Thursday, October 4, 2012

7 Pieces of Advice to Help You Complete Your Dissertation

Doctoral students find the dissertation process daunting--and with good reason. Earning a doctorate typically requires you to undertake a significant piece of original research that addresses a void in the scholarly literature on a particular topic, with the path from the selection of that topic to the completion of the work (and the awarding of the doctorate) a long one often full of myriad twists and turns. In the process of living through this process, completing my dissertation, and earning my doctorate in 2011, I learned many valuable lessons that I considered crucial for helping me to finish. Here's a summary of the top seven (based on a presentation I delight in delivering to graduate students). 

1. Pick a topic you love and/or one to which you have  professional or personal connections.  You’ll be spending a lot of time reading and writing to complete your dissertation, so the more you passionately care about the topic—and find it meaningful and relevant to your life and/or work—the more enjoyable the process will be.

2. Get organized. Being organized means many things to many people especially when it comes to writing the dissertation, but in my experience that meant a) establishing a space in my home where I could maintain undisturbed all materials related to my dissertation, as well as where I could write; b) setting up separate binders, one (or more) each for my research notes; documents; drafts I submitted for review, each of which included feedback from committee members; and journal articles; c) setting up separate folders on my computer’s hard drive to include documents in each of these same categories; d) saving each draft of the document as a new file, so I could refer back to older versions if I wanted to reconsider changes; and e) backing up my dissertation documents (including these many drafts) every day using an online backup service.

3. Write first, talk later. I found the process of thinking about and writing a dissertation very exciting, and LOVED my topicwhich translated into wanting to talk endlessly about it. The dissertation is a written document, however, and committee members can only offer feedback (and, ultimately, approval) on something tangible. So learn to channel your energies into writing about your topic rather than speaking about it.  You’ll get a lot farther faster as a result (and you’ll have plenty of time to talk about it once it’s done, especially if you choose to present posters or papers at conferences).  

4. Learn to love revising and editing your work. It’s not simply about writing a dissertation, though, but rather getting feedback on your work, revising drafts incorporating these comments, subsequently editing your own copy, and repeating this process for as long as it takes for you to develop a polished document that passes muster with the members of your committee.  In short, learn to love the ongoing writing and revising that’s fundamental to completing the dissertation.

5. Commit to daily effort.  I found that working on some aspect of my dissertation every day (e.g., reading a journal article, revising a section, scheduling an interview with a participant) helped me to remain engaged and connected over time.  This daily practice helped me to gain a momentum that rarely dissipated throughout the process that culminated in the completion of the document, and thus working on my dissertation felt like a normal, integral part of my life over the year and a half it took me from start to finish.

6. Realize that the members of your committee individually and collectively wanted you to succeed.  Your committee wants to you finish the dissertation and graduate.  So consider all feedback and guidance you receive along the way as designed to help you achieve this goal.  You’ll find the process much more productive and even enjoyable once you adopt this perspective.

7. Celebrate the many small steps along the way.  These include clarifying your topic and finalizing the critical “Statement of the Problem” section; submitting your proposal for review; successfully defending your proposal; receiving approval from your committee on changes to the proposal; and successfully defending your dissertation. In other words, recognize that the path towards completing your dissertation is a long one with numerous opportunities for you to stop for a moment or two to enjoy every step towards the awarding of your doctorate.

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