As you reach the end of your undergraduate experience, you will be asked to undertake larger written works. No longer will you be confined to a mere 1500, 2000 or 3000 words. Instead, a paper of 7000 to 20000 words will be required to complete your degree.
Crafting a longer essay, usually referred to as a dissertation, can seem like a daunting task. Yet, in reality, the process of translating a good idea into an excellent dissertation is simply a series of small but straightforward steps—none of which need to frighten you.
First, you need to choose a topic, an aspect of history that you find interesting and would like to explore. You then need to develop a number of research questions to explore that topic in greater detail. Third, you need to undertake research to answer those questions. Finally, you need to write up your research in a way that explains your answers (or lack thereof) to an external audience.
Although most guidebooks focus on the final step, it is often the third that lands a student in difficulty. Moving from a good idea to a research programme can feel like stumbling into the dark. You may have a general idea of which keywords you should enter into the library catalogue or a search engine, but this often means falling back onto your overall topic, abandoning your research questions, perhaps forever. On the other hand, you may wish to simply read a long list of books, hoping something will jump out at you or that you will accumulate a sufficiently large stack of notes, out of which you can craft an acceptable paper. Only rarely do these systems result in a paper worthy of your original idea.
One solution to this perennial problem is to create an annotated dissertation plan at the start of your project. More than a mere outline of possible chapter topics, an annotated dissertation plan acts a road map for your research programme. It should include:
- The current title of your dissertation
- The overall aim or thesis of your dissertation
- The current title of each of your sections or chapters
- The specialised aim of each section or chapter, preferably in question form
- A list of secondary sources relevant to each chapter aim
- A (list of) question(s) that each chapter will ask of the primary material
- A list of primary sources relevant to each chapter question
Once completed, each chapter should resemble this—derived retroactively from my own undergraduate dissertation, many years ago:
Scottish Cultural Identity in Colonial New England as Demonstrated by the Scotch-American Company of Farmers
To explain the extent to which Scottish immigrants in New England continued to define themselves as Scottish during a period of nation-forming (1770-1820)
ANNOTATED CHAPTER STRUCTURE:
Social and Economic Conditions of Scotland in the Years Preceding the Company’s Formation
Explain why the Ryegate immigrants traveled to New England when they did and what sort of cultural baggage they brought with them.
- Devine, T. M. Scotland’s Empire and the Shaping of the Americas, 1600-1815. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
- Devine, T. M. The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000. New York: Viking, 1999.
- Dobson, David. Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
- Gray, Malcolm. “The Social Impact of Agrarian Change in the Rural Lowlands.” In People and Society in Scotland: A Social History of Modern Scotland in Three Volumes, edited by T. M. Devine and Rosalind Mitchison, 53-69. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1988.
- Stephenson, R. Scott. “‘Were My Object to Make Money, I Would Never Leave America’: Highland Soldiers and Scottish Emigration to North America, 1756-1775.” Harvard University Working Paper No. 96-11.
- Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking, 2001.
- Whatley, Christopher A. Scottish Society, 1707-1830: Beyond Jacobitism, Towards Industrialisation. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
What were the specific social and economic conditions of the sending community immediately prior to their departure?
- Sinclair, John. The Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-1799. Vol. 7, Wakefield: E. P. Publishing, 1973.
Not only will crafting this sort of plan force you to better define your research questions, it will help you visualise the relative sizes of your chapters and spot any potential weaknesses, such as a heavy reliance upon a single source. Although I felt my research had been relatively robust at the time, I found in retrospect that some of my chapters had relied entirely upon one or two secondary works and that certain secondary sources had been the bedrock of every single chapter. While not fatal—I did, after all, succeed in passing my dissertation—I know now that my project could have been for more evenly researched.
This sort of plan also serves as a solid starting point for discussions with your dissertation supervisor. Presented with only a general topic, most supervisors will struggle to offer you more than a list of possible reading materials until the first drafts begin to appear. Starting with annotated plan, he or she can see your prospective sources, and how you intend to use them, and can advise you on how to better focus your research questions or which additional sources might help fill in noticeable gaps.
Finally, by separating your source materials into discrete chapter- or question-focused piles, you can more easily divide your work over the next few months. Rather than read everything in the autumn and write everything in the spring, you can work section by section, alleviating the tedium of a single, unending task and receiving crucial feedback on your research and writing style well before your final submission date.
In the end, an annotated plan created in September or October may bear little resemblance to what you submit in May. It will, however, get you off to the right start.