Starting fourth year, I was filled with a strange combination of anxiety for the future and nostalgia for the sleepy years spent in this strange little town, filled with warm memories and wonderful people. While the impending terror of attempting to survive in the real world was undoubtedly a prominent thought, I concluded that fourth year would offer just those few more opportunities to enjoy semi-adulthood in the place I had come to love. This, however, was before I had started a small piece of work that has come to define my existence. You may know it as a dissertation. I know it as hell.
In the first three years of university, the dissertation is a distant concept. It is often thought of as just a long essay with a peculiar name, one of countless assignments that students are forced to complete, to varying degrees of success, throughout our time here. You have managed to hand in essays that resemble something looking like the English language before, how is a dissertation any different? Furthermore, some students may actually look forward to the opportunity of writing a dissertation. It offers a rare opportunity to focus exclusively on a topic that interests you, to delve deep into fascinating literature and come to conclusions that are yours and yours alone. Surely, that is a better use of time than taking another dull useless module in what is potentially your last year of formal education. But these fleeting feelings of academic optimism crumble when met with the reality, nay, the horror, of the dissertation.
First, you are stuck with the question as to what we actually want to write about. This may not seem like a bad choice, especially given the litany of unanswerable essay questions we have all been forced to confront in other less flexible modules. However, as you ponder which topic to focus on, it soon becomes apparent that, in three years of intensive study, you have not become an expert in anything whatsoever. Yes, some subjects areas were more interesting than others, but even the most fascinating corners of scholarly discourse do not seem to warrant a five-figure word count and a year of your ever-escaping youth. Then, when you finally settle on some vague area to focus your dissertation on, the problems only get worse. Where, oh where, do you even start your research? One article leads to another, one point raises a different point, pages of notes are scribbled down only to find that the entire thesis you have been working towards is contradicted by a single fact discovered in a mess of unintelligible jargon. The end result is almost always a breakdown. And a vast word document of quotes. But mostly a breakdown.
Having done enough research to fill the void in your soul, you then have to work out what to do with it. Staring at pages of notes and dozens of articles that all argue different things is rarely a fun endeavour, much less the thought of linking and analysing arguments coherently. If academics can’t agree on something – the people who have spent literally decades becoming experts in their fields – then how the hell can a fourth year student evaluate their work and come up with a thesis that is both unique and intellectually sound? Your work will have so many holes that it is basically a crumpet, just without the benefit of sustenance.
Suffice to say that my initial hope of a carefree last year at university is long deceased. Although the anxieties of finding a career, living in the real world and being something like a functioning adult have subsided, they have been replaced with the torment of the dissertation which, though perhaps less existential, is something that certainly will not be missed. And so, as fourth year rolls on, the only academic enlightenment we can hope for seems to be the realisation that dissertations are hell. But, let’s be honest, it is probably what we deserve.