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Disarming a Dissertation: Essential Advice for Success

Disarming a Dissertation: Essential Advice for Success

by Tyler Sheppard
May 15, 2017

So, now it has come to the dreaded D word (dissertation) of your doctoral degree, and you have started to lose sleep, procrastinate and lose your hair. Don’t worry, you are not alone. When I first started my dissertation I felt like I needed some intense therapy, because I had no idea what I was doing and had no clue of how I was even going to get to the end point. Up until that point in my academic tenure, I had always just read the directions to an assignment, completed the assignment, turned it in, and was done. I really did not give it another thought, because I knew after that point I would not have to mess with it anymore. Well… you see, the dissertation is quite the opposite and unfortunately it took me a while to realize this. The moment that I had this epiphany was when I titled a document for my chair to review as Revision_24_Chair_Review. At that point, I took a new approach and began to churn away at this beast of a document. Below, is a list of helpful advice that I wish I would have had from the beginning in order to accomplish this beast that you will hopefully see in a Google Scholar search one day.

Print all guidance documents - This is really one of the first things that you should do, so you can better understand the mountain you are climbing. Once you print this out, you will want to review it over and over again. You should become intimately familiar with each and every task that your school requires in order for you to get to the finish line. I took this a bit further and even tabbed each task/milestone that I was required to complete, and as I accomplished the task, I removed the tab. Additionally, becoming intimately familiar with these documents will also help you advocate for yourself. If you are unable to advocate for yourself, you will begin to become stagnant and eventually lose all steam.

Treat it as a job - I really cannot stress this one enough, if you plan on finishing in a timely manner. If you do not schedule the time, it will all fade away. When I was completing my dissertation, I took a calendar and wrote out my time devoted to dissertation writing. This was time that I specifically set aside for writing my dissertation; it was separate from reading new articles or studying up on my methodology. I would schedule from 3:30AM to 7:30AM Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when I was working on the initial version of my proposal and dissertation, and I would even schedule down to the very specific task or section I was working on. I know this is really an insane time to do something, but it is what worked for me and my life (I have three kids, a wife and two jobs). Truly, the key here, as with a true paying job, is make sure that this time is uninterrupted and is meaningful. It’s not an escape, it’s work!

Utilize down time - Yes, I know, it’s down time, but you currently don’t have time for that…… unless it’s scheduled. By this, I mean, if you are getting your oil changed, take your tablet or laptop with you and sit in the waiting room reading the latest research on whatever piece you are working on. With technology now, you can even quickly jot down notes and save articles to “The Cloud” or other preferred storage. Once you start thinking about it, there really is a lot of lag time in our days that we can easily fill with an article or two. I used to schedule time to Google like a mad man and would save articles that had anything to do with my topic to my Google Drive. When I saved them, I would title them with a key word to indicate the section it would go in and the number of pages of the article. By knowing how many pages each article was, I could then gauge how long it would take to completely read the entire article. This way I knew if I had 10 minutes, I could get in that three or four page article and if I was in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, I could get in an entire dissertation or two.

Find outlets, accountability partners - This is really a great piece of advice that I truly feel is essential to getting you through the thick and thin. By accountability partner, I mean someone that has been through the process. My wife has stuck with me through the entire process and pushed me to continue, but she has not experienced the unique experience of a dissertation. Therefore, when I would gripe about something or celebrate a milestone, she would be proud or supportive, but she really did not understand what I was truly experiencing. When I finally connected with a few people that were going through the same process at the same time, my attitude changed completely. Every time I got feedback from a reviewer, I would call that person and either vent or celebrate, and they would tell me to get over it, support me or jump up and down with me. I can’t tell you how many times I reached out to various people in search of affirmation or just really a kick in the butt. Another plus of having this partner, was that we pushed each other to remain motivated and dedicated to our cause which pushed us to finish in a timely manner. In addition to my accountability partner, I was able to connect with a Facebook group that was all students working on their dissertation in my particular school. This group was, and still is, extremely supportive of any advancement in the program and is a great place to pose questions relating to methodology, formatting or even school requirements.

Establish a POSITIVE relationship with Chairperson - I really cannot stress this piece enough. In the program that I went through, I was only able to choose my content expert. My chair and methodologist were assigned to me. With this assignment, you are left to the luck of the draw. Luckily, I received a chair that really enjoyed her job and was willing to help out wherever was needed. With that being said, I still Googled the heck out of this person since I did not know one single thing about her. I read her dissertation and the articles that she published. I also sent her a biography about me, my goals and expected timelines and asked for what she was specifically looking for from me. This really helped lay the groundwork for a very open, positive, and effective working relationship. With a positive relationship, your chair is going to be more willing to argue with various other reviewers over different aspects of your work.

Work with an editor / Writing Center - It was recommended that I find an editor to help along the way, and I really kind of went back and forth with this idea. Now looking back, I should have secured an editor. This would have saved me a lot of additional time. In many schools, a committee does not need to comment on grammatical issues that may arise because scholarly writing is an expectation. So, you can be trucking along thinking everything is okay and then, all of a sudden, you are stopped in your tracks. Perhaps, your sentence has lost its original meaning or, because of the multiple revisions you have conflicting information in a section that you cannot catch because of your own familiarity of the material. Having an editor will help catch these types of problems before they become an issue.

Understand your gap, methodology and literature - This really should go without saying but by understanding, I mean go back to the conception of each piece of your research. Be able to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that you know and can defend your decisions for each and every piece of your dissertation. You should know your methodology so well, that you can tell the citation for at least five articles regarding its beginnings. This is the same for your gap. I studied test anxiety in the school setting, and I can tell you the exact moment when testing to determine worth started, where it started, how it made its way to America and the steps it took to get to where we are now in the Texas school setting. It really is a lot, but it helps in the long run.

Follow schools exact structure and rubrics - When writing each and every little section, you should take the schools rubrics and ensure that the section only has what is required in it. There should not be any fluff. One of the struggles I had was that I felt like I was repeating myself over and over again in the writing process, because three sections before I had stated the same thing. So, I started to just put in what was asked and not try to add additional detail to further explain. It seems like every time I further explained, I was asked for that information in the next section. Don’t waste your time with fluff!

Read other dissertations - This really is something that you should start as soon as possible if you have not already done so. Read as many dissertations as you can to understand the format and requirements of each and every chapter. I would specifically look in ProQuest at dissertations had my methodology and that were associated with my school. Near the end, I started looking for dissertations which had my chair and methodologist as committee members. This will help you to become infinitely more familiar with the process as well as help locate articles that you may have missed.

Cite, Cite, Cite!!! - Remember, that any thought, action, or sentence must be cited. Think of it as a rite of passage. That you have done your due diligence in being able to call yourself doctor. In the proposal section, it is just best to say that you are not allowed to have an original thought. Everything that is written must have research to prove it. I think this part is where you start to learn the importance of establishing a research method that is proven and is actually going to add to the existing body of knowledge. After all, what is the sense of spending all of that time to repeat what is already known?

Self-Care - This is extremely important, as it helps to prevent burnout and defeat. If you do not have a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and even mental preparation, you might as well hang your hat now. A lack of balance and care is more likely to experience defeat, despair, and the overwhelming feeling of desperation which will severely impact the overall output. Putting in this little bit of preventative maintenance will allow for variations and surprises along the way that you may not have prepared for.

In summation, you should know, that even the smoothest running dissertation will not be easy, but entering the field with preparation will definitely give a better blueprint on how to approach this unique situation. Now that I look at the process from the Phinally Done point of view, I appreciate and respect the entire process and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my program and diploma have value and it has promoted a whole new level of respect for anyone with any various set of letters behind their name.