I have found myself writing about my dissertation and writing processes in several blog posts lately. Sometimes it is difficult to think about the long, arduous writing process without thinking about poor decisions along the way. I thought this list might help you avoid similar mistakes as you complete your dissertation.
I would have started thinking about my dissertation from day one. If I had started choosing classes and putting together pieces of my dissertation along the way, I would have been much better prepared to write. Instead my two years of classes and two years of studying for comprehensive exams led to basically having to start fresh on my dissertation.
I would have started talking to older graduate students about how they chose their topics (and would have learned from their mistakes). There were students who finished the program quickly, writing their dissertation in a year or less. There were others who started in a direction that they could not finish and left the program without completing it. There were lots of others, like me, who made a few mistakes that caused bumps in the road along the way. It took me four years to write my dissertation, and I could have easily done it in half the time with a good mentor to guide me.
I would have communicated better every step of the way in the dissertation writing process. Professors are there to help. They are vested in your success and want you to finish. Don’t sit and worry about what they think about you and your ability. Honestly ask questions, admit weaknesses, and, above all, take their help when they offer.
I would have chosen a topic less near and dear to my heart. You definitely want to be passionate about your topic. However, I chose one that turned out to be controversial in the community, with strong feelings for and against. Writing on a topic that is emotionally charged can drain you rather than empower you, especially if you know those you care about disagree with you.
I would have agonized less about what people thought and moved quicker to the task of writing. This one is part and parcel of the last two points. If people disagree, don’t be afraid to talk it out with them. You will either see holes in your argument or it will make your argument stronger. Sitting around worrying what others might think is a recipe for delays.
I would have written a little bit every day. I could not make myself accomplish this because of how long it took me to get down to the task of writing. I was distracted by an unclean house, bills to be paid, and the Weather Channel—you name it, I was distracted by it! It forced me to take large chunks of time to write. I am so thankful to my family and workplace for letting me do this. Otherwise I may never have gotten it written. However, it is still more desirable to write daily and keep the topic fresh in your mind.
I would have asked more people to read my dissertation as I wrote. I asked lots of people to read but only once the entire product was finished. That’s a lot of pressure! As a result, readers cleaned up rather than challenging places that just did not work. I probably should have hired a good dissertation editing service also. A few embarrassing errors slipped through even my most careful proofreading efforts.
I would have started attending dissertation defenses early in the process to see that students really do finish their programs! The stress and pressure is overwhelming enough for a student. But to have a fear lurking that somehow I might be rejected in a defense after all that work is enough to consume a student at times. So go see others succeed and celebrate with them! This might be the place to meet a mentor to help you get to the same place of success.
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Knowing when to quote and when to paraphrase is quite an art. Basically, you don’t want to string a whole bunch of long quotes together, with a few of your own sentences connecting them, and call it a researched essay. You want to use quotes sparingly, to support your points. Paraphrasing is useful, but be careful that you don’t find yourself endlessly paraphrasing and not writing much of your own thoughts and words either. When you do paraphrase, you often need to give a citation as well.
The guiding principle: Is it your prior knowledge or not?
You must cite even material you’ve paraphrased if that paraphrased passage—whether it’s a sentence or several paragraphs—is not your knowledge. The concept of ‘your’ knowledge is very important. It’s an honor system in which you acknowledge that as you are writing you are immediately referring to the material at hand. In other words, if you have to look back and forth from an article or book to the computer screen as you are working to put a passage in your own words, then you must cite it. But if you read something days before, and studied it, so that when you’re writing your essay you’re able to do so without looking at those notes or that article, then it’s become your knowledge and you need not cite it.
There’s one exception to that, however. And that’s if what you’re writing is an original idea or thesis. You must give credit to those who have influenced your thinking. For example, take the following sentence. “The Tubes was an early-punk rock band from the 70’s and 80’s.” That’s a fact and you need not cite your source.
However, take this sentence: “All punk rock originated with the Tubes.” That’s a thesis, an idea, someone’s opinion. In that case, you have to cite your source, giving credit to the person who’s making that claim.
Learn more so you can quote less
So…how do you avoid an overreliance upon quoting and paraphrasing? Don’t ask an editing service to do that for you. That’s cheating. Do your own research, reading, and studying to become knowledgeable in the subject, so that when you sit down to write, a lot of the material comes from you, from inside, and not from your notes and sources. You need to KNOW the subject well enough so that the words you type are YOUR words, your ideas…your knowledge.
Thus, that underscores the importance of really doing your homework… literally. Read and study the subject. Make yourself a legitimate expert in the subject. Then you’ll have something to say that’s your ideas, your words, not just the ideas and words of your sources.
Give credit where credit is due
Of course, to be truly professional you must meticulously document your sources. Why? To give credit where credit is due. To protect yourself against charges of academic dishonesty. To enhance your own credibility. And to provide your readers with the source information should they care to read more about the subject.
Here is a terrific resource for graduate students and doctoral candidates: http://www.onlinephdprograms.com/50-places-to-find-dissertation-support-online/