What is a dissertation?

Hi guys!

It’s been a while since my last blog post because I have been focusing on my dissertation. Some of you might wonder what a dissertation is. In this blog post, I will introduce you to a dissertation.

First, let me tell you that during my last years of school I studied the International Baccalaureate (IB). If you are currently studying IB you will know that every student has to do an extended essay (EE) in a subject, they choose. A dissertation is a similar concept to IB’s extended essay. I chose to do a history extended essay on the role of the Stasi in policing East Germany during the Cold War. The Stasi was the Soviet secret police and oversaw the imposition of communism and was in charge of exterminating any opposition. For this essay, I had to read biographies, interviews, studies, and reports. I learned about amazing firsthand stories of people who managed to cross the impenetrable Iron Wall and I understood what mechanisms the Stasi used to penetrate the minds of its people. The extended essay was 4000 words and at the time it seemed like writing a bible.

Today, I am writing 1000 words and implementing a research method to collect data. In my degree, International Relations, a dissertation is not compulsory. When choosing what to study, I would recommend looking if you have the chance to write a dissertation or if it is compulsory. Some people opt for degrees that do not include a dissertation because they prefer other forms of learning. I on the other hand purposely chose to challenge myself by writing a dissertation.

In my degree, you have the choice between doing a dissertation or taking three more courses. I chose the dissertation path because I enjoyed writing an extended essay in IB, I wanted to try a different type of learning and I wanted to expand my knowledge in a particular topic. First, writing a dissertation is like an extended essay because you choose the topic, it’s a year-long project and you are allocated a tutor specialized in your area of interest. Secondly, as I wrote in a previous blog post, in 2019 I studied abroad at the university of bologna. I choose to expand my degree from 3 years of studying to 4 years. Hence, I took eight more courses than normal. When I came back from my year abroad, I felt like I had already mastered the module format of the university. Hence, I wanted to leave my comfort zone and try something new. Lastly, ¡n my year abroad at Bologna, I took two modules on Asia. In the module ‘China in Africa’ I learned about China’s investments in Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Moreover, I also took a module called ‘International Relations of East Asia’ where I learned about China’s political relations with North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and India. I loved these modules and I realized this was a huge area of interest for me.

Thus, upon my return to Surrey, I chose the dissertation option. The process first started in August when I received an email from our dissertation coordinator. I had to send a paragraph explaining my idea and some initial research. I explained that I was very interested in the controversies of the Belt and Road Initiative. This initiative was first announced by Xi Jinping in 2008 in Jakarta and intends to revive the ancient Silk Road. The initiative works in the form of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into government-led infrastructure projects abroad. Some scholars have criticized this initiative, blaming China for the alleged practice of Debt Trap Diplomacy and neo-colonialism. On the other hand, other scholars applaud supposedly the world’s first system of foreign development which does not mean exploiting third world countries.

Intrigued by these arguments and with substantial knowledge from my Bologna modules, I chose this topic. After 2 weeks I was allocated, my dissertation tutor. My tutor is a senior member of the department and an expert in East Asia. He has taught me the modules of ‘Political Economy’ and ‘The Politics of the Greater China Region’. Not only is he an expert in Chinese foreign policy, but he has also lived in Hong Kong. I felt very privileged to have him as my tutor. A dissertation tutor is not meant to teach you how to write your dissertation, but rather to guide you through the process. They are meant to apply their expertise to your idea and advise you throughout the year.

Moreover, different from modules, you do not have hours allocated to speak to your tutor. For the past 6 months, I have booked office hours with my tutor almost every week. In October, we mostly spoke about my initial ideas and I found a gap in the literature. In November I read tons of articles and communicated my findings to my tutor. Then, by the end of 2021, I wrote 2250 words on my idea and the content of the literature. The chapters that I had to submit were Abstract and Literature Review.

Over Christmas, my tutor gave me a grade and feedback. Then, in 2022 I continued my literary research, chose content analysis as my methodology, and discussed my results. In two weeks, I finally submit the 1000 words and end this year-long project.

Even though it has been challenging, I think it has been a great opportunity. I have been able to create a stronger bond with my dissertation tutor, to the point where I asked him for a recommendation letter for a master’s application. In addition, I have forced myself to be more organized and responsible, I was responsible for my progress. I have also learned how to study independently and be able to create a whole research project from scratch. In a nutshell, I have learned in detail about an area of huge interest to me. I feel like I have made the most of the opportunities my degree had to offer, and I know what to expect from a master’s thesis. I also believe this assignment has made me more employable as I have developed skills such as time management, creativity, academic writing, and research. It has given me something to speak about in job interviews and master’s applications.