Conducting and writing a doctoral dissertation in the social sciences can be a challenging,
frustrating, exhausting, and exhilirating experience for even the most knowledgeable
and prepared student. Here are six tips, excerpted from
Surviving Your Dissertation, for making the journey a little smoother:
1. Choose your topic carefully.
Choosing a suitable topic is the first step. Since dissertations generally take longer than you imagine to complete, choose a topic that can sustain your interest over a lengthy period of time. Otherwise, you will lose your enthusiasm and come to abhor working on your project. At the same time, don't be grandiose and select too large or challenging of a topic. The purpose, after all, is to complete the dissertation and graduate. Finally, while being passionate about your topic is good, you need to have a topic about which you can be objective. Consequently, don't opt for something too emotionally close to your own life (such as the death of your child) or about which you have an axe to grind (such as the belief that men are no good!).
2. Choose a committee that offers skill, expertise, and emotional support.
Choosing the people with whom you will work on your dissertation may be as important as choosing your topic. If you can choose your chairperson, so much the better! In any case, choose the other committee members to provide balance. Try to design a committee that, together, offers skills and expertise in the various subareas of your proposed study. Expertise includes knowledge about the subject matter and knowledge about the method, but don't neglect having at least one committeee member who can be sensitive to your need for emotional support. Bring in people who can work together. Sometimes students will seek to avoid tough faculty who provide rigorous feedback and demand a quality product. That's usually not good advice, because you will eventually be confronted by someone who will identify the weaknesses of your dissertation. One learns through feedback, and managing negative feedback is an important life skill. Remember, no matter what the quality of your finished dissertation, it will probably eventually reside in the Library of Congress for your grandchildren to read!
3. Select a research method that suits your question.
Sometimes students pick their method prior to defining the problem. This is putting the cart before the horse. Let the topic determine the method, not the other way around. Moreover, think broadly in terms of available methods. There are other ways to obtain data beyond interviews and questionnaires. Interventions, behavioral observations, archival records, nonreactive measures, and validated scales are only some of the alternatives. Most graduate departments will allow a variety of methods and the task is to choose the one that best suits your research question.
4. Establish a solid context for your research.
Writing a good review of the literature is a significant step toward completing the dissertation. The key is to remember that the purpose of the literature review is not to prove to the reader that you are familiar with the literature and, thus, to include all of it in your review. Rather, the purpose is to marshal a conceptual argument which carries your reader to a logical conclusion. That conclusion is that your research question is worthy of study and that your proposal is exactly the next study that should be carried out in your field. In other words, the literature review provides a context for the study, why it is important and timely. The studies and data that you include must be evaluated critically rather than accepted at face value. In general, conceptually organized reviews are better than chronically organized ones. Most importantly, you need to stay at the center of the review, drawing upon relevant literature to forward your points rather than acceding to authority by quoting as many experts as possible. After all, when you complete your dissertation, you will be the acknowledged expert in this small slice of a larger area!
5. See an advisor or colleague if you are having difficulties writing.
Mastering your topic of inquiry and becoming adept at conducting a research study are not the only skills relevant to successfully completing a dissertation. One of the reasons there are so many ABD's (All But Dissertation) at major universities throughout the world is that some students fail to surmount predictable dissertation "blocks." These obstacles can be either emotional or task blocks. Emotional blocks range from the fear of completing one's studies and facing the world outside the university to the fear of upsetting a parent or spouse by achieving the rank of doctor, and include feelings of being an imposter or being inadequate to the challenge. Consulting with a counselor or discussing such fears with friends and colleagues is the antidote. Task blocks include problems with time management, the need for privacy, scheduling, reinforcement, and sharing your work with others. Most common, in our experience, are writing blocks, and if you do have difficulties in writing grammatically in a scholarly way, these problems are sure to show up in the dissertation. There are many resources available in the literature and through consultation to deal with these hurdles.
6. Familiarity with technical aids and resources will save you time.
Become computer literate. Those of us who wrote our dissertations prior to the advent of personal computers are amazed that we ever completed a dissertation! Now virtually everyone has access to a personal computer. But word processing is not enough. Learn about the available software for organizing text, compiling reference lists, maintaining data bases, conducting literature searches, and doing quantitative and qualitative analyses of data. Familiarity with technical aids and resources can save you considerable time and agony and significantly improve the appearance of your dissertation.
Kjell Erik Rudestam, Ph.D.
and Rae Newton, Ph.D.,
authors of Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process.
Published by Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA; available from
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