How to Write a Dissertation

The Nightmare Comes True – It is time to Write that Dissertation

You’ve known it was coming since the day you entered your Ph.D. program. Now the coursework is finished, and the next 12-18 months will be spent on that dissertation. Along with the research and writing, you may even be teaching a course or two or have another part-time job. Completing the dissertation will require lots of organization, motivation, and perseverance. These pointers and tips on how to write a dissertation could help.

The Research Question

You may or may not have already settled on a research question. If you have and it has been approved by your advisor, you are ready to roll. If not, you have some careful thought to give.

Start with a topic area of interest. This should be one that, as you completed your coursework, was something that perhaps you did some research on and had at least mild excitement about. Read more research in the area and identify a topic that you would either like to replicate, add to or possibly counter the research that has already been completed.

Develop your topic idea into a sound research question. Since you have already seen many research questions, this should not be difficult. Besides, you are going to get approval of your advisor before you do anything else.

Tip: Some advisors have their pet research areas and sometimes they will try to get their doctoral students to choose something in that area. Be firm. You don’t want to spend the next year researching and writing about something that doesn’t interest you. Talk about Hell-on-Earth – that would be it.

The Plan and Other Key Points

You already know how to structure a dissertation. You have probably read plenty of them, and you have your departmental guide. But there are important points to keep in mind as you go through this process.

  1. The Schedule
    One of the biggest mistakes that dissertation writers make is not sticking to schedule. You will develop a plan of sorts in your proposal – a timeline for completion - and you will set deadlines for completion of each chapter. But this is just the first step in understanding how to plan a dissertation.
  2. The Literature Review – Don’t Put it Off
    Your personal plan must be broken down into an almost daily plan. You may state that your literature review will be completed in three months, and you may be conducting it while you have already begun your research (most original research, including case studies is going on while you are still reviewing literature). This means that you are doing a bit of juggling.
    The important thing to remember is this: Don’t put off that literature review. You can get very caught up in your research – that’s the exciting part. But your lit review is the first thing you must get to your advisor, and it has to be done well. All of your references must be in order, your notes turned into an outline, and that chapter must be well-structured and contain all of the research that specifically relates to your research question. This is time-consuming and something you must do in a step-by-step sequence.
    Set aside time every day, at least five days a week to work on that literature review until it is finished. Here is the thing: there is a saying, “Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of toads before you find your prince charming.” And in the evaluation of research that you read, you will find many pieces that looked promising but are not. All of this takes time.
  3. The Research Design and Implementation
    You submitted your design with your proposal, so, other than a bit of tweaking, you know how you are going to conduct your research and the instruments you will be using.
    Be sure you know exactly how long it is going to take to complete your research. Some research is clearly defined in time. If, for example, you are doing a sociological research project, you may be interviewing your sample population on several occasions or holding group meetings with them. If you have scheduled all of this in advance, you know the timeline involved. Sometimes, research is a bit less structured or can hit snags that will slow it down. In the sociology example above, there may be re-scheduling requirements or additional sessions because participants are absent, ill, etc. But, at least begin according to your schedule.
  4. The Collation and Reporting of Data
    Don’t put this off too long after your research is completed. The problem is this: if you get too far away from the data collection in time, it is less fresh in your mind. You want to have a structure in place for plugging in that data and plenty of time to create the charts, tables and graphs that may be required. Nothing can be analyzed until that is done.
  5. The Analysis/Discussion
    If you are not a skilled statistician, get thee to one now. It’s not that you can’t find the right formulae to use; it’s not that you can’t crunch the numbers given today’s technology. But this analysis has to be both visual and in writing, and it has to make perfect sense to your advisor and committee. Mistakes in explaining your analysis and significances will mean back to re-write the chapter. Not pretty.
    What you need for this chapter is “clean, crisp, and complete.”
  6. The Composition Factor
    Ph.D. writing is, above all, scholarly. It is the most scholarly writing that humans do. If you have any concerns about your ability to write well, get some help. Need help with your writing is absolutely no reflection on your intelligence – only a minority of us are truly good writers.
    And if you do write it yourself, do not use yourself as an editor/proofreader. Pay someone if you must, but get an exceptional writer to edit your work.
Do and Don’t
  • Do choose a research question in which you are interested
  • Do set up a personal calendar for completing each section or chapter, broken down into smaller tasks
  • Do see your advisor regularly – they don’t like surprises, and, if they don’t like something, you will be re-writing
  • Do add some flexibility to your research timeline – there may be hiccups
  • Don’t choose a research question because someone else want you to choose it
  • Don’t put off that literature review – it may take longer than you think (Remember about kissing toads)
  • Take suggestions from your advisor and your committee – they will be giving final approval
  • Don’t give up your social life – you will be a very unhappy person if you do. You need to take breaks and be with friends and family.
This is Totally Doable

You may just be starting and looking at the mountain in front of you. But if you plan, keep to a schedule, stay in contact with your advisor, and get the help you need when you need it, you will obtain that coveted degree.

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