How to write a dissertation

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You know it’s been coming. And you’ve thought about it off and on for a while. But now you are in your final semester of coursework and your advisor is pushing you for your research question. S/he may even be suggesting some.

You will be looking at 12-18 months of work on this project, and you will probably be teaching a course or two as well. Combine that with any other part-time jog you may have and/or family obligations, and you may not be looking forward to this next journey in your life.

Take heart. Here is some information you may find valuable on how to write a dissertation. Some, of course, you may already know, but there are some tips thrown in that may make things less painful.

Finding a Topic That Best Represents You
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    Getting to that Research Question. If you have not yet settled on a research question, you will want to start now, before you have finished the last of your coursework. Why? Because, it may take some time to develop and get approved.

    Your first step is to determine the topic area within your field that you are most interested in. Nothing is worse than taking someone else’s advice on this or picking an area because your advisor likes it. You may gain a few brownie points by choosing a topic that either your advisor or a committee member wants, but you will pay dearly when your research becomes drudgery because you really don’t like it.

    Once you have a broad topic area, so some initial research – you probably have already done this but go back and review it. What you are looking for is something that piques your interest – a study you would like to replicate, add to, or call into question. From this you will be able to develop a research question.

    How do you fashion a research question? Read a bunch of them from otherer studies in your field, and model those examples as you refine yours. When you take it to our advisor, s/he will either approve it or make some suggestions. Ultimately, you will have one that both you and your advisor approve.

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    That Research Proposal. Hurdle #1. And it can be a pretty tall one. Lots of dissertation proposals are rejected the first and even second time. The problem is that every committee member is an individual with individual agendas. They can be pretty “nit-picky.” Smile and try to go with it – so long as they are not trying to re-make your research. The goal is to get that approval and if minor changes have to be made, just do it.

    Your proposal will do four things – it will state your research question and justify its importance; it will demonstrate that you have done some initial research; it will summarize your research design and methodology; and it will establish a timeline for you to complete the project. It sort of serves as your road map for moving forward.

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    Mapping out the Plan. You have already determined a timeline. Now it is time to break that down into smaller chunks and set a schedule for yourself. One of the most important parts of getting this thing completed is know how to plan a dissertation. And that plan has to begin with a calendared schedule. Many students set up their calendars digitally, and this can be a great thing, if that also includes alerts and reminders. Others find that they are better off with a giant calendar on the wall of their work space so they can see the whole picture before them. There is also something rewarding about crossing things off as they are accomplished. The first task will be that literature review.

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    The Literature Review – Start Early. This is the least exciting part of a dissertation, and it can also be frustrating. You will be reading lots of research abstracts that seem to be really relevant to your research, only to find out that when you actually get into that research, not so much. You will be surprised how long it will actually take to get the right research studies to cite in your literature review. And then there is thee writing it all up into a coherent, logically flowing chapter.

    One of the things that you can do to make this work less tedious is to actually begin your own research while you are working on the literature review. This is common, because some studies can take months to complete. If you have your instruments, get started asap.

    But do set aside time at least five days a week to spend on that literature review. The sooner you get it finished, over to your advisor, and approved, you have a huge burden off your shoulders.

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    The Methodology. You’re fully aware of how to structure a dissertation methodology chapter – it’s not really rocket science. Your design was already approved, and probably your instruments as well. You have your populations define. It’s now a matter of implementing what you said you were going to do.

    The key here will be your data collection. Keep it well organized, because when it comes to reporting it all, you don’t want to be tearing through pages to find what you need. The better organized you are with the data as you collect it, the easier it will be to write this chapter.

    Expect hiccups. The implementation may take longer than you originally scheduled; if you are using human samplings, there are always delays due to losing some or illnesses, emergencies, etc. Just make your sampling large enough so that if some are lost, your study will still have a large enough population to determine significance of results.

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    Plug Data in as You Get It. This is the easiest way to prevent losing anything or getting too far away from the collection points. And it will be far easier to develop those charts, graphs, etc. as well as to write the prose portion of your reporting.

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    The Analysis and Discussion. So, technology has made your job far simpler than generations before you. But you still have to pick the right formulae and you still have to plug those numbers in correctly. This is the chapter for which most dissertation writers get some help. There is nothing shameful about getting that help either. Not all of us are skilled statisticians, and this chapter is just too important. It is really the “meat” of your research, and it has to be perfectly and logically reported and displayed.

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    The Writing. Above all else, a dissertation is a very formal document. The writing must be scholarly and grammatically perfect. If you need help, get it. If you write it yourself, get a scholar to review and edit it. You are just too “close” to find structural or grammatical errors that can mean rejection and re-writes.

    Your introduction and conclusion are just as important as the rest of your piece. And the conclusion is especially important – it is where you answer your question, point to the significance of your study, identify any constraints, and make recommendations for further study by others.

Points to Think About
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    Get the research done as soon as possible – it is tedious and the least exciting aspect of your work.

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    Your design is critical. If you are not using previously validated instruments, be certain that you have carefully constructed what you are using. Every element of any instrument you use must relate directly to your research question

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    You may need help with graphical depiction of your results. Get the right tools or find someone who has expertise. These should not be sloppy

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    Department guidelines are there for a reason. Follow them precisely.

Do and Don`t
Do
  • Craft your research question carefully and succinctly, and make sure that it is something you have large interest in.
  • Keep yourself organized with a calendar – set small deadlines along the way
  • Check in with your advisor often. That relationship is important
  • Build some flexibility into your calendar – there will be “potholes.”
Don't
  • Don’t ignore your physical needs – sleep, good diet, and exercise. These will keep you mentally alert.
  • Don’t succumb to what others think you should be researching. You choose your research topic.
  • Don’t ignore suggestions that your advisor and/or committee members might make. At least acknowledge them, even if you don’t take them.
  • Don’t give up activities with friends and family. You cannot become an island and still stay positive and motivated.
Mistakes to Avoid
  • One of the biggest mistakes dissertation writers make is thinking that they can edit their own work. Get a skilled colleague or a professional editor to review your work.
  • Don’t ignore constraints and nuisance factors. Address them in your conclusion. If you do not, committee members will, and you will be facing a re-write.
  • You may think that current technology will take care of your lack of statistical analysis skills. This technology can only work with the information you plug in. Get a statistician to at least check your work.
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