checking referencing and bibliography: 1 day
- Proofreading: 1 day
Do you think that Carole will finish her dissertation on time using this approach?
Opinion was split on Carole’s approach to dissertation planning. Some people felt that it was a good idea to split the dissertation into tasks and work out how long they would take but others felt that the times allocated to each task were unrealistic and that there was no clarity about when she would carry out each task and how the tasks would fit with each other. People were generally positive about the decision to allocate time to writing the introduction and conclusion and to referencing and proofreading although several people commented that she had not budgeted sufficient time for each of these activities.
What problems do you think that Carole is likely to encounter?
Many criticisms were made of Carole’s estimates in relation to finding and acquiring literature with students commenting that three days of literature search would have to be spread across the whole dissertation period rather than carried out at the beginning. It was also noted that it would probably take more than two days to acquire all the relevant material. Criticisms were also made about her decision to separate reading and note-making on the one hand and writing the chapters on the other.
What advice would you give to Carole?
One suggestion was that Carole should try to map her tasks out on a calendar so that she would have an idea of how quickly she would be able to progress with her dissertation in light of her other commitments. Another suggestion was that, in common with Andrew and Bettina, she should try to take a more integrated approach to research and writing rather than compartmentalizing them.
How effective did Carole find her strategy?
I think that the difficulty with planning a dissertation is that you don’t know how long things will take until you try them. I spent far more time searching for literature and getting hold of it than I had anticipated and I did keep having to do this when I was at the note-taking and writing stages. In the end, I stopped trying to keep searching, reading and writing separate and broke my dissertation up into topics instead and did all the activities together. It worked much better that way.
Which of the strategies did you prefer? It was interesting to find that the most criticized strategy was the one that the student involved found to be the most effective. Andrew’s strategy was based upon his awareness of his own working practices. He also assumed from the start that each week would involve research, reading, thinking, and writing rather than separating these things into separate stages as the other two students did in their plan.
That is not to say that Andrew’s approach was the right one: it just worked for him. Try to think about your own working practices when planning your dissertation and formulate an approach that suits the way you work. It would also be a good idea to bear in mind that all three students had to modify their planned approach: Andrew started doing separate research sessions in addition to his two-hour work period whilst Bettina and Carole amalgamated tasks that they had assumed they would keep separate. Flexibility to make changes is important.