Lessons learnt from: My dissertation
This is the first in a series of posts on the lessons I’ve learnt from various episodes in my life. First up: my dissertation.
In case you’re not familiar with dissertations: they are the large written projects which are often given to students in the final year of their degree. The details of mine are available on my academic website. Here I want to try and distil my experience into some generically applicable lessons that can be applied to other dissertations, PhD theses, other projects…and maybe even life generally!
1. Start early
Apparently the most common piece of feedback from students after they’ve finished their dissertations is “I wish I’d started it earlier”. I took this advice and started very early, doing a lot of work on my dissertation during the Easter holiday of my second year, but I still had a bit of a rush at the end. I also put an extra week into my schedule to allow for ‘unforeseen problems’ and was really very glad I had done this, as I suddenly found a major problem with my work a week before the deadline!
2. Keep things organised
I’m a big fan of PhD Comics and one of their comics perfectly describes the bad habits I tend to fall into: A story in filenames. As I’m working in remote sensing I have a large number of image files, both original images from satellites, and a large number of images I’ve created through processing the original files. It gets terribly difficult to find sensible names for the files, particularly when you’re a rushing a bit, and so I often slip into calling them test.bsq or test_again_more.bsq or even the particularly bad test22222_robin.bsq. Through doing this I’ve spent far more time than I need trying to find particular files, and have often ended up with file duplicates taking up extra hard drive space.
3. Spend a lot of time just thinking
I find it very easy to slip into a very mechanical way of doing my academic work: click this button, save this file, produce this graph, write this paragraph – so much so, that I sometimes forget to actually properly think about my work. I got into this phase a number of times during my dissertation, and in fact the major problem I found at the end was caused by this (I’d blindly continued down my planned path for the discussion section without realising that I wasn’t actually discussing the questions I was meant to be answering). I was reminded of this today when I started writing a very simple, mechanical discussion section for a project – along the lines of “This value is big, this means X. This other value is small, this means Y. Overall this worked ok-ish” (although obviously in more academic language!). At this point I noticed, forced myself to stop, and then took my notes away from my computer and went to have a think. I actually went and sat on the sofa near the School of Geography reception and sat and thought deeply about the problem. Fifteen minutes later I came away with a lot more insight into my project, what I’d found, and what further work could be done.