Dissertation Advice Series – Part 1 Rebeka Zacková

If you are currently in the midst of planning or preparing for your dissertation, I am sure you have already read many “how to” articles online, or maybe even checked out some books on dissertation writing from the library.

There is a lot of great information out there and when writing my dissertation, I have also tried to follow all kinds of suggestions. However, there is one piece of advice that I didn’t come across, that would have possibly prevented me from getting into trouble very close to the deadline. My aim with this article is to recount my experience and explain how not to make the same mistake.

When we started the dissertation module in third year I was really excited. I knew that I wanted to write about architecture in virtual reality for quite some time and had read a number of books on the topic already.

The module started with a couple of lectures regarding writing the synopsis and it was very well structured and useful. I went through the whole suggested process and, alongside with the guidance from my advisor, I wrote my synopsis and received a high mark for it.

My dissertation was named “The Chair You Can’t Sit On” and it was discussing the current trend of translating real world architecture into the virtual environment. The “Chair” or furniture in general was supposed to illustrate how redundant some objects from real life are in the virtual world. What is the point of a chair you can’t sit on?

The very first time I came across Virtual reality was in the book Ready Player One by Ernst Cline, then later, fairly close to deciding on the topic for the dissertation I read an article in AEC Magazine- “Virtual Reality for architecture: a beginner’s guide. This article , as well as many others I read afterwards, explained the possibilities of implementing this new technology in the architecture field. It was mostly presented as a tool for architects to better understand the spaces they are designing, or as a more efficient means of communication between the architect and the client (as opposed to two-dimensional drawings and renderings).

Even though I agreed that this could have a positive impact on the design and communication process, I was wondering, how much further could we take it? This was so much different from what Ernst Cline was envisioning already in the 90s. I decided to explore this topic in my dissertation.

By posing the symbolic question “What does a chair mean in the virtual environment?” I started to examine the relationship between the real and the virtual. I was wondering what impact could the exploration of this relationship have on our understanding and future evolution of virtual architecture.

As the weeks went by everything seemed to be going well, I was spending loads of time in the library, (as my dissertation was mainly theoretical) reading and writing. However, as I became really invested in the virtual reality as a whole I started “playing” Second Life or rather visiting this 3D virtual world.

Second Life as described by its creator: San Francisco -based firm Linden Lab is The Largest User-Created 3D Universe where you can Build Your Dream Reality & Live extravagantly and have Complete Creative freedom. The media sometimes defines it as a multiplayer video game, sometimes even as a social network. However, the truth lies somewhere in between – combining all the different aspects of these into a completely unique experience. You’ll find people there who treat it as a game as well as people living their next life; there are people starting businesses and making money, but also people just trying to push the limits of its design laws.

One night, my avatar was walking around the Second Life’s universe. I was hoping to strike a conversation with someone, hopefully one that would lead me to getting a quote or any other interesting material for my dissertation.

It was very busy in the “house” my avatar was in, there was a party going on. Other avatars were dancing around in crazy costumes with some techno music in the background. I tried to strike a conversation with some of them but wasn’t having any luck. Then, I noticed someone sitting on a bar chair sipping on a virtual drink. My avatar sat down next to them and we got to talking. After a while I realized why I was able to approach that avatar sitting rather people dancing or walking and at that very moment my dissertation was condemned to take a radical turn.

I excused myself and was looking around the room seeing how different avatars were interacting and started to realize that furniture did have an actual purpose in the virtual space after all. “Sitting down” was not an act to rest your legs or get comfortable as it would be in the real world.  The action was performed as a non-verbal communication. It indicated people were committed to a longer or deeper conversation or it could signal that you were open to have a conversation.

Now, this discovery led me down a path of a whole other dimension of social interactions in a virtual environment and I felt that I could no longer argue against the use of furniture as such in avatar inhabited worlds. I felt like when planning my dissertation, I completely omitted this whole layer or angle. My whole dissertation at this point was supposed to prompt people to stop designing or get rid of their virtual furniture altogether. Re-reading all the text I have written thus far I could see the narrative setting the scene for that moment. I was in trouble.

All this happened during a break so I couldn’t ask my advisor for advice. It seemed dishonest to omit the information I learned just to “stay on track with my plan”. I decided to integrate the new knowledge into my dissertation as well as I could. Unfortunately, these new findings were from a completely different field of study – my dissertation started with semiotics and then in the middle a new layer of social interactions got added it became unclear what I was trying to say.

The whole work ended up being messy and seemed obvious I didn’t spend as much time on it as the rest of my research which at the end influenced my final mark. Thinking about it now I believe this could’ve been prevented if I planned my synopsis smarter and that is the reason I am writing this article.

So, what could I have done differently to not get into this trouble?

I believe the biggest mistake I made was to perceive the conclusion I wished to get to as an actual conclusion.  Looking back now, I can see that I didn’t allow for the research to unfold naturally, rather I was searching the books for arguments to support the point I wanted to make. It would have definitely helped me to call the “conclusion” in the early process a “hypothesis” and maybe it would have been useful to come up with at least a few. This would have reminded me that I am researching a dissertation question not simply putting together a compelling set of arguments supporting my claim.

To take from my experience when preparing for your dissertation:

1 Read all the books and consider all the sources you possibly can before planning the synopsis. Even though I did read 80-90% of the material, I didn’t consider Second Life as such a valuable resource. I underestimated its value.

2 Write the conclusion as a theory rather than as a set destination.

Make sure to stop and consider all the possibilities. You could even try to ask your tutor or classmates whether they can see different outcomes.

3 Don’t try to achieve too much.

At the end of the day it’s only 10,000 words. When I found out this new layer of information I should’ve been more critical. It would’ve been good to just have a sit down with myself and take a hard-uninvested look into the matter. See that there is not enough space to explore both of these topics in depth and just leave the other one for next project.

4 Try to see the whole project.

Try to read the text in different progress stages with fresh eyes. As if it was not your work, as if you had no background in the topic you were writing about. This should help you see it there is a good flow throughout your dissertation and also that all the sections are development in a more or less same depth. If you do this correctly, the thought process supporting your research question will be clearly understood through the whole text and your dissertation more successful.

Maybe it seems pretty obvious to you where the mistake occurred. I can see it now too, but 2 years ago when I was so deeply invested in researching this topic, trying to stick to the plan and deadlines I failed to see the bigger picture. I am hoping my experience can be of use to you and good luck with your dissertation!

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