Top 10 Tips for Surviving a Doctoral Dissertation

Today’s Ask Dr. Diane:  Do you have any suggestions on how to avoid the pitfalls many other doctoral students may have encountered when writing their dissertations?

As a doctoral chair, I guide students through the process of writing a dissertation.  There are different problems that many of them may face based on the topics they chose to study.  I prefer to chair quantitative, business-related studies, so my suggestions may be slanted in that direction.

Here are the top 10 things that I think a doctoral student should be made aware of from the beginning:

  1. The process will probably take longer than you think.  There may be a set of doctoral courses required for the dissertation part of your degree.  For example, there may be Class 1, 2, and 3.  They will explain that if you don’t finish 1, you can take 1a and 1b, etc.  Be prepared to take 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, etc.  Remember that every time you take the class, it costs money.  Have it in your budget in case you need extra courses.
  2. Find a good doctoral chair (also called doctoral mentor).  The school will probably have a website that lists professors that you can pick from, to be your chair.  Go through the lists carefully to find one that fits your topic and your needs.  Send them a very polite letter of request to be your chair/mentor.  Do not send a bulk message to a lot of potential chairs.  This is seen as tacky.   I recommend talking to them on the phone prior to signing up with any of them.  If they don’t want to do this, you may want to pick someone who is more hospitable.  Find out if they work at your speed.  I had two different chairs in my journey.  The first one was not a good fit for me.  The second was much better. Keep in mind that you can probably change chairs later if you find out it isn’t working for you.
  3. Become an APA expert.  Most schools require that your paper is in APA 6th edition right now.  Click here for writing help.  When you submit a dissertation, the review board will be beyond picky about this.  Every space, every heading, every table, etc. has to be exact.  Schools usually have writing centers that can help you with APA as well. 
  4. Find a good statistician.  If you are going to do a quantitative study, you will need an excellent statistician for guidance.  It helps to have SPSS software as well. It is important to understand how to do a Power Analysis when deciding on your population and sample size.
  5. Strong editing is a must.  Schools are very picky about anthropomorphisms and they don’t like what they call “fluff” wording.  They want the writing to sound scholarly.  Avoid using words like:  However, In Addition, Therefore.  Do not refer to yourself in the document.  Example:  The research did blah blah blah.  Don’t use the wording “the researcher” unless you are referring to someone other than you.  There should be no first person references in the paper at all. The proposal will be written in future tense so everything you write will be about what will happen.  The only thing that the proposal has in past tense is what others have written.  For example:  Hamilton (2011) stated blah blah blah is OK but everything that you propose to do must be in future tense.  There should be no personal bias.  Use research citations to back up your points.  When you write Chapters 1-3 of the proposal, you need to refer to your study as the proposed study.  Do not forget to include the word proposed
  6. Have a good template.  Some schools use a company called Bold that offers a dissertation template that has all of the formatting set up already.  These templates usually cost under $100 and are worth it.  They have the hard parts like the table of contents set up for you.  Some students try to write their dissertation in a regular Word document first and transfer it over to the Bold document later. This can cause a real headache with formatting and I don’t recommend it.
  7. Set up a schedule and become organized.  I have seen students flounder because they find the process overwhelming and don’t know where to begin.  Setting up a schedule for when you will do things is very helpful.  Set aside a certain number of hours in the week dedicated to your research and writing.   Usually the first doctoral class is set up to create Chapters 1-3 of your proposal.  It may be helpful to begin with Chapter 2 first to research the topic you have in mind. Look for areas in the research where there are gaps that still need addressing.  When you have written about everything others have done regarding your topic in Chapter 2, it should help highlight the exact area where you want to focus for Chapter 1.
  8. Download past dissertations. Looking at past dissertations written by students at your school can be very helpful.  It will give you a template of the format that is appropriate for your school and show you how others handled specific sections.
  9. Keep studies in notebooks.  I personally found it helpful to keep all of the studies I referenced in notebooks. I would alphabetize them by author last name.  I had 5 or 6 different notebooks based on the topics.  For example, since my dissertation was on emotional intelligence and its impact on sales performance, I would have a notebook about sales studies, another about emotional intelligence tests, another about emotional intelligence in workplace, etc. 
  10. Don’t give up.  Think of writing a dissertation as you would writing a book.  It has chapters and has to be approached one step at a time.  You wouldn’t write a book all in one day and you can’t write a dissertation that way either.  Sometimes students fail to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  It’s there.  It just takes a while to get there.

I recommend reading some of the following books:

APA Publication Manual 6th Edition

Business Research Methods

Research Strategies

Methods in Behavioral Research

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