It’s that time in the academic calendar when we get to congratulate all of our students on their hard work over the past three or four years. This year in Politics we had an exceptional number of good degrees, so our current graduating cohort should feel very pleased with themselves indeed. Looking at the marks of those students who ended up right at the top of the pile – awarded First Class Honours – two things strike me as worth noting for our current first and second year students respectively.
First, the number of students who achieved firsts ‘by the skin of the teeth’ was higher this year than in others. The reason for this was not that their third year marks were ‘only just’ a first, but that their second year marks were usually below a first and subsequently pulled up by a much-improved final year. In some instances, as Dr Usherwood has noted going away on a placement year seems to give students a maturity, focus and ability that is very useful for achieving highly on their return. However, the lesson I would urge our first year students to take away is: the second year really matters. While you cannot secure your classification after only two years with us, you can make it extremely difficult to get the degree you want. It is important to hit the ground running at Level 2 and we are pleased to note that some students have done this extremely well in 2011-12, while others have vastly improved both from their first years and during their second year.
Second, this year, I supervised or marked around a quarter of the dissertations from our third year cohort. To simplify grossly, it was possible to identify two different styles of dissertation evident amongst those students at the top end of the mark range. The first style adopted was that which I usually advise of students towards the end of their undergraduate studies. These students had taken onboard the following advice: narrow down your topic as much as possible; draft early and edit aggressively; ensuring internal consistency is paramount. Perhaps we can think of this model as ‘playing it safe’ and ‘polishing’ a dissertation that does not overreach, but which does demonstrate the rigorous, systematic and analytical thought that a first class mark requires. The second style adopted was bolder but riskier. It involved a greater degree of originality and independence: skills that are usually more associated with postgraduate work. However, in this model, students were logically more prone to internal inconsistencies and a less ‘polished’ piece of work, which might demonstrate overreach in places. Dissertations in this model may well demonstrate greater originality, but are often more difficult to ‘do’ within the confines of an undergraduate dissertation. The lesson for second year students to heed is to think carefully about their dissertation topics: it is likely neither possible nor necessary to change the world in your (relatively short) bachelors dissertation. That can come later. For now, the most narrowly defined topics, with the tightest structures and most succinct research questions are usually the safest bet for doing well.
Whichever of the two models you adopt, you should start working early by making use of the summer to (for example) perform literature searches and construct bibliographies. The deadlines for first drafts will come around faster than you expect and receiving feedback in time to re-draft work is invaluable. Many of you in the second year will be due to take three modules in your next semester. Remember that the dissertation counts for as many credits as those three modules combined. Oh, and enjoy it… It’s not often that you get to indulge in a topic of interest for such a prolonged period. Writing a dissertation can be fun as well as interesting and ultimately rewarding. And, as we have seen this year, if done well, it can help you to get the degree classification you want.