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Researching and Writing a Dissertation or Thesis
For completing an M- or D-, please see: Dissertation Requirements
This guide has been created to assist graduate students in thinking through the many aspects of crafting, implementing and defending a dissertation or thesis. It is an attempt to share some of the many ideas that have surfaced over the past few years that definitely make the task of finishing a graduate degree so much easier.
Usually a guide of this nature focuses on the actual implementation of the research. This is not the focus of this guide. Instead of examining such aspects as identifying appropriate sample size, field testing the instrument and selecting appropriate statistical tests, this guide looks at many of the quasi-political aspects of the process. Such topics as how to select a supportive committee, making a compelling presentation of your research objectives and strategies for actually getting the paper written are discussed.
Of course, many of the ideas that are presented can be used successfully by other graduate students studying under the guidance of different advisers and from various disciplines. However, the use of this guide carries no guarantee – implied or otherwise. When in doubt check with your adviser. Probably the best advice to start with is the idea of not trying to do your research entirely by yourself. Do it in conjunction with your adviser. Seek out his/her input and assistance. Stay in touch with your adviser so that both of you know what's happening. There's a much better chance of getting to the end of your project and with a smile on your face.
With this in mind, enjoy the guide. I hope it will help you finish your post-graduate degree in good shape. Enjoy your researching!
(NOTE: Periodically I receive requests for information on how to prepare a "thesis statement" rather than actually writing a thesis/dissertation. How To Write a Thesis Statement (http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/wts/thesis.html) is an excellent website that clearly sets forth what a "thesis statement" is and how to actually prepare one.)
Summary of Key Ideas in this Guide
The Thinking About It Stage
Preparing The Proposal
Writing the Thesis or Dissertation
The Thesis/Dissertation Defence
The "Thinking about it" Stage
The "thinking about it stage" is when you are finally faced with the reality of completing your degree. Usually the early phases of a graduate program proceed in clear and very structured ways. The beginning phases of a graduate program proceed in much the same manner as an undergraduate degree program. There are clear requirements and expectations, and the graduate student moves along, step by step, getting ever closer to the completion of the program. One day, however, the clear structure begins to diminish and now you're approaching the thesis/dissertation stage. This is a new and different time. These next steps are more and more defined by you and not your adviser, the program, or the department.
1. Be inclusive with your thinking. Don't try to eliminate ideas too quickly. Build on your ideas and see how many different research projects you can identify. Give yourself the luxury of being expansive in your thinking at this stage -- you won't be able to do this later on. Try and be creative.
2. Write down your ideas. This will allow you to revisit an idea later on. Or, you can modify and change an idea. If you don't write your ideas they tend to be in a continual state of change and you will probably have the feeling that you're not going anywhere. What a great feeling it is to be able to sit down and scan the many ideas you have been thinking about, if they're written down.
3. Try not to be overly influenced at this time by what you feel others expect from you (your colleagues, your profession, your academic department, etc.). You have a much better chance of selecting a topic that will be really of interest to you if it is your topic. This will be one of the few opportunities you may have in your professional life to focus in on a research topic that is really of your own choosing.
4. Don't begin your thinking by assuming that your research will draw international attention to you!! Instead, be realistic in setting your goal. Make sure your expectations are tempered by:
If you can keep these ideas in mind while you're thinking through your research you stand an excellent chance of having your research project turn out well.
5. Be realistic about the time that you're willing to commit to your research project. If it's a 10 year project that you're thinking about, admit it at the beginning and then decide whether or not you have 10 years to give to it. If the project you'd like to do is going to demand more time than you're willing to commit then you have a problem.
It may be still early in your thinking but it's never too early to create a draft of a timeline. Try using the 6 Stages (see the next item) and put a start and a finish time for each. Display your timeline in a conspicuous place (above your computer monitor?) so that it continually reminds you of how you're doing. Periodically update your timeline with new dates as needed. (Thanks to a website visitor from Philadelphia for sharing this idea.)
6. If you're going to ask for a leave of absence from your job while you're working on your research this isn't a good time to do it. Chances are you can do the "thinking about it" stage without a leave of absence. Assuming that there are six major phases that you will have during your research project, probably the best time to get the most from a leave of absence is during the fourth stage* – the writing stage. This is the time when you really need to be thinking well. To be able to work at your writing in large blocks of time without interruptions is something really important. A leave of absence from your job can allow this to happen. A leave of absence from your job prior to this stage may not be a very efficient use of the valuable time away from your work.
7. It can be most helpful at this early stage to try a very small preliminary research study to test out some of your ideas to help you gain further confidence in what you'd like to do. The study can be as simple as conducting half a dozen informal interviews with no attempt to document what is said. The key is that it will give you a chance to get closer to your research and to test out whether or not you really are interested in the topic. And, you can do it before you have committed yourself to doing something you may not like. Take your time and try it first.
Preparing the Proposal
Assuming you've done a good job of "thinking about" your research project, you're ready to actually prepare the proposal. A word of caution – those students who tend to have a problem in coming up with a viable proposal often are the ones that have tried to rush through the "thinking about it" part and move too quickly to trying to write the proposal. Here's a final check. Do each of these statements describe you? If they do, you're ready to prepare your research proposal.
Okay, you're ready to write your research proposal. Here are some ideas to help with the task:
8. Read through someone else's research proposal. Very often a real stumbling block is that we don't have an image in our mind of what the finished research proposal should look like. How has the other proposal been organized? What are the headings that have been used? Does the other proposal seem clear? Does it seem to suggest that the writer knows the subject area? Can I model my proposal after one of the ones that I've seen? If you can't readily find a proposal or two to look at, ask your adviser to see some. Chances are your adviser has a file drawer filled with them.
9. Make sure your proposal has a comprehensive review of the literature included. Now this idea, at first thought, may not seem to make sense. Many students tell their adviser that "This is only the proposal. I'll do a complete literature search for the dissertation. I don't want to waste the time now." But, this is the time to do it. The rationale behind the literature review consists of an argument with two lines of analysis:
10. With the ready availability of photocopy machines you should be able to bypass many of the hardships that previous dissertation researchers had to deal with in developing their literature review. When you read something that is important to your study, photocopy the relevant article or section. Keep your photocopies organized according to categories and sections. And, most importantly, photocopy the bibliographic citation so that you can easily reference the material in your bibliography. Then, when you decide to sit down and actually write the literature review, bring out your photocopied sections, put them into logical and sequential order, and then begin your writing.
11. What is a proposal anyway? A good proposal should consist of the first three chapters of the dissertation.
Of course, it should be written in a future tense since it is a proposal. To turn a good proposal into the first three chapters of the dissertation consists of changing the tense from future tense to past tense (from "This is what I would like to do" to "This is what I did") and making any changes based on the way you actually carried out the research when compared to how you proposed to do it. Often the intentions we state in our proposal turn out different in reality and we then have to make appropriate editorial changes to move it from proposal to dissertation.
12. Focus your research very specifically. Don't try to have your research cover too broad an area. Now you may think that this will distort what you want to do. This may be the case, but you will be able to do the project if it is narrowly defined. Usually a broadly defined project is not do-able. By defining too broadly it may sound better to you, but there is a great chance that it will be unmanageable as a research project. When you complete your research project it is important that you have something specific and definitive to say. This can be accommodated and enhanced by narrowly defining your project. Otherwise you may have only broadly based things to say about large areas that really provide little guidance to others that may follow you. Often the researcher finds that what he/she originally thought to be a good research project turns out to really be a group of research projects. Do one project for your dissertation and save the other projects for later in your career when you perhaps want to write a doctoral thesis. Don't try to solve all of the problems in this one research project.
13. Include a title on your proposal. I'm amazed at how often the title is left for the end of the student's writing and then somehow forgotten when the proposal is prepared for the committee. A good proposal has a good title and it is the first thing to help the reader begin to understand the nature of your work. Use it wisely! Work on your title early in the process and revisit it often. It's easy for a reader to identify those proposals where the title has been focused upon by the student. Preparing a good title means:
14. It's important that your research proposal be organized around a set of questions that will guide your research. When selecting these guiding questions try to write them so that they frame your research and put it into perspective with other research. These questions must serve to establish the link between your research and other research that has preceded you. Your research questions should clearly show the relationship of your research to your field of study. Don't be carried away at this point and make your questions too narrow. You must start with broad relational questions.
15. Now here are a few more ideas regarding the defining of your research project through your proposal.
16. Selecting and preparing your advisory committee to respond to your proposal should not be taken lightly. If you do your "homework" well your advisory committee can be most helpful to you. Try these ideas:
Writing the Dissertation or Thesis
Now this is the part we've been waiting for. We assume that you:
If you've done the first steps well, this part shouldn't be too bad. In fact it might even be enjoyable!
17. The major myth in writing a dissertation is that you start writing at Chapter One and then finish your writing at Chapter Five. This is seldom the case. The most productive approach in writing the dissertation is to begin writing those parts of the dissertation that you are most comfortable with. Then move about in your writing by completing various sections as you think of them. At some point you will be able to spread out in front of you all of the sections that you have written. You will be able to sequence them in the best order and then see what is missing and should be added to the dissertation. This way seems to make sense and builds on those aspects of your study that are of most interest to you at any particular time. Go with what interests you, start your writing there, and then keep building!
(David Kraenzel – North Dakota State University – wrote in describing the "A to Z Method". Look at the first section of your paper. When you are ready go ahead and write it. If you are not ready, move section-by-section through your paper until you find a section where you have some input to make. Make your input and continue moving through the entire paper – from A to Z – writing and adding to those sections for which you have some input. Each time you work on your paper follow the same A to Z process. This will help you visualize the end product of your efforts from very early in your writing and each time you work on your paper you will be building the entire paper – from A to Z. Thanks David!)
18. If you prepared a comprehensive proposal you will now be rewarded! Pull out the proposal and begin by checking your proposed research methodology. Change the tense from future tense to past tense and then make any additions or changes so that the methodology section truly reflects what you did. You have now been able to change sections from the proposal to sections for the dissertation. Move on to the Statement of the Problem and the Literature Review in the same manner.
19. We must assume you're using some form of word processing on a computer to write your dissertation. (if you aren't, you've missed a major part of your masters or doctoral preparation!) If your study has specific names of people, institutions and places that must be changed to provide anonymity don't do it too soon. Go ahead and write your dissertation using the real names. Then at the end of the writing stage you can easily have the computer make all of the appropriate name substitutions. If you make these substitutions too early it can really confuse your writing.
20. As you get involved in the actual writing of your dissertation you will find that conservation of paper will begin to fade away as a concern. Just as soon as you print a draft of a chapter there will appear a variety of needed changes and before you know it another draft will be printed. And, it seems almost impossible to throw away any of the drafts! After awhile it will become extremely difficult to remember which draft of your chapter you may be looking at. Print each draft of your dissertation on a different colour paper or change the paper header on each page to include the draft number. With the different colours of paper it will be easy to see which is the latest draft and you can quickly see which draft a committee member might be reading. (Thanks to Michelle O'Malley for sharing this idea.)
21. The one area where I would caution you about using a word processor is in the creation of elaborate graphs or tables. I've seen too many students spend too many hours in trying to use their word processor to create a graph that could have been done by hand in 15 minutes. So, the simple rule is to use hand drawing for elaborate tables and graphs for the draft of your dissertation. Make sure your committee can clearly understand your graph, but don't waste the time trying to make it perfect. After you have defended your dissertation, it is the time to prepare the "perfect" looking graphs and tables.
22. Dissertation-style writing is not designed to be entertaining. Dissertation writing should be clear and unambiguous. To do this well you should prepare a list of key words that are important to your research and then your writing should use this set of key words throughout. There is nothing so frustrating to a reader as a manuscript that keeps using alternate words to mean the same thing. If you've decided that a key phrase for your research is "educational workshop", then do not try substituting other phrases like "in-service program", "learning workshop", "educational institute", or "educational program." Always stay with the same phrase – "educational workshop." It will be very clear to the reader exactly what you are referring to if you include a defenition of your key words.
23. Review two or three well organized and presented dissertations. Examine their use of headings, overall style, typeface and organization. Use them as a model for the preparation of your own dissertation. In this way you will have an idea at the beginning of your writing what your finished dissertation will look like. A most helpful perspective!
24. A simple rule – if you are presenting information in the form of a table or graph make sure you introduce the table or graph in your text. And then, following the insertion of the table/graph, make sure you discuss it. If there is nothing to discuss then you may want to question even inserting it.
25. Another simple rule – if you have a whole series of very similar tables try to use similar words in describing each. Don't try and be creative and entertaining with your writing. If each introduction and discussion of the similar tables uses very similar wording, then the reader can easily spot the differences in each table.
26. We are all familiar with how helpful the Table of Contents is to the reader. What we sometimes don't realize is that it is also invaluable to the writer. Use the Table of Contents to help you improve your manuscript. Use it to see if you've left something out, if you are presenting your sections in the most logical order, or if you need to make your wording a bit more clear. Thanks to the miracle of computer technology, you can easily copy/paste each of your headings from throughout your writing into the Table of Contents. Then sit back and see if the Table of Contents is clear and will make good sense to the reader. You will be amazed at how easy it will be to see areas that may need some more attention. Don't wait until the end to do your Table of Contents. Do it early enough so you can benefit from the information it will provide you.
27. If you are including a Conclusions/Implications section in your dissertation make sure you really present conclusions and implications. Often the writer uses the conclusions/implications section to merely restate the research findings. Don't waste my time. I've already read the findings and now, at the Conclusion/Implication section, I want you to help me understand what it all means. This is a key section of the dissertation and is sometimes best done after you've had a few days to step away from your research and allow yourself to put your research into perspective. If you do this you will no doubt be able to draw a variety of insights that helps to link your research to other areas. I usually think of conclusions/implications as the "So what" statements. In other words, what are the key ideas that we can draw from your study in order to apply them to other areas of concern.
28. Potentially the silliest part of the dissertation is the Suggestions for Further Research section. This section is usually written at the very end of your writing project and little energy is left to make it very meaningful. The biggest problem with this section is that the suggestions are often ones that could have been made prior to you conducting your research. Read and reread this section until you are sure that you have made suggestions that emanate from your experiences in conducting the research and the findings that you have evolved. Make sure that your suggestions for further research serve to link your project with other projects in the future and provide a further opportunity for the reader to better understand what you have done.
29. Now it's time to write the last chapter. But which chapter is the last one? My perception is that the last chapter should be the first chapter. I don't really mean this in the literal sense. Certainly you wrote Chapter One at the beginning of this whole process. Now, at the end, it's time to "rewrite" Chapter One. After you've had a chance to write your dissertation all the way to the end, the last thing you must do is turn back to Chapter One. Reread Chapter One carefully with the insight you now have from having completed Chapter Five. Does Chapter One clearly help the reader to move in the direction of Chapter Five? Are important concepts that will be necessary for understanding Chapter Five presented in Chapter One?
The Dissertation/Thesis Defence
What a terrible name – a dissertation defence (meeting). It seems to suggest some sort of war that you're trying to win. And, of course, with four or five of them and only one of you it sounds like they may have won the war before the first battle is held. I wish they had called it a dissertation seminar or professional symposium. I think the name would have brought forward a much better picture of what should be expected at this meeting.
Regardless of what the meeting is called, try to remember that the purpose of the meeting is for you to show everyone how well you have done in the conducting of your research study and the preparation of your dissertation. In addition there should be a seminar atmosphere where the exchange of ideas is valued. You are clearly the most knowledgeable person at this meeting when it comes to your subject. And, the members of your committee are there to hear from you and to help you to better understand the very research that you have invested so much of yourself in for the past months. Their purpose is to help you to finish your degree requirements. Of course, other agenda often creep in. If that happens, try to stay on course and redirect the meeting to your agenda.
The following ideas should help you to keep the meeting on your agenda.
30. The most obvious suggestion is the one seldom followed. Try to attend one or more defences prior to yours. Find out which other students are defending their research and ask if you may sit in on their defence. In many departments this is expected of all graduate students. If this is not the case for you, check with your adviser to see that you can get an invitation to attend some defences.
At the defence try and keep your focus on the interactions that occur:
You can learn a lot from sitting in on such a meeting.
31. Find opportunities to discuss your research with your friends and colleagues:
32. I hope you don't try circulating chapters of your dissertation to your committee members as you are writing them. I find this practice to be most annoying and one that creates considerable problems for the student. You must work closely with your dissertation director. He/she is the person you want to please. Develop a strategy with the dissertation director regarding how and when your writing should be shared. Only after your dissertation director approves of what you have done should you attempt to share it with the rest of the committee. And by then it's time for the defence. If you prematurely share sections of your writing with committee members you will probably find yourself in a situation where one committee member tells you to do one thing and another member says to do something else. What should you do? The best answer is not to get yourself into such a predicament. The committee meeting (the defence) allows the concerns of committee members to surface in a dialogical atmosphere where opposing views can be discussed and resolved.
33. It's important that you have the feeling when entering your defence that you aren't doing it alone. As was mentioned earlier, your major professor should be seen as an ally to you and "in your corner" at the defence. Don't forget, if you embarrass yourself at the defence you will also be embarrassing your dissertation director. So, give both of you a chance to guarantee there is no embarrassment. Meet together ahead of time and discuss the strategy you should use at the defence. Identify any possible problems that may occur and discuss ways that they should be dealt with. Try and make the defence more of a team effort.
34. Don't be defensive at your defence (this sounds confusing!). This is easy to say but sometimes hard to fulfill. You've just spent a considerable amount of time on your research and there is a strong tendency for YOU to want to defend everything you've done. However, the committee members bring a new perspective and may have some very good thoughts to share. Probably the easiest way to deal with new input is to say something like "Thank you so much for your idea. I will be giving it a lot of consideration." There, you've managed to diffuse a potentially explosive situation and not backed yourself or the committee member into a corner. Plus, you've not promised anything. Try and be politically astute at this time. Don't forget that your ultimate goal is to successfully complete your degree.
35. Probably the most disorganized defence I've attended is the one where the dissertation director began the meeting by saying, "You've all read the dissertation. What questions do you have for the student?" What a mess. Questions started to be asked that bounced the student around from one part of the dissertation to another. There was no form of order and the meeting almost lost control due to its lack of organization. At that time I vowed to protect my students from falling into such a trap by helping them organize the defence as an educational presentation.
Here's what we do:
I ask the student to prepare a 20-25 minute presentation that reviews the entire study. This is done through the help of a series of 10-12 large pieces of paper, wall charts, that have been posted sequentially around the walls of the room. Each piece of paper contains key words regarding each of the different aspects of the study. Some pieces of paper contain information about the study setting, questions and methodology. Other pieces of paper present findings and finally there are those pieces that present the conclusions and implications. By preparing these wall charts ahead of time the student is able to relax during the presentation and use the pieces of paper as if they were a road map toward the goal. No matter how nervous you are you can always let the wall charts guide YOU through your presentation. Lettering is done with a dark marking pen and extra notes are included in very small printing with a pencil (that no one can really see). If you print them, use two adjacent pieces of paper to serve as poster and you can print the notes in light grey to be almost invisible. Overhead projected transparencies don't work as well since they're gone from view after a few seconds. The wall charts stay up for everyone to see and to help focus attention.
Following this structured presentation the committee begins to ask questions, but as can be expected the questions follow along with the wall charts and the whole discussion proceeds in an orderly manner. If guests are present at the defence, this form of presentation helps them also follow along and understand exactly what was accomplished through the research.
36. Consider tape recording your defence. Using a small portable recorder, to record your entire presentation and also the questions and comments of the committee members. This helps in two ways:
Bring out the tape and the pieces of paper the night before your presentation and you can listen to you make the presentation. What a good way to review.
Well that about does it. By following the above suggestions and ideas I hope it will be possible for you to finish your post-graduate program in a most timely and enjoyable manner. By looking ahead to the different aspects of this final part of your post-graduate study it becomes clear that you can do a number of things to insure your success.
37. Oh, I almost forgot. There's one last thing. Get busy and prepare an article or paper that shares the outcomes of your research. There will be no better time to do this than now. Directly after your defence is when you know your study the best and you will be in the best position to put your thinking on paper. If you put this writing task off it will probably never get done. Capitalize on all of the investment you have made in your research and reap some additional benefit – start writing.
Thinking About Buying a Book?
A Handful of Worthwhile Bookmarks - If I only had time to visit a single website for help with my thesis I'd probably go directly to the Thesis Handbook (http://www.tele.sunyit.edu/ThesisHandbook.html) maintained by the Telecommunications Program at SUNY Institute of Technology. Especially helpful are the accompanying Thesis Workbook and Frequently Asked Questions where you will find a wealth of clearly written and helpful information. (Selecting a topic; Developing a search strategy for going after relevant literature: Deciding which tense to use in your writing; etc.)
An extensive set of hints and ideas on how to improve your dissertation/thesis writing. How To Write A Dissertation or Bedtime Reading For People Who Do Not Have Time To Sleep (http://www.cs.purdue.edu/homes/dec/essay.dissertation.html) lays out suggestion after suggestion in direct and non-confusing form. A great list to bring out after you've completed the first draft of your writing, are rather tired of your topic, and you are not sure where to begin your fine tuning.
An excellent website with lots of highly specific information (especially if the focus of your work is in a scientific or technical area) has been developed by Joe Wolfe at The University of New South Wales (Australia). How to Write a PhD Thesis (http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/thesis.html) provides a variety of very useful suggestions on how to get from the beginning to the end of your thesis project – and survive the process!
Wouldn't it be great if there were a bunch of theses/dissertations available for reading right on the web? Well, there are some resources you should be aware of that will let you see what the finished product could look like. First, there is an Experimental Digital Library of M.I.T. Theses (http://theses.mit.edu/) which includes electronically-submitted theses. Next, you can always purchase a copy of most US dissertations/theses. These are available from UMI's website – UMI's Online Dissertation Services (http://www.umi.com/hp/Products/Dissertations.html). The University of Wisconsin has a site which lists Sites with Full Text Access to Dissertations (http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/Memorial/elecdiss.htm#fulltext). You should also be aware of the various Electronic Dissertation/Thesis (ETD) projects that are currently underway. A good access to this area is via the library at the University of Virginia which has a page dealing with Electronic Theses and Dissertations in the Humanities (http://etext.virginia.edu/ETD/).
Another website that's worth visiting is maintained by Computer Science & Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and also the Computer Science Department at Indiana University-Bloomington. How to Be a Good Graduate Student/Advisor (http://www.cs.indiana.edu/how.2b/how.2b.html) "attempts to raise some issues that are important for graduate students to be successful and to get as much out of the process as possible, and for advisors who wish to help their students be successful."
Prof. John W. Chinneck at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) has created a very practical and well written webpage on the preparation of your thesis. How to Organize your Thesis (http://www.sce.carleton.ca/faculty/chinneck/thesis.html) starts with a description of what graduate research/the graduate thesis is all about and then moves point-by-point through a "generic thesis skeleton".
If you are in need of some gentle prodding and a bit of humour to go along with it, check out the Dead Thesis Society (http://www.mun.ca/sgs/dts/) – a support group for graduate students. Lots of well organized information that is moderated by Frank Elgar, a graduate student in Psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Not sure of all the administrative steps at your university that are required to successfully complete a dissertation? Check out this well thought through website from Pepperdine University's Graduate School (http://gsep.pepperdine.edu/studentservices/dissertation/education/). Everything seems to be included from a definition of exactly what is a dissertation all the way to exactly how many spaces between the title and your name.
Feeling a bit lonesome in the process of writing your thesis or dissertation? Take a minute to find out what others have said about this Guide (http://LearnerAssociates.net/dissthes/results.htm) and their own situation. It might just be reassuring!!
And finally, when all else fails, you might want to see what other sites have added links to the Thesis/Dissertation subject. These other sites will have a variety of additional resources to check out.
Written by: S. Joseph Levine, Ph.D.
Copyright © Calvary University, 1998 All rights reserved.