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Five ways to tiptoe into your dissertation

If you’re contemplating a doctoral program in which a dissertation is required or you’re already registered and sneaking up on one—and you feel stumped (read: procrastinating)—here are five ways that should help you begin.

Your Dream

The dissertation is the crowning achievement for your degree. Having reached at least the threshold of the dissertation, congratulate yourself. You made it through all the prerequisites and courses, and you’re that much closer to the award of your degree. You’ve done it all because . . . . ? This is the time to remind yourself: How is this degree part of my life’s goals?

You’ve probably thought about this already, more or less clearly, and maybe even eloquently defended your choice to family and friends. So now, enunciate it again, with conviction and courage. Maybe you’ll refine it. (“So I can do research when I originally wanted to teach.” “So I can show other vets that it really is possible.”)
Keep reminding yourself of your Dream, daily. Visualize “DR.” in front of your name. Practice saying it. The more you remember your motivating reasons, the more they will help you not only start but keep going through the often rugged doctoral terrain.

Your Topic

A major catalyst for continuing the journey is your topic. You gotta like it and feel passionate about it. So, to ferret out your most exciting topic, some questions:

  • What were your childhood dreams? What play “professions” were your favorites?
  • Of your undergraduate and graduate course papers. which did you really like doing the work for? Which did you get As on? Which would you feel eager to expand?
  • What especially meaningful experiences have you had that you want to explore and know will make a difference?
  • What weaknesses or shortcomings have you noticed in your work environment or community? What do you strongly feel could be improved?
  • How could your topic be used in your dream job and professional life?

With your answers, you’ll be closer to the topic that means the most to you and sustains you. And you’ll be able to multiply from it as you fulfill your doctoral dream.

Type of Dissertation

Universities today offer different types of dissertations, depending on the school, concentrations, and specialties. Two major types are the research dissertation and the “applied” dissertation. The research dissertation focuses on a problem; an extensive review of literature; an experiment, controlled intervention, experiential interviews, or theory generation; and of course conclusions. A major goal of the research dissertation is to contribute to the literature in your field with new insights, critiques, and discoveries.

An applied dissertation may have any of these elements but is generally focused on a problem in your workplace or community, with your exploration uncovering one or more solutions “applied” to the problem. Make sure you can get permission to study the problem and that your proposed solution is feasible. In conjunction with your choice of topic, determine which of these to pursue.

In addition, some universities offer a choice of format and design. That is, you can elect the format of the traditional five chapters (Introduction, Review of the Literature, Methods, Results/Findings, Discussion/Conclusions) in one continuous book-like document. In other universities, you can choose instead a series of self-contained articles, sometimes called “collected papers.” Your articles often mimic the traditional chapters but with some important differences and are geared toward publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Whichever you choose, know that both formats have their challenges. The article format may seem “easier,” but nothing about a dissertation is easy (sorry). You may want to seek out recent graduates who have successfully completed one or the other and ask about minefields they encountered.

Your Dissertation Chair

Your chair, when you select one, may give you excellent advice about the format of your dissertation. This person is the gatekeeper to your degree, so choose your chair carefully. The chair can be a great help in many ways, even a friend . . . or a great deterrent. So, do your research:

  • Gather recommendations: from cohort members, previous advisees, current advisees, new doctors, faculty bios, the student grapevine. Whatever praising words others use, watch out for giveaways: hesitation about answering your questions, unenthusiastic tone, deprecating gesture.
  • Ask your informants questions: What were experiences with the prospective chair? Does the professor willingness give you time? Similar research interests? Respond to your emails and calls? Available for meetings? Critique and return your drafts relatively quickly? Reasonably “hard” in critiques (too easy is no favor)? Encourage and support you? Act professionally? Fight for you with other committee members?
  • Ask yourself questions: What is most important to me about this chair—attention, availability, response time, knowledge, support, guidance, kindness, respect for my opinions? How important to me is this person’s status—tenure, publications, editorships, connections?
  • Request interviews: With your list of important attributes, arrange interviews. Notice how easy or hard it is to get an interview–does the chair have time for you? How you feel entering the office (or face-to-Zoom-face)? How you feel greeting the professor? How easy it is to talk and be heard?
  • Ask yourself the most important question: Overall, how do I feel about this faculty member?

Suspend your intellect (the only time I’ll advise this). Acknowledge your emotions about this person, even if they seem to defy logic (“But he heads the Committee on Dissertation Disasters!”). Trust your intuition.

University Resources: You’ve Got More Friends Than You Think

In addition to your (well-chosen) chair and, later, members of your doctoral committee, many others in the university environment are available to help you through the dissertation jungles:

  • Fellow sufferers, er, students
  • Librarians
  • Learning center tutors
  • Computer techs
  • Media center staff
  • Statisticians and researchers
  • Secretaries (especially of the chair and committee)
  • Coaches and editors
  • Former course professors
  • Friends and acquaintances
  • Friends and colleagues who’ve been through it

Get acquainted, or reacquainted, with these people. Take a library tour, initiate a conversation with a media center staff member, poke around the websites, revive your friendship with that fellow student who, like you, barely made it through Statistics. These people want to help. They have much knowledge and often can offer creative solutions to your dissertation dilemmas. Just ask. And thank them sincerely.

When you take these initial steps, you will have a good grounding and support for this last major step toward your degree. You’ll actually be closer to starting to write your dissertation. And you may even look forward to it.

© 2020 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

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Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at