Struggling with your dissertation?

Dissertations are difficult things. There are multiple reasons why most folks don’t have one. Here are some words of wisdom that I’ve heard from others and now pass along to my own doctoral students…

  1. Big ideas are good but you’re not going to save the world with your dissertation. Scale it down. Bite off something manageable and doable and save the rest of it for future work – by yourself or others.
  2. Along those lines… the best dissertation is a done dissertation. Get it done. Put the ‘Dr.’ in front of your name. Celebrate yourself for completing a large, hopefully-worthwhile task. Move on with your life. Go do great things!
  3. Fake diplomaphoto © 2007 dkl | more info(via: Wylio)

  4. The key to the successful completion of a dissertation is to treat it like a regular course that you might take. Block off the time that you’d ordinarily take to a) drive to and from class, b) be in the class, and c) read and/or do outside work for the class and then make that time REGULAR AND INVIOLATE (to yourself, your family, your friends, your employer) just as you would a traditional course. Pretend you have face-to-face accountability even though you don’t. Otherwise too many more-immediate and less-amorphous events pop up and you’ll never, ever finish. The percentage of students who are ABD is appalling…
  5. Chunk it. The idea of writing a 150– to 250–page book is awfully intimidating. The idea of writing 2 pages is much more manageable. Set small, achievable goals for yourself (in the next hour I will write 2 paragraphs…; during this session I will find 5 new sources…).
  6. A dissertation always takes longer than you think it will. Get used to that idea now.
  7. Pick a topic that really interests YOU, not someone else (like your employer or your advisor), because no one’s with you at 1:00am on a Saturday night when you’re ready to tear your hair out. Pick something that hopefully will sustain you through the tough times.
  8. And, finally… I always tell my advisees that at some point in the process they will hate me. It all will be good in the end, but there will be moments when they curse my name. I’m okay with that: my job is to get them successfully past the entire committee.

What other words of wisdom do you have for educators working on their dissertations?

12 Responses to “Struggling with your dissertation?”

  1. Log everything you read using proper APA so your reference list doesn’t run away on you.

    Practise your “elevator pitch” with as many people who will listen. This will help you clarify your problem statement and thinking. No one knows your topic as well as you do, so frame your study concisely and convincingly.

    Lastly, don’t lose hope-YOU CAN DO IT!!!

  2. Years ago my Ph.D. adviser put things in perspective for me and other doctoral students by challenging each of us to put a $20 bill in the middle of our bound dissertation in MSU’s library, and then come back in 10 years to see if it was still there. Had I the money at the time I should have done it, I’d probably be $20 richer. 😉

  3. Vicki from Houston Reply November 9, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Thanks…I needed this…

  4. The best advice I received from my dissertation advisor was to slow down and enjoy the process reminding me that I would most likely never have the quality of time to engage in such work. How true!! I also appreciated the advice you offered in the blog, especially the practical advice to chunk the work. This has held me in good stead, be it completing a dissertation, authoring juried texts, or completing a book. The process remains similar. Although when I completed my dissertation, blogging was not happening, I would add keeping a blog to my list of dissertation help. I think a blog is a place to try out and refine ideas. In some ways it may function as journal notes did in the past. i also like that blogging keeps me writing on a fairly continuous basis. I see my blog as potential seed ideas for my next book.

  5. Also–write something every day. If you can’t, simply can’t write something one day, write the acknowledgments, the front page, organize the TOC and bibliography. That way, when you’re finished writing, the extraneous stuff is finished.

  6. The best advice I got, and the advice I pass on to others, is to choose your topic (at least a rough idea) at the beginning of your program. Every class you take is going to require you to write a paper. Find a way to fit your dissertation topic into the requirements for that paper. In doing so, every paper you write is feeding the dissertation.

  7. Scott … I indeed have a “Love/Hate” relationship with my dissertation and there have been nights that I have cursed my paper, but I swear I’ve never cursed my advisor. No. Never. 😉

  8. Dr. McLeod, thanks for posting this. I am at one of those points (building committee) where there seems to be so much to do. I think the chunking advice is the best. Take it as a series of small tasks and don’t worry about the mountain. Also, some advice I got from another prof: “at the end, make a list of what each page says. You may find that there are pages that don’t say much, and they can be revised or cut.”

  9. Your first two bits of advice are in my humble opinion, terrible.

    1) you’re not going to save the world with your dissertation.

    First of all, how about sticking to a goal that your work CONTRIBUTES TO KNOWLEDGE?

    That is itself serious business.

    2) the best dissertation is a done dissertation.

    I understand the sentiment, but not everyone should pursue or earn a doctorate. The work should be substantial and critically evaluated by experts.

    In the Internet-age, the dissertation no longer sits unopened on a library shelf. It can be read online by anyone. Do work that you can be proud of and defend for decades to come.

    Whenever I had a meeting with my kids’ school administrators, I’d familiarize myself with their dissertation (if they had an Ed.D. – most didn’t have a Ph.D.). That allowed me to find commonground OR frame my arguments in terms of their published views.

    I’d recommend that education doctoral students not merely write a new study of studies (or the ghastly Delphi-based survey dissertations) and actually try to make the world a better place for people to learn.

  10. PS: My supervisor, a previous friend, and I no longer speak since I earned my Ph.D. The unprofessionalism and superstition I was forced to endure ended that relationship.

    The changes I was required to make (including the elminiation of 20,000+ words) and voice of the children I worked with have made me reluctant to share my dissertation, although I will soon.

    That said, I am enormously proud of my research. It changed my life. I think it had a profound impact on the kids I worked with and it documents Seymour Papert’s last institutional research project.

  11. Scott,
    I appreciate your post. I looked at your advice differently than Gary. Your first piece of advise about narrowing your topic is quite good if you look at it from the standpoint that your dissertation needs to be narrow, focused, and lack generalizations. The idea that your paper is going to somehow change the scope in which people view education on a large scale is unrealistic. Pick a defined topic that is applicable to your situation and interests and run with it. Of course, I think application is more valuable than theory, but that is a debate for a different day.
    In regards to your second piece of advice, I looked at it as the journey has been a long one. We have spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in a doctoral program, so get the job done. It doesn’t mean that you should go through the motions and do it to simply check it off the list, rather show off all your hard work in the paper and finish the journey.
    Your posting serves as some motivation for me since I am in the process of getting a chairperson and committee assigned to me and will be working on my paper for the next year or more. Thanks.

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