Before I started my third year of university, I heard from two former students who had just finished the same course. They had two completely different opinions about the final year; “it’s really easy if you keep on top of stuff” and “it was horrible, I was so stressed, and it was really hard.”
I was determined not to be the latter and I wasn’t particularly, apart from that one time our lecturer told us we should have been laying our assignment out differently eight hours before deadline, when I was at work all that night too. Great. I survived relatively unscathed and came out with a first class honours, so I can share a thing or two about keeping on top of things in your third year. I’m not saying it was a walk in the park but my third year was easier and a lot less stressful than it was for some students on my course.
This post is almost a year in the making because I started it at the beginning of my third year as a “quit dicking about” note to myself. I’ve split it into two sections; a “general” and “project / dissertation” section since not all courses involve final year projects.
General third year survival tips
You’re a third year university student; you tell yourself every semester that you’re going to be more prepared. In fact, you’ve been saying it since you were in year 4. Well, third year is the time you actually do it and stop lying to yourself about it.
Whether you prefer paper planners or online ones, take some time each week or every day (whatever works for you), to review what you need to do this week, when things are due, what classes are on, and what you can start on now. If you like printouts take a peek at these three polka dot timetables.
I know that sometimes it’s actually quite daunting to look at what you’ve got to do, especially if you know you have a lot to do, but it’s better to know what mountain you’ve got to climb this week, right? It also means you can avoid saying horrifying things like, “we’ve got an assignment due next week?”
Assume that at least one person in group work is going to do nothing
Again, you’re a third year; the idea that there is one person in your group who you didn’t know was even on the course and / or isn’t going to do any work is nothing new. Assume that at least one person is bone idle and is more than happy to coast through their degree based on other people’s work and plan that in to your timeline.
Ideally, you and the rest of your group want to plan to be finished at least a week before the deadline in case you have to re-write something that’s been copied and pasted from Wikipedia, or if you need to pick up their slack. It’s ok, you can slate them in the peer review later; though we all know they will still get the same grade as you…I’m not bitter, honest.
Break it down
Something I found really useful was breaking down my assignments into smaller tasks. That way, I could trick myself into starting and finishing assignments early because I would think, “ok, I have a couple of hours, I can start doing some research on this specific thing,” rather than “ok, I have a couple of hours and need to start this assignment.” Being able to tick little tasks off was quite motivating because it looked like I was making progress faster and I think it definitely kept me on target, instead of feeling overwhelmed.
I found some of the printouts on The Organised Student really helpful for breaking assignments down, and making sure I was hitting all of the assessment criteria. Take some time to look at your assignment brief and write down exactly what you need to do to finish it and get the grade you’re after, and remember to be specific.
Don’t just say, “do research,” be specific, so for my dissertation one of my tasks looked like “research how long decomposition fluids affect soil.” It seems like more work but believe me when I tell you that the extra time planning will make things easier for you and might even help boost your grades.
Give yourself some time off
At the start of third year, our course leader told us to prepare “not to sleep or do anything fun during second semester.” That sounded pretty dull to me; I like sleep and doing things I like. No dissertation is going to get in the way of that!
We have all spent hours and hours working on something, only to find that it’s a load of rubbish when you come back to it with a clear head. Or, you end up feeling mentally exhausted and say things like, “I don’t even care what grade I get, I’m just glad to have handed it in,” and you know in your heart that you haven’t given 100%.
Studying all day long without breaks is not beneficial to you or your grades; take breaks, unwind, recharge, and go back to studying refreshed and focused.
Find your place / yes, you can study in bed
I really struggle to get much done sat at a desk; I find it too uncomfortable. My little study fort is on the sofa, so I can sit back comfortably, and when I’m there I can get loads done. If you stick me at a desk, I’ve probably got 30 minutes in me before I’m uncomfortable and trying to find an excuse to get up, like a three year old that doesn’t want to stay in bed.
Study wherever you feel the most comfortable and productive. And if that means studying in bed, do it.
By now you should know what you can bribe yourself to get work done with. Whatever it is, do it. What works well for me is doing an hour of work for an hour of doing something I want to do. That way I know I can get work done ahead of time (because it’s pretty hard to leave it to the last minute doing it that way) without feeling really stressed or mentally drained by it.
Just make sure you keep yourself in check though. Set a timer on your phone and don’t let one hour of playing games turn into two days of obsessively playing LEGO Jurassic Park…I speak from experience.
I think it would be incredibly difficult to get through the final year of your course without any help. If someone offers to cook dinner while you’re furiously typing away, say yes. If a friend offers to read something over, let them because they might spot something glaringly obvious that you’ve missed, and sometimes a new perspective can involve new suggestions. If your university offers tutorials or workshops on how to revise efficiently, how to write scientifically, or how to write up your dissertation, go to them.
Feeling a touch unmotivated? Get competitive with your friends. My friend, Sophie, and I had a little dessert-based competition for each of our exams; whoever got the highest grade got dessert brought for them by the other. That is honestly what kept me revising over the Christmas break and even when I was on holiday in Iceland. It also got me off Youtube or pulled me out of Pinterest rabbit holes and got me back on task so many times. Friendly competition works.
Do not give up
We had a period of about six weeks between handing our dissertation in and our final exams. During that period, a lot of people’s enthusiasm went MIA. Somehow, it seemed hard to keep motivated knowing we were almost at the finish line; I think the dissertation took a lot more out of us than we expected.
If you’re sitting there, wondering whether to revise or do something else, revise. You might honestly feel like you can’t be bothered or you’re so tired of university work right now, but don’t give up now. Once you’re finished, you will soon forget about feeling lethargic and will be proud of yourself. And if you do give up, you might have to resit exams or entire modules, and that’s just dragging things out further.
Do not give up and end up wishing you had tried harder when you see your results, it’s not worth it.
How to survive your third year project / dissertation
See your project / dissertation supervisor regularly
My project supervisor once joked that he quite looked forward to my daily emails and only sounded mildly sarcastic about it. If you want to get a good mark on your project / dissertation (whatever your university calls it) you best get to know your supervisor.
I met with my supervisor at least once a week and it was a really good way for me to keep myself on track. I knew that if he’d been too busy to get back to my emails, he could answer any questions I had in our meetings. It was a good way for me to learn more because we discussed things, fell down little rabbit holes, problem solved, and he pointed me in the right direction a lot. It also meant I couldn’t be lazy with my project because I’d want to get things done before our next meeting.
I have heard some horror stories from people on my course who had supervisors that weren’t that useful at all or who were impossible to book meetings with. I hit the jackpot and had a great supervisor. I did go through the list of projects and rule out lecturers I thought / knew would be hard to work with, so do that if you can.
As a forensic science student, contemporaneous notes were drilled into us from day one. Though, I’ll admit I didn’t really do it until I learned the hard way during write-ups in my second year when I had no idea what my random comments in my lab book meant. Never in my life have I wished so hard that time travel was real than when I was reading those notes.
Get a notebook you can use to write down all your thoughts, questions, results, notes from meetings, or anything to do with your project. Planning what you need to ask and find out, and writing a detailed answer about why will be really helpful when you come to writing up.
Start writing up from day one
Throughout the whole of my project, I had a working document that I regularly updated with my experimental, references I’d found, ideas for the discussion, and my introduction underwent many transformations as my understanding of my project improved.
If you start writing up right at the beginning, it will make your life a lot easier. I’m not saying you need to finish your introduction or literature review in the first week, but if you write down why you’re doing it, your hypothesis, and how you’re going to do it, that’s some groundwork laid already.
Tell your family, friends & anyone who will listen about it
I found that my family and friends (and even some of the customers at work) were really interested in what my project was about, and they would regularly ask me how it was going. Discussing and explaining my project to non-scientists was really helpful for me because they raised questions that I hadn’t thought of, and it meant I really got to know the topic well to be able to explain it to them. If you’re a fellow science student, you know that you can sometimes blag explaining something if you can hide behind scientific words but you really need to understand the topic if you’re explaining it to someone who doesn’t know much about it.
An additional bonus was that they kept me motivated because they wanted to know how it was going, and I felt bad when I had to say things weren’t going great or I’d not made much progress.
Get to know the lab techs / whoever is helping you
My project was based in a lab that was understaffed meaning the lab technicians were often a lot busier than they wanted to be. That said, they would always go out of their way to help students as much as they could. Obviously, they were not going to do work for you, but they would show you how to use machinery, help you find things, take you to restricted areas, get equipment if it was already in use.
For me, the lab technicians were godsends and not once did they make me feel stupid about asking what I thought was a stupid question, such as “how do I calibrate a pH meter?”. They were busy and stressed, I was busy and stressed, and it was good to talk and joke about that, and get to know them a little bit. Plus, we all know that people will go further out of their way to help people who are nice to them / they like.
To conclude, your third year requires you to actually start being organised and keeping yourself in check; but it’s also about being kind to yourself to prevent being so stressed you want to rip your own hair out, stick your fingers in your eyes, and hide under your bed. You’ve come this far, you’ll survive your third year, graduate, and feel proud of yourself, and you should do.
If you’re heading into your third year, I wanna know what you’re studying! Feel free to share any tips & ask questions in the comments.