The next Msc challenge: writing a dissertation under lockdown

Students sitting on the blue bean bags provided on the lower ground floor underneath the spiral ramp of the Lionel Robbins Building.

For many of LSE’s postgraduate students currently starting work on their dissertations, the rapid pace and unpredictable duration of the COVID-19 crisis has raised unprecedented academic challenges. As the final proposals for most departments were formally handed in last Friday, the challenges of undertaking social research in a locked-down society – and having to design a research project that, if necessary, can entirely be conducted from behind a laptop while in isolation – have become increasingly clear to this cohort of students.

For many, the most direct source of difficulty has been the closure of the library, and the resulting restrictions on available data sources that it implies. This hits students in broadly qualitative disciplines – and in particular those from law-related subjects, for whom access to documents only found in the library is often a necessity – particularly hard, severely limiting possible avenues of inquiry. Beyond the walls of LSE, a potential inability to access archives in other universities, libraries and public offices will raise further barriers to conducting adequate dissertation research – although access to online resources is greater than ever before, countless books and records that students may need for their work are likely to be completely unreachable.

“My number one issue during this lockdown is that the LSE online library rarely has the books digitized,” a student from the MSc Conflict Studies programme tells The Beaver. “So many are only available as hardcopies in the library. The library should really look into providing other avenues with greater access to online resources in the future.”

An MSc Comparative Politics student concurs. “My supervisor has recommended books for me to read but I haven’t been able to find many of them for free online. These books are often very expensive, so I only really have the option of borrowing from the library if I can’t read it online – but even finding books to download online is such a long and tedious process.”

As has also been the case for many others, a lack of face-to-face contact with supervisors has proven challenging for this student – “[my supervisor] has been kind in providing guiding questions for me to form my research but it’s just so difficult to develop my ideas without having the opportunity to discuss with him. I feel like I’m just trying the best I can without knowing what is expected for me from him and LSE in general.”

Trouble with access to resources is by no means limited to students undertaking qualitative research. Despite the more general online availability of statistics, quantitative students may also face significant hurdles getting hold of the data they need.

 “The school has been supportive and has acquired additional web access to some databases but not for all, like Bloomberg,” an MSc Economics student explains. “We have the option of emailing our department librarian who can send us the specific data via email, but you need to be very clear about what you need exactly. I think this can be a bit tricky, particularly if you’re at the beginning of your research project and aren’t 100% clear on what you need yourself.”

Nor do all the challenges faced by students currently writing their dissertations stem directly from the campus closure. Coupled with the emotional toll of the pandemic itself, many students may face health concerns, financial difficulties due to the economic fallout, or volatile situations at home which impede their ability to complete a dissertation that lives up to their personal standards. Others may also be subject to additional restrictions imposed by the authorities of their home countries that place greater strain on their research efforts. Even something as simple as poor internet connectivity – a source of stress for many as assessments move online– can increase the burden of remote research considerably.

“A difficulty I’m going through right now (and I bet many others as well) is that I came back home to Peru last week, and I’m currently in government mandatory quarantine in a hotel for 14 days. The internet here is not great,” another Comparative Politics student recounts. “There are times it’s difficult to just watch the classes in Zoom or even just to load websites and online books – I know it’s not critical, but it can really add to the stress.”

Many students also highlight the gratitude they feel towards their professors for smoothing the transition towards remote learning and research.

“Honestly, I’m really, really grateful for all the services and the support the department has offered us,” stresses an MSc Economics student.

“My supervisor’s been fantastic,” a Comparative Politics student agrees. “He’s softened deadlines, provided extra contact hours, regularly reaches out to make sure we’re all managing alright – really showing that he cares about our situation.”

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