‘Gorby fever’ or How to Start your Dissertation

The capstone to our undergraduate degree is the dissertation: a ten-thousand word study of any topic or area of interest. Our freshly-minted third year students started thinking about their dissertations at the end of Spring. Here, Sheena Montgomery gives her thoughts on a productive summer…


When I started at Newman, I thought I had already chosen the topic I wanted to do my all-important dissertation on. Having always been interested in British social history and having a personal interest in mental health, I was sure I wanted to investigate the treatment of mental health patients in the Victorian era. However, after studying the Cold War at the end of my second year, (a subject I knew nothing about and if I am honest, never thought I would be interested in, as it involved a lot of foreign policy and was not ‘my thing’). I soon realised I had ‘Gorby fever’, and that this was an area of study I found exciting and wanted to know more about, particularly the end of the Cold War and how it came about.


So then I had a problem… should I stick with my original idea of Victorian mental health, or change direction completely and write about the end of the Cold War instead? In order to help me to decide I arranged to speak with the dissertation supervisors for these areas, about my thoughts and ideas. Having first spoken to Dr Ian Cawood, an expert in Victorian studies and political history and then with Dr Emma Folwell specialising in American history, I was able to take advantage of their invaluable experience and knowledge and make a more informed decision. After meetings with both lecturers, it was Gorbachev, Reagan, and the end of the Cold War, that continued to intrigue me the most, and an area of research I believed I could really ‘get stuck into’. So, I ‘bit the bullet’ and at the end of year 2, committed to writing my dissertation on, ‘Diplomatic relationships in the ending of the Cold War’.

Making this decision early has allowed me to take advantage of time off over the summer holidays, and make a start on the narrative reading required to find any gaps in Cold War research and historiography. Thus enabling me to develop and refined my question and knowledge further. I set myself a target of 3-4 hours reading every day and constructed an annotated bibliography as I went along. This included a full reference of the sources used, any significant quotes, the books purpose, the author’s argument, aim, and methodology, and finally my own thoughts and arguments. Having all this material in one place has helped me to be more organised, find information quicker, and remain on the right track (as deviating is so easily done).


Having now done a great deal of narrative reading I am currently in the process of trying to narrow down my research question. My first point of call again has been to my dissertation supervisor, whom I believe will be my best asset throughout this process and who has been extremely accessible, helpful, supportive, and encouraging when providing ideas, suggestions and pointing me in the right direction. With this help, I have been able to focus my reading on more specific research material such as, journals, articles, and all important primary source documents, again using an annotated bibliography. This is helping me to decide on the direction I want my research to take and to concentrate on particular aspects, concerns, and concepts within that area. Hopefully this will allow me to narrow down my research question and produce a more comprehensive and detailed dissertation.


Wish me luck!


Sheena Montgomery



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