It has been 8 years now, but I still remember my dissertation defense like it was yesterday. I had almost three months between the end of writing my dissertation and when I defended it. There was plenty of time to think … and to worry! Here are some do’s and don’ts I learned that I hope will, in turn, benefit you.
- Put down your dissertation for a designated period of time, at least a week or two. Step away from it. Spend time with family or friends. Take a vacation. Attend your favorite sporting event or fine art performance. Then come back to it and read it again with as fresh a pair of eyes as possible. Look for honest areas of strength and weakness.
- Have another fresh pair of eyes read your dissertation. Ask her not only to look for weaknesses but obvious questions that come to mind: Why did you decide to go into this direction and not another? Why didn’t you do this? What could have done better? These are all helpful questions that you may be asked at your defense.
- Think of responses to questions that professors may ask. You may go as far as prepare notes, outlines, and scripts to answer these questions. This will give you the basis for a response in your defense.
- Identify and think about what a next logical research project would be. I know you are tired and don’t want to think of what’s next. But every study has its limitations and has to bracket some questions. Think about what Volume 2 of your study would be!
- Attend other defenses to see what yours might be like. Talk with your major professor about what she envisions the defense to be like, what questions folks may ask, and other information she is willing to reveal.
- Be confident that your professors have a lot invested in the time and energy they spent with you along the way. The defense is also a time of celebration and accomplishment!
- Don’t let your fears get the best of you. You will be anxious. You will have worries, but don’t focus on them. Focus on your preparation and actively working toward your oral examination.
- Don’t assume you know what is going to be asked. Professors will surprise you. Be ready to say, “I don’t know!” to some questions even after all your research and writing. In the same way, be willing to ask for clarification if questions seem vague or you need clarification. That’s always OK and can give you more time to formulate your answer.
- Don’t hesitate to ask someone to take you through a practice defense, whether other students, a trusted professor, or your spouse. Ask them to practice all the questions you have prepared and some you have not!
- Don’t be defensive. Professors will ask tough questions. Some may disagree with your findings and methods of research. Some will critique aspects of your writing. Be able to separate your work from your person. This is difficult to do when you have poured your life and soul into a dissertation, but it will show that you know how to have a scholarly debate and take critique constructively.
- Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Your passion for your dissertation should show as well as your ability to thoughtfully discuss the topic at times without emotion. But your work becomes a big part of your life. Professors like to see someone who truly cares about his work but also who has the ability to talk about it in a scholarly manner.
- Don’t be afraid to invite your family, friends, and fellow students to your defense. You will amaze most people at your depth of knowledge and ability to discuss topics beyond the everyday conversations most people have. They will want to be part of this important event and celebrate with you! Plus you may just need some honest feedback and debriefing.
Nothing is a bigger enemy of good writing than fuzzy thinking. Nothing can quite replace putting appropriate time and thought into your writing to make your points and word choice clear and concise! Take the following steps.
Picture your audience. Name a member of your audience. Give him an age, name, and face if necessary. Think of him as you write. Think about how your writing will interest him and help him achieve what you want him to accomplish after reading your work.
Review your assignment. If you see your audience and know what you want the end consumer to get out of it, then the next step is to examine the requirements to get across your message. Have all requirements squared away from the beginning: word count, purpose, goal, technique, etc. Leave nothing to chance.
Set up your document. Create your word processing file. Set up your document preferences: proper margins, font, font size, tabs, and other settings so that you don’t have to go back and redo anything.
Write a thesis statement or hypothesis. Keep that statement in focus for your entire research. If a statement does not help you get across your thesis, or help evaluate your hypothesis, then delete it.
Outline your argument and the steps you will take. Have a plan for your writing and provide this sketch before you fill in the details. This will help you, especially if you are a writer who typically starts writing first and shaping later.
Ask at least 3 people to read your writing. The more eyes you have on your writing, the more problems you are likely to catch on the front end. Be willing to take the critique of others. Allow people to correct everything from the details (like grammar and punctuation) to the big picture ideas and assumptions you make (to keep from incorrect assumptions and faulty logic).
Write your first draft. Write it freely. You can self-edit as you go if you wish. Sometimes it’s great just to get the ideas out. After you have your first draft, let it sit for at least a day. Leaving this time after your first draft will help you gain some perspective and help your read it fresh.
Read it again. Look at it from a big picture point of view, seeing if it makes sense or if anything needs more attention.
Do a final edit. Read it, editing all the details. Trim to the word count and cut out unnecessary words and phrases.
Run spell and grammar check. This can help your writing more than you know. Spell check finds those nasty misspelled words. Grammar check can find any pesky subject-verb agreement issues or help you find that easy-to-miss passive voice that may sound correct to your ear.
Ask one other person you trust to read it again. You can never get too much feedback. Sometimes your professor will offer to do this for you if you can finish your writing early.
Turn it in and reward yourself!
Working on magazines for several years now, the most common complaint I hear from new writers is how short magazine articles are. Some actually complain at the word count, as if we might suddenly double it just for them. The truth is that it is much harder to write more concisely and takes skill to do so. If you don’t have a good editing service to help out, here are a few tips you can use for writing concisely. They’ll help no matter if you are working on a magazine article or dissertation.
Identify the major components of your work.
Too often people just start writing without taking stock of what direction to take. For magazine articles, this is usually not only the main body of the article but also sidebars and pull quotes. Other types of writing have similar extras. Your dissertation has footnotes, bibliography, and appendices. Pay attention to details such as source materials along the way. If you focus on these things from the beginning, you will better be able to handle your task without having to go back later.
Outline your project.
Your outline is the skeleton of your writing. It holds it together and supports all the details. For a magazine, it is your title, deck, subheads, and sidebar titles. For your dissertation, subheadings are not that different from the subheads in a magazine article, just multiplied in length, number, and level of complexity.
Cut out unnecessary details.
For magazine articles you may have to cut extra illustrations beyond what is necessary to communicate your point. For any writing, there are extra idioms and phrases that become colloquial habits but are not necessary. Any illustrations that are perceived as extra will be cut first by an editor, so you might as well edit them out early in your writing process.
Limit the scope.
When you write for a magazine, you certainly can’t expect the article to be an exhaustive coverage of a topic. The same is true even for a dissertation. For dissertations, there will be extra research that is good but might be outside the scope of your current project. Knowing how to bracket writing scope and even save extras for later is a skill any writer can use.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
Establish your thesis statement and filter every detail, every argument, and every illustration through the thesis of your paper. It will help you stay on track, keeping a check and balance on the things of lesser importance. If need be, post your thesis statement somewhere prominent so that it is a visual reminder to you to write accordingly.
Focus on the audience.
What you write is largely dependent upon for whom you are writing. Don’t miss this important detail to help your illustrations and explanation hit right on target.
Watch the grammar.
Sometimes writers are too wordy because they use words that don’t really matter. Watch words that repeat and trim out the unnecessary ones. Some common problems are words like that and very. Read your work aloud and you will find extra verbiage you can cut and make your writing more concise. That’s our job here. So if you feel you do need help, consider using our editing service to give your writing that extra assist
I really didn’t have a topic for my dissertation as I finished my coursework. I knew that teaching was one of my strengths, but research was not. I had earned my teaching certification as an undergraduate. Then during seminary I found myself gravitating to topics relate to education, human development, and spiritual development, but I just wasn’t sure the direction I should go for my research.
Then it happened—fatherhood! When I found out that we were expecting I began that 9-month process of reading everything my hands could find related to parenting. My life started to take shape as a parent-to-be. Suddenly it clicked. I would research Christian parenting theories and how they impact faith and childhood development. This was perfect for me, bringing together my past studies and experience along with my current life situation. Becoming a parent was the thing that brought focus to my life and to my research.
In doing so I found my voice. I was living this search for the best parenting theory in my personal life and in my research. This topic was almost too personal at times, but it was definitely me, through and through. Life experience had led me to this place. But is this for everyone? If so, how can you express your voice and passion in finding the right topic for your dissertation?
Look at your experience.
You will probably find yourself working in your areas of interest long before graduate school. Think of what interests you and turn your attention and studies in that direction. Your experience and interests are part of your passion, who you truly are, and hopefully can become part of your dissertation.
Consider your strengths and weaknesses.
You do not want to work on a dissertation that requires skills you do not possess. You may find that you can do so for a small time, but this effort will wear on your passion as well as the rest of you. You can talk with your professors honestly about your strengths and weaknesses and trust their guidance.
Meet others with similar writing, work, and research.
Place yourself in similar situations with those who are writing and researching projects that interest you. Ask yourself if you would you be happy examining that topic for months or years. That is the reality of what you will do, so do not pick a topic or scope that is so difficult that you cannot stand to work on it every day.
It’s OK to switch directions.
If you are heading down the wrong path, it can be devastating. Putting work, time, and money into research that proves wrong for you and your project is frustrating. Taking stock of your research whether changing scope or completely changing plans is OK. You will not be the first to do it. Better to find your sweet spot early in the process than to do so later.
Find the happy medium between passion and obsession.
Be able to distance yourself from your research and disassociate criticisms of your project from your personal feelings. Not being able to do so is setting you up for many difficulties along the way. A healthy passion means that your work inspires you to action and motivates you, but that you can step back and examine your work when needed. Inability to stop and step away from your work will interfere with daily life and should serve as a warning sign to gain perspective.
Have you ever read a book of Christian fiction and thought that it just did not measure up to your favorite fiction authors? I have as well. When I contemplated the reason for this difference, I came to the following advice for Christian fiction writers.
Characters need depth
When I mention depth, I mean for writers to move beyond the stereotypes. Certainly we tend to think in stereotypical ways and may even plot our characters to fulfill certain roles, but real life is not very cut and dry. Good people do bad things. Look at any Bible story and see this truth. Even saints make bad choices. The characters in your novel need similar complexity. Resist the temptation to have every Christian fiction piece have an overly simplistic Jesus-type. Look at the complexity of Jesus’ words in John 17 to see genuine personal struggle.
The story has to be strong
And it should be from the beginning chapter. The best stories are ones that grab you from the first chapter and never let go. There is a reason why I picked up John Grisham’s The Firm in high school and could not put it down until I read the entire novel. Books with a good first chapter still need to build suspense and have realistic plot points that move along the action. Contrivances just don’t work.
Go with real-life dilemmas
Readers can identify with issues related to love, friendship, work, personal mistakes, and everyday choices. Everyday choices may lead to unexpected places, but you want the reader to identify with the character and possibly being in his place, identifying with his choices.
Choices have to seem logical
If the decisions of a main character start to appear illogical and don’t make sense to the reader, you will quickly lose the reader. This is especially true when illogical decisions mount in a primary character. Real life dilemmas and real life decisions make the story believable.
Give depth and complexity even to the “bad guys”
As mentioned before, people who make bad choices aren’t just bad. They make bad choices for a variety of reasons connected to their past and current situation. Similar to the good character discussion above, resist the urge to have overly simplistic characters portrayed as pure evil. What are the reasons that bring them to the place they are in the novel? Readers want to know how a person could be like that or why they make those choices. Equally, people who do horrendous things also can be redeemed and make unbelievable turnarounds. Look at the Apostle Paul. His move from persecutor and accessory to murder soon turned to his becoming the greatest missionary of the Christian message of hope.
Make us want to come back for more!
Your ending should be satisfying in a way that readers want more. The best books have endings that leave you feeling that way but without an obvious to be continued ending. You don’t want to assume there will be an audience for the second book you have in mind just because you wrote your first novel to have one.