The dissertation shaped cloud looms over second year summerOlivia Bonsall with permission for Varsity

The long vac is supposed to be one of Cambridge’s consolations. Undergraduates suffer from October to June – but when exams end, they can look forward to four months of freedom. If only. At Cambridge, there is always a book to read, an article to skim, or an essay to write. If you aren’t working, you feel like you should be. No matter how idyllic the Sidge-dweller’s holiday is, there will always be an intimidating stack of books lurking on their bedside table.

This is never more true – or more painful – than when a dissertation is involved. Your supervisor’s summer reading list is fundamentally optional. Diss preparation is neglected at your peril. Not that necessity makes things easier. Browsing JSTOR is bad at the best of times; doing it on a sunbed while fighting off your DoS’s demands for a draft title verges on nightmarish.

“Your supervisor’s summer reading list is fundamentally optional. Diss preparation is neglected at your peril”

In poisoning post-second year summers, the dissertation starts as it means to go on. Demanding that overstretched students act like professional academics disrupts the delicate balance of the undergraduate social contract. Supervision essays and in-person exams are the foundations of a Cambridge degree. They are also short. They involve reading fast and writing even faster. ‘Flair’ is rewarded. Oxford and Cambridge are infamous for teaching their humanities undergraduates to sound cleverer than they are. The undergraduate deal is that you work hard so that you can pretend that you’ve worked even harder and if you do it convincingly you get a First. In exams and supo essays this feels right – after all, when you sell out to McKinsey, this is the skill they’re buying.

When it comes to a dissertation, however, such sleight of hand doesn’t feel flashy, it feels false. Faculties treat the diss like a mini-Master’s thesis. Originality is prized; research is meant to be exhaustive. A student, therefore, has two options: you can dive headlong into a bottomless pit of academic rigour, scour iDiscover for every half-relevant chapter or article, and hope that if you read and redraft manically enough, you will pull through. Or, you can swallow your intellectual pride and blag it out – after all, that’s what you’ve spent the last two years doing.

Confronted with the choice, most students surely pick the second path. You find a topic that is obscure but not difficult, pick a couple of books and a dozen articles that seem relevant, and mash the lot into a nicely packaged argument. Then pad out the bibliography with a few more pieces you skimmed and hope that you haven’t missed anything crucial in the literature.

This isn’t academic dishonesty, but I’m sure professors would say it’s missing the point. A dissertation is designed to prepare you for academic life. Skimping on your research might work as an undergraduate, but it won’t prepare you for the Ph.D. lifestyle.

“A dissertation is designed to prepare you for academic life”

That, however, is only a problem if you actually want to do a Ph.D. For most students, the value of a humanities degree is almost entirely in the transferable skills. You might spend three years swanning around with professors, but the point is not to become one yourself. The closer you get to ‘real’ academia, the less valuable the skills you learn are outside of it.

The supervision essay is the knowledge economy equivalent of long-distance runners going to Ethiopian mountains to train. If you can write a persuasive argument about a German philosopher you don’t understand during the aftermath of an ill-advised Revs adventure and then defend that argument while suffering from the all-nighter you pulled to write it, putting together a sales report for Susan in accounts a year after graduation is going to feel positively restful.


Mountain View

A working girl’s guide to Cambridge summer

The dissertation, by contrast, teaches you to think and write like an academic: impenetrably, and with a singular focus on subjects and squabbles that no one in their right mind would care about. Academics seem to think that we all want their jobs. Some of us do – and they should be allowed to frolic in the bowels of the UL as much as they desire – but the majority do not, and undergraduate courses should reflect that. Come October, most finalists will be thinking about grad schemes, not their diss topics. Faculties should read the room and make the dissertation optional. If they don’t, Finalists could be forgiven for wondering why they’re paying £9,250 to sit in a library and teach themselves. After all, it’s not like their dissertations are actually going to be marked.