Undergraduate Research and Lament but not in that Order!

a blue notebook sitting on top of handwritten notes with a colour coded spreed sheet and word document in the background.

Many undergraduates are asked to or given the option to complete a research project towards the end of their course. Having recently submitted my own I wanted to write about my experience and why this is something you should consider doing too. At my university the length of your project is determined by the course you are on, and for me it was 12,000 words and I was expected to take a whole academic year to complete it. This will change depending on the course and university but the longer sustained project aspect should be common to most undergraduates. 

Starting any large project is intimidating, especially when the only outside rubric is the final submission date and approximate word count. I started thinking about potential topics about six months before the deadline to set a topic and suggest a supervisor. This may sound very organised but I went in about three different directions and changed my mind a lot before getting to my final topic which was gender and lament in Early Irish literature. When it comes to picking a topic you can look back over lectures and class notes to see what you found the most interesting, or if you felt there was something missing that you would like an excuse to do some research on. Even an undergraduate dissertation takes a fairly long time so making sure you will be interested enough in your topic to stay motivated is really important. You might feel like it all gets too confusing at points but the rest of the Association of Celtic Students committee all said that they experience this as PhD students and so not to worry about it! Think about what skills you have and how you can apply them to your topic. I planned to work mainly from translations of texts because when I started my project I couldn't really make comments about the original Irish but by the end when I wanted to double check the quote I chose for my title I was able to go to the manuscript for that. 

Once you have a general topic the next big choice is what kind of source material you want to work with. This will really depend on what kind of Celtic Studies you do: I'm a medievalist so I considered written texts from Ireland that dated roughly between 800AD and 1300AD. If you are an archaeologist it will be sites and objects (or even techniques), you could consider collecting voice recordings from Celtic language speakers, or you might want to work with language policy. Again, I found going over lectures and notes to see what texts I had enjoyed working with the most to be really helpful but I also got a lot of inspiration by attending conferences, especially the Celtic Students 2020 conference and Finn Longman's paper on the Táin. I was also able to talk to the staff in my department and ask for their suggestions on texts as well as places to find more.

If you are allowed to suggest a supervisor try to find someone whose interests overlap with your own. I was very lucky to have a supervisor who worked with lament but it is more important that they know the general area. Other than giving me feedback on how to improve my writing and argument, I found it really helpful to check I wasn't missing any key reading throughout the process with my supervisor, as well as with other students working on similar areas. It's very reassuring to be told you haven't accidentally skipped some key secondary work!

After all these choices are made and you have a plan, it sort of just boils down to: read everything, take notes, make nice colourful spreadsheets, plan and write. At the start of my project when I thought I needed a proper methodology section that is pretty much all I could think to write... I read a lot more than I could possibly include and this is probably true of every bit of research from first year essays to PhDs and books. I was lucky to be able to spend the summer just reading and then I used the academic year to write everything. Starting early is really important to me as it means things can go wrong and if I needed to (which I did) I could put my dissertation to the side for a few weeks. Everyone will work differently - if you search on YouTube there are quite a few videos about how to do the whole dissertation in a couple of weeks. 

Talking to people about your work while you are doing it is very useful. You might get suggestions for links you don't know about or just encouragement that whatever bit that is keeping you up at night will be resolved. It also makes a big difference to hear that people are interested in reading your work. If you can I would really recommend submitting a paper or poster to one of our conferences, which is what I did with one of my chapters. Having to answer questions about my work showed me where the gaps were but also gave me more confidence that helped when a chapter didn't work and had to be changed to a different angle. 

Finally doing a dissertation can be a really good way to see if you enjoy this kind of sustained project and if it is something you want to do again in the future. I'm currently at the beginning of planning the research I will do as part of my masters and so being able to look at the project I've just finished to see what I enjoyed and what I could have done better is really helpful. My notes are now going to be digital and not just in notebooks and I will incorporate more direct work with primary texts in Irish. I also know that even though starting these bigger research projects is scary and I am not a huge fan of all the initial decisions that I will enjoy the whole process.

Freya Smith


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