In the first of the new dissertation series, Namit, a third year history student, shares her thoughts on choosing a topic and getting started on her project…
I’ve always been interested in diplomacy and international relations. So, I knew from the outset that I wanted to focus my dissertation on something related to how countries interact. I’ve also especially been fascinated by America’s role in the world, in fact, my first assignment at University was on how WWII transformed the Anglo-American Special Relationship, where America’s foreign policy went from isolationism to interventionism. Needless to say, the Second-Year module, HSU506 The Making of the Modern World, is one of my favourite modules and inspired and focused my dissertation.
I spoke to the module tutor a few times and I went back and forth on a few ideas which varied from slavery, OPEC, and human rights. After doing some basic background research on each topic, I was able to narrow down my ideas to human rights, which President Jimmy Carter is most associated with.
Once the academic year was complete, I arranged my first serious meeting with my supervisor on Carter’s human rights initiatives. I was recommended some reading, given invaluable advice and set out a rough plan of the Literature Review. Although the contours of a plan can and will change tremendously, I found it helpful drawing up a rough plan at the beginning to guide my research.
I knew that I didn’t want to delve into the research of the Literature Review in a lot of depth straight away, so I set myself a very do-able target of getting through 3 works every week for the first month. I started off with the recommended reading and began to pick up the big names and debates rather quickly. I also noticed that there were certain works which were referred to quite often from several historians, this was important to keep a note of and look at later.
After picking up the basics such as the narrative of Carter’s presidency, I noticed that there were very clear debates surrounding his human rights policies, and his presidency in general. I noted down the main historians and works from the bibliographies of recent literature, and researched them. When carrying out a literature review, recent works are incredibly useful as they tend to comment on the historiography, put forward their own views and provide other useful context. This was especially important for me because looking at foreign policy also means looking at other countries and understanding their leaders, politics and even domestic issues.
After weeks of battling procrastination, I finally went back to researching. I dedicated a few days every week for going through as much literature as I could. I researched for books in local university libraries and tried to get a hold of eBooks. Gutting books was interesting. I flicked through the context and index pages to see whether a book was useful and then skimmed through the content to try and find the author’s argument. Sometimes I felt like I was at a dead end. I felt like I had gone through all the literature I could access but nothing seemed useful. Then I took a step back and reviewed my notes. Added these arguments to my plan and realised that I wasn’t at a dead end, but that perhaps it was time to stop the research and start the writing. Researching history never stops, but I knew that it was better to start writing now and do any extra research afterwards if I needed.
I spent a few days on my plan simply because that’s the core of any work and helps bring structure and cohesiveness. I altered my plan a few times and once I was happy, I sent it along with my bibliography to my supervisor. Once approved, I began writing. I carried out some more research that I was missing on the schools, and then I had finally completed my literature review a week early.
The main differences from a literature review to any other assignment are quite vast. This is very much independent so it is important to spend quite some time figuring out what your topic of interest really is. This will be your summer love. Whilst it’s important to forget about university during the summer, so you’re not brain dead when third year starts, it’s also important to manage your time well. Take it slow. Set aside some time for friends, family and Netflix, whilst also ensuring you’re making progress on your literature review. It is a review of the literature produced on your chosen topic, so although context is important for your understanding, it does not mean that you must include this in your work. Keep an eye on the word limit. In order to review the literature, you must understand what the historian’s argument is and why they argue it. Keep a rough plan and add to your bibliography from the beginning to ensure you save hours of scrummaging through 43 pages of notes (yes, that’s how many I had). Finally, don’t compare your research, notes and length of bibliography with your mates. You’re most likely researching different topics and so have different literature to review. I actually enjoyed it. Keep in touch with your supervisor and good luck!