The last time I wrote a dissertation was 1993. It was my final year at the London School of Economics and because I had taken a semester to do Erasmus in Leiden, I had the option of writing a dissertation instead of taking an exam for one of my courses, given I had missed some lectures. I took Scandinavian politics and wrote my piece on why Finland and Sweden had applied to join the European Union. I got 69 for it, not quite a First, but enough to make the solid 2:1 student I was then very happy.
So now, 22 years later, I am again sitting down to write a piece of individual academic research. This time it is at Masters level, is 10000 words and will, like the last one, set me on a particular professional course.
What is very interesting for this aging student is the difference in methods between last time and this time. Or maybe not methods as such, rather the tools that can be used to apply those methods. Last time I spent hours in the library going through the microfiches and the journal indexes trying to find relevant sources. Now, I have the university library and Google Scholar at my fingertips at home. Then I had to photocopy anything I found of interest or laboriously take notes, if the journal couldn’t be removed from the library. Now I flip interesting articles into a curated Magazine, for me or anybody else who is interested to read, or save it to Zotero. I can connect to potential contributors in 140 characters, write about my ideas in the hope of getting input and keep an eye on what key people in my field are talking about. If I wanted to do a questionnaire or survey, there are numerous tools to help me not only set it out nicely, but help get it sent to the people I want.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily positive. On a daily basis I am faced with a myriad of information and my job now is to find the useful nuggets that are in there somewhere. That is an issue of personal discipline, one of the attributes of academic research that hasn’t changed in 22 years.