My recommendations for a successful dissertation

Dr. Craig Shepherd and Stan Skrabut
Dr. Craig Shepherd and Stan Skrabut

Last month, I successfully completed and defended my dissertation. As my committee members repeated over and over, “The best dissertation is a completed dissertation.” Mine went so smoothly, compared to the stories I had heard from others, that I thought I had done something wrong. Here are some of my thoughts on why I believe it went so smoothly.

Know what you are getting into

Let’s begin by pointing out the obvious — I had never written a dissertation before. Fortunately, many others had. If I was to be successful, I had to figure out the process, and I started this understanding well before I even wrote one word on my dissertation.

I am not comfortable walking into a situation cold, and like to have a thorough understanding of what I am doing before I start. I began by searching Google for any insight I could find. I collected a few articles; these articles gave me some tips to my success.

Additionally, I picked up a couple of books that talked about the process. Two that I recommend are Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process and Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text. These books helped me understand how to narrow my research topic, how to address the literature review, and how to continue writing to completion.

Pick the best team

Throughout my academic career, I never really had a need for an academic adviser. Well, this is a different experience, having a great committee chair is key to your success. I was late in forming a committee; however, I believe I put together a great committee. I had heard of committee hardships from friends who were going through the process or who had just completed the process. I had also great counsel from a number of faculty members who stressed the importance of putting together a team who could work together.

Perhaps of of the best pieces of advice I got was in an article, which recommended interviewing potential committee members. I took this advice and interviewed approximately ten professors to be part of my team. I put together a short list of candidates by reviewing their Websites for their research interests. The first major decision during the interview process was to decide upon a committee chair. My first choice was Dr. John Cochenour; however, he wisely pointed me to Dr. Craig Shepherd in a co-chair arrangement. At the end of the entire process, I could not be more pleased. Together with Dr. Shepherd, we put together the rest of the committee.

You are not in this alone

During your entire academic career, you are typically expected to do your own work, and are graded accordingly. Naturally, group projects are a little different. However, writing a dissertation is entirely different. Your committee and most importantly your committee chair will review and offer suggestions for improvement throughout the process. During the beginning of the process, I did not seek help as much as I should have. By the end of the process, I was visiting with my committee chair on a weekly basis.

I also partnered with Jenny Weatherford, who provided exceptional statistical advice through out my results process. In spite of taking classes on statistics and data analysis, it did not seem to stick until I really needed it. I recommend leveraging the smart people around you, in my experience, they are happy to help.

Bottom line is that your team wants you to succeed in this process. They will help you tirelessly. You are the only one who can screw it up by either giving up or turning against your team.

Don’t take it personal

Working on a dissertation is long and arduous journey that becomes personal. No matter how hard and long you work on it, there will always be ways to improve it. Your committee team and especially your committee chair are there to help you put out the best product possible. I repeatedly turned in chapters for review, and repeatedly, they would come back with recommended edits. Even after the defense, I had additional edits to make. If I took this personal, it would have been emotionally draining. Instead, I simply understood this was part of the process. However, to be honest, I did receive a list of changes at the eleventh hour before I was to turn my dissertation over to the entire committee. I did not believe I could make the changes in time and was going to postpone the defense. Again, my committee team members reassured me, I made the changes, and proceeded to meet my defense date. However, it was emotionally draining.

Pick the right battles

While this tip is not from my personal experiences, I have had a number of discussions focusing on this topic. It is worth mentioning.

Your committee is there to help you get through the process. They have successfully completed the process previously. If they strongly recommend that you make a significant change and give you justification, you should probably make the change. Going to battle with your committee, will not earn you favors in your defense… if you make it that far. Remember, your committee wants you to succeed, only you can screw it up.

You are responsible to see it complete

If you are waiting for your committee chair to meet with you, you will probably be waiting a long time. You are not their only project. If you do not take responsibility to see your dissertation to completion, it will probably not get done. When you turn in a chapter for review also set a deadline; two weeks is usually a reasonable amount of time. If you do not hear anything back by your deadline, follow up. When you need to meet with your committee, start a couple of months in advance. Doodle is a powerful tool for arranging meetings.

Understand the lesson

Dr. Cochenour repeatedly told me that completing the dissertation was in partial fulfillment of the degree. In my opinion, they wanted to see if I was able to select a research topic and conduct a study around it. This included narrowing down a research question by conducting a thorough literature review. Once the question was formed, could I develop a method to study the question and analyze the results. Finally, could I report out the results and more importantly make sense of the results.

I also believe lessons being taught were being able to work on a scholarly team. They also taught endurance as well as the importance of rewriting. I would also have to add the importance of learning to network to meet a goal. Writing the dissertation was more than simply writing the dissertation.

What you are doing, they did not teach you

Many of the things I learned while writing this dissertation were learned through informal learning and not in the classroom. This project was different from any other writing assignment I had in my classes at any level. The only familiarity I had was with APA 6th Edition and perhaps the literature review. I did a lot of self-directed learning in order to become familiar with research questions, reporting findings, and writing the discussion and conclusions (not much is written on this part of the dissertation). I also learned how to use and leverage Zotero.

This has been an enjoyable learning experience, and I am glad that I took it on.

My dissertation has made it through all the hurdles, and is now waiting to be posted on ProQuest for the benefit of others interested in my topic. I hope these tips help you successfully negotiate your dissertation. My process was smooth even though it was still a challenge.

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