When I was living in that dread land of ABD (all but dissertation), I could always spot what poor fools around me weren’t going to make it. If I had wanted to be punched in the face, I would have given them these five tips to help.
1. Have an Actual Opinion
You can gather all the data you want. You can survey 15,978 institutions with a 90% response rate. You can figure out how to interview your dead grandmother. If you don’t use it all to arrive at an actual opinion: It. Doesn’t. Matter. Even better, your opinion should be interesting. It should shed light on something unknown, promote a new idea, disprove a myth—something!
But you should at least have one.
2. Don’t Write Crap Just to Show You Did the Research
It’s been years since you’ve seen the sun. Your children don’t recognize you. In fact, you don’t remember having children. You just know you’ve been staring at your computer so long your eyelashes have cobwebs. Now you’re writing up the Literature Review section, and you’re going to make damn sure each and every book, article, blog post, and bubblegum wrapper you ever so much as looked at is going in there. No one will be able to deny your thoroughness, your pain, or your lost youth. And no one will care, either.
Showing your research should be part of your argument, such as showing there’s a real gap in the literature or demonstrating that your opinion is different from what’s come before. Anything irrelevant must go, even if the article in question were only acquired through an inter-library loan and buying your own microfiche machine.
3. Stop Repeating Yourself! (AKA, The “Argh!” Rule)
It doesn’t matter how many fancy words you’ve learned, how often you change your syntax and tone, or what lovely tables and charts you have. The reader can tell when they’re being told the same thing over and over.
Don’t believe me? Well, the audience for your paper is able to identify the recurrent appearance of the same content multiple times. Moreover, people notice when you repeat yourself!
Say it once, say it correctly, and move the hell on.
4. Write a Dissertation That Makes You a Good Hire
Oh, you found it fascinating that fruit fly genitalia can be counted more readily using the Accu-Scope 3088 Rechargeable LED Monocular Microscope than with the Labomed Sigma Monocular Microscope? Wow. And you wrote 2,432 pages on it? That’s major winner right there.
And now tell me just who you think wants to hire someone who spent a year of their life figuring that out? All that dissertation will get you is a job as a lab minion.
Pick something you can talk about at your interview that makes you sound smart and topical, cutting-edge and valuable. Or lets you fake it.
5. Don’t Plagiarize (AKA, The Dumbass Rule)
Most grad students have figured out by the time they’re doing the dissertation that they must cite even when they paraphrase, must put everything in quotes that’s not their own work, must slavishly follow the writing style down to the last comma in their references, and must refer at least twice to something their professor wrote if it’s even remotely on point.
But remember that the all-holy dissertation is supposed to show you can perform original thinking, or at the least create an original thought, however small.
Be absolutely certain that your whole idea doesn’t revolve around what someone else said. It can be inspired by it, or you can have the idea to disprove it, or you can expand on it in an original way. But if it’s really just a restatement of another’s work, someone on that panel of professors is going to all but kill themselves proving how superior they are to their peers by haughtily revealing that they already read your so-called opinion right here.
Seriously, in academia, it’s better to be new and pointless than incredible but repetitive.