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.
The biggest lesson I learned while I was a doctoral student? Find out what motivates you. Here are 6 “motivators” I stuck on signs over my desk when I was in the throes of my doctoral dissertation:
photo credit: Flickr user alex:
#1: The best dissertation is a done dissertation
So many people in my graduate cohort spent endless hours and endless angst searching for the perfect research question, the perfect theory, the perfect sources for their lit review, and the perfect turn of phrase guaranteed to take their masterpiece to a level sure to earn them a place in academic history. That wasn’t me. I picked a topic I found interesting; came up with an appropriate research question, backed into a serviceable theory, got decent sources for the lit review, and finished in a reasonable amount of time. Did I set the bar too low? Is there a doctor in the house? By all means, get help from a good dissertation editor or dissertation editing service if you need it.
#2: Do something every day
Starting a dissertation is like starting an exercise program. The experts say that three to four times a week is fine. What these same experts don’t tell you is that the people who “stick with” an exercise program exercise every day. It may be just 10 or 15 minutes but if you do it every day it becomes a lifelong habit—one you’ll have long after the three-times-a week-folks are trying to offload their treadmill on Craig’s list or looking for another juice bar so they don’t run into their personal trainer who believes they have the slowest healing hamstring pull on record. Do the same with a dissertation—do something every day. Some days all you can do is read a short article; some days even that’s too much and you settle for an online search for articles on one of your sub-sub categories. The group in my cohort who did something every day finished their (our) dissertations first.
#3: Just say “no”
I remember asking a friend in the cohort before ours to have coffee. She said she was saying “no” to everything until she finished her dissertation. She was only doing what she absolutely had to do—everything else would have to wait. I was frankly a little miffed, that is until I began my own dissertation and realized I needed to do the same thing if I was ever going to finish what I started referring to as “that damn dissertation.” Forget multi-tasking, forget even uni-tasking if there is such a thing. A dissertation takes 24/7 focus—it’s that big a beast. Again, the people in my cohort who finished first, in fact finished at all, learned how to say “no.”
#4: Stay healthy
It doesn’t seem like a dissertation should be so physically demanding but it is. It sometimes seems to suck the very life out of you. The only way to stay sane is to take the very time you don’t have and make sure you exercise daily (or twice a day if you need a break), eat right, get enough sleep, and try not to rely on what one cohort member referred to as “better living through chemistry.”
#5: Cut yourself some slack
I had a dissertation schedule. I’m a schedule kind of gal. Unfortunately, dissertations aren’t always schedulable. (I think I spent so much time with words ending in ology and istic—ontology, epistemology, methodology, statistic, positivistic—that I’ve created a whole new vocabulary just to rebel.) Perhaps my most important motivator was “cut yourself some slack.” Some days, weeks even, it’s just too hard. Life gets away from you. The people and things you’ve been ignoring for so long need your attention. You can’t remember if you had lunch, made lunch, went out for lunch, or if you had lunch for breakfast because you can’t remember what day or time it is. Cut yourself some slack.
#6: Better dead than ABD
Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh but for me that’s what it came down to. I didn’t think I could live with myself (nor did I think anyone else could live with me!) if I put in all that time and money and anxiety and sacrifice only to stop short of the finish line. Equally important is that I felt I would be letting down the very people who supported and tolerated me if I didn’t finish. Besides, after a certain amount of time, ABD is worse than never starting. Show me someone ABD more than three or four years after comps and I’ll show you someone with a long-list of excuses targeted at whoever is asking—even when they’re not asking! That ABD should have found herself a dissertation editing company to help out.
DR. WILLIAM SAYS: Expect lots of reading and writing
You may read a book per week per class, and have to discuss it in depth, or even turn in a paper each week.
Learn the basics of how to dissect a book’s content and get a quick overview of its thesis.
My history professor wheeled a cart full of books into class one day, a different book for each student in class. He handed out the books and announced, “At the end of this hour, I want you to turn in a one page book report on this book!”
Talk about a crash course in how to get into the content of a book without actually reading it.
This is what I learned from that experience:
- Read the basics first
- Start with the summary on the back cover
- Peruse the table of contents and chapter titles
- Scan chapter titles and subheads
- Read the forward and introduction
- Then move into reading chapter one or the first page of each chapter.
You’ll be amazed how much you can learn about a book and its thesis from these basics.
DR. DAN SAYS: There’s a veritable litany of suggestions people will give:
- Work hard
- Make good use of your time
- Find a balance
- Find a really good coffee shop/Indian restaurant that delivers, etc. etc. etc.
These are all excellent pieces of advice, and I encourage you to take them all to heart.
That said, though, I would recommend treating grad school like college (unless you had one of those “Four-year-house-party-with-a-$50,000-cover-charge” kind of experiences) in that you should get involved.
It can be tempting to see grad school as your first entry into the ivory tower, calling you to countless hours in the library/lab, but your experience will be richer if you embrace the fullness of where you study.
Depending on your role, you will be a teacher, a student, and a researcher. In this trinity, recognize that your identity and the expectations leveled at you will be fragmented.
Sequestering yourself in one role alone can result in a soul-sucking experience.
DR. SANDY SAYS: Just Do It!
I have yet to meet any person thrilled with the dissertation process. It is one of the most frustrating endeavors we go through to earn our credentials. And to some extent, it is designed that way! The best way to handle it is to just do it!
My dissertation topic was on professional development for educators, a relatively new specialization at that time. I was the coordinator for such programs in my school district and hoped to use my dissertation to help my colleagues throughout the state benefit more from the new state requirements for professional development.
As with many new things in one’s field, most of my professors, including my advisor, didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. The old notions of what constituted professional development were too embedded. No matter how much research I presented on the various theories and principles that formed the basis for effective professional development, that old concept of the speaker on the first day of school and workshops on nothing particularly related to the classroom needs of teachers colored his understanding of my design.
I had reached the point of deciding to be an ABD when my superintendent came to my office for a chat. “It’s an exercise,” he reminded me. “Forget trying to break new ground. Forget everything except meeting the expectations of your advisor and committee and just do it!”
I ruminated on that for a few days before acknowledging the truth of his statements. Then I resubmitted my original proposal, tweaked the way my advisor wanted it, and within two weeks it was approved and I was on my way. Six months later, I received that coveted letter from the dean’s office acknowledging that I had fulfilled all requirements for my doctorate.
So when you’re frustrated with rewriting your proposal for the umpteenth time, when you can’t make your advisor understand what you’re trying to do, when your desire to make breakthrough contributions to your field get the better of you, remember that this is all an academic exercise. It is your admission ticket so that you can do what you really want to do in your chosen field. It is the beginning of the next phase of your career, not your ultimate contribution.
If you decide to seek help, find a good dissertation editing service to advise you.
Then, take a deep breath, refocus on the goal—earning your doctorate—and JUST DO IT!
To borrow a trite analogy, learning to use APA [or any documentation style, for that matter] is like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you understand the mechanics, including how to shift, balance, and stop, the rest is easy. The first step is to purchase, and actually read, an APA manual, either APA5 or APA6, depending on your university’s requirements. Granted, it is not a riveting work but essential. If the thought of reading a reference book causes chills to dance down your spine, it is likely time to seek professional dissertation editing help … not for your phobia but for editing your work.
Based on many years of editing dissertations, I can offer a few essential points that candidates frequently overlook. The top fifteen below may be helpful:
- All references in the text must have a comparable listing on the reference pages and vice versa. Each mention of an author’s name must have an identical spelling for each use.
- Et al. is Latin for ‘and others’; thus, it applies only to three or more authors of the same work. All authors [unless a number in excess of six] should be listed for the first in text citation; if the citation is for two or three authors, all names should appear in each citation.
- All direct quotes in text must have a page number (p.). Page numbers are not required on paraphrased material.
- If referring to the same author in closely connected sentences, it is not necessary to use the author’s date in subsequent citations.
- If websites have no author, begin the reference with the title of the material you retrieved and use that information as the in text citation.
- Listing databases [Ebsco, LexusNexus, etc.] as a source of retrieval is not required on the reference page. The website address is required.
- If you are using APA6, it is not necessary to use a retrieval date on websites.[Retrieved from http://xxxxxx]
- If you are using APA6, locate the doi number, if available, on periodicals. Add it at the end of the citation without a period. [doi: xxxxx]
- Eschew passive language but tread lightly. It is not enough to employ an active verb if the subject of the sentence is incapable of the implied action [anthropomorphism].
- If you are creating a proposal, refer to your work in future tense; if you are writing a completed dissertation, refer to your work in past tense.
- Normally, all references to previous studies are in past tense.
- In qualitative dissertations, you should avoid personal pronouns. Although it is sometimes necessary, to employ the rather stilted phrase, ‘the researcher,’ it is preferable to using I. Qualitative dissertations offer more leeway on author referents but ‘playing’ with sentence construction can help you avoid using either I or ‘the researcher’.
- Double check your Table of Contents not only to check correct page numbers but also to confirm identical wording as your text headings.
- Tables have labels at the top; figures have labels at the bottom.
- Let the computer work for you. If you are using Word, you can go to file and page setup to indicate consistent margins throughout your document. The paragraph tab under format can produce clean margin indentations and create a hanging indent for those pesky references. Under the insert tab, you can indicate page breaks, which rid your work of widowed headings and subheadings.
To keep your bicycle and your dissertation editing running smoothly may require additional maintenance. In the case of your dissertation, this means discovering whether your university committee or graduate school has exceptions to APA and tweaking your work accordingly. Normally, the exceptions relate to spacing and specific required headings within each chapter but, occasionally, there are exceptions to tense selection or other peculiarities. If need be, seek the help of a dissertation editing service.
This should provide a starting checklist for your work. But it’s no substitute for the manual. So if you’re a grad student or scholar, pick one up and enjoy it! Joke. It can be pretty dense reading, but that’s the name of the academic game.
It’s your third year in the doctoral program. You’ve taught like a god. You’ve written seminar papers that have made your teachers weep (in a good way). And you’ve logged more time on airplanes and in hotels than in seminar rooms. The world is starting to know you and your ideas.
You’ve passed comps or prelims.
What do you do now?
Pat yourself on the back. You’ve taken your warm up laps, and now it’s time to get ready for the marathon that’s ahead of you. It’s no secret. But nobody seems to know it. Unlike law school or med school, academic grad school is really two programs.
There’s the coursework, which you’ve aced. Right? That’s all great stuff, but it’s over and you’re on your own now. You’re doing your own stuff. This is the FUN part of graduate school. You’re basically a baby professor at this point.
Now, what most of the dissertation editing books don’t tell you about this part of graduate school, the dissertation stage, is one little word:
What, you may ask, if you’re in the sciences or, god help you, the humanities, does dissertation writing and scholarship have to do with MBA stuff. That’s the stuff you didn’t want to do.
The short answer: Everything. From here on out (and you’ve already been doing it in coursework, teaching, and conference presentations) everything is about pitching and selling ideas.
Does the thought of selling really make you queasy? Get over yourself! Ideas mean nothing if no one wants to read them.
The dissertation phase is about pitching your ideas to your advisor, your committee, and, if you get lucky, fellowship committees.
So, get ready to sell!
It’s time to write the dissertation proposal: the truly condensed version of your dissertation. It’s short and sweet. Usually, it’s about five to ten pages. So, how do you write the proposal?
First off, this is one of those chicken or egg kind of questions. You have to enough to write the proposal. But you won’t know enough to write the whole dissertation. Generally, what you want to do in the dissertation proposal is to frame a question.
You need to be very bold here. Make arguments and assertions, the bolder the better. You also want to present a pretty clear outline of what you intend to do in the dissertation itself. Obviously, you’re in a weird situation here. You don’t know a lot. But you know some things. It’s best to err on the side of audacity. Make your arguments as bold as possible and as clear as possible.
You need to know the current state of your discipline quite well. That’s a given. And you have to announce to the world what you want to do. How are you going to be making a new intervention in the world of scholarship that you know well? That’s what people are going to want to know. What’s new and or exciting about what you want to write?
Start off with a one paragraph argument.
This first paragraph should state what your argument is and probably what you’re basing this argument on. Who are the major players in the field, and how is what you’re writing addressing gaps or problems in their work?
Then write your sub-arguments and conclusion.
Each paragraph that follows (and these can be huge, whopping big paragraphs) can list your sub-arguments. Then, after that, you have to propose a conclusion to what you’re writing.
The secret about a proposal
Would you like to know a little secret about the proposal?
It’s generally pure fiction. What you really write about in your dissertation may or may not conform to what you’re writing about here. That’s just the way things are in this world. But you absolutely do have to write this proposal.
You’ll submit it to your advisor and your committee members and everyone will sign off on it. And then you can get started. Now, you may or may not get full buy in from your committee. Generally what I found is that most of your committee members really won’t care one way or another about what you write. They’re too busy writing their own stuff. So, you can generally sneak your own writing in under their radar.
Score a Fellowship
Do a very good job on the proposal because it can serve as the basis of fellowship proposals. And, baby, you want a fellowship.
Why? Because if you get one of those puppies—anywhere between about twenty thousand dollars and fifty thousand dollars, you can have a very nice year. You can go wherever you want to write the dissertation. Imagine writing on a beach somewhere down in Mexico.
Fellowships are your friend. And they also mean that you don’t have to take time out to teach those pesky undergraduates unless you really want to. They can also set you up for being published, and they make you look like a good candidate for a job. So, do everything that you can to win yourself a dissertation fellowship.
OK, let’s say you’ve written a killer proposal. Your committee says, “My god, this is the next big thing.” And of course I knew you could do it. You edit the proposal slightly and win yourself a fellowship. You’re in like Flynn.
What do you do next? It’s not a bad idea to find a good dissertation editing service to be sure your proposal is well-edited before submitting it.
Then, you have to write the dissertation, of course—which we’ll start tackling the next installment.