Writing a Dissertation
I got some great advice when I was writing my dissertation. The first: The only good dissertation is a complete dissertation! The point here is that you do not have to spend forever in trying to write the world’s best dissertation; just get it finished. After all, you might spend decades conducting research and writing on the same topic, so you’ll have many other opportunities to write the definitive work on your topic. Do that masterpiece as a Ph.D.! (And don’t take this literally; your committee is unlikely to reward you for being sloppy.)
How should you choose your dissertation topic? Be pragmatic: you’re going to spend a lot of time working on this topic, becoming an expert on it, so make it something that really holds your interest. Sure, your plan is to crank out your dissertation in two months. And maybe you will do just that, but just in case you’re mortal like the rest of us and need a few more months (or years) to do so, you’ll want to make sure you can stand to think about your topic during that whole time.
A good dissertation topic is one that excites you, is doable, and has not been already done. Your dissertation committee members should be helpful in letting you know how feasible your proposed dissertation topic is and whether it is one you can get your hands around. Remember, you can add to this area of research as a Ph.D.; you will not answer every question in this one study.
If early on in your graduate schooling, you have a dissertation topic, you can use assignments in some of your classes to begin work on the topic. Methods courses are great for this, but you can address you topic in many other classes well. In many graduate methods courses, you have to conduct independent research. If you are learning the methodology that you think you will use for your dissertation research—but not only if this is the case—you can do what may become a pilot study for your dissertation.
Or maybe you will simply conduct additional interviews for your dissertation, to add to those you completed in your methods course. Of course, this only works if you already know enough about the topic to ask the kinds of research questions in your methods or other courses so that data you collect can fit seamlessly into the dissertation. Regardless, you have many opportunities in your classes to begin putting together bits of the entire dissertation puzzle.
Another example: a literature review on your topic of interest for a class should at least provide foundation material for your dissertation. Warning: this can be tricky in terms of timing. For example, in my qualitative methods course, I worked really hard on an area of interest regarding race/ethnicity construction and produced a solid piece of research in an area that had not been studied. This is exactly what I am recommending. But I did not do this myself because by the time I was finished producing the paper for that class, I was fed-up with the topic and could not bear further study of it. Race/ethnicity construction remained—and still remains—an interest of mine, and although my dissertation explored this subject, I changed the specific example because I was tired of the initial one. So don’t peak too early!
Another bit of great advice I got regarding my dissertation was to write every day! I tried to write for at least an hour every day. What’s an hour, right? If you are in dissertation writing mode, an hour is peanuts! But at times, even writing for that one hour was a challenge and I did not do it. This advice is important because writing a dissertation or any other large work requires you to be focused. And if you are not actively engaged in the work, then you lose focus. If a few days go by—I found even one—when you open the document, it is easy to feel lost. I would found myself spending valuable time trying to figure out where I left off. (You can bookmark the place of your cursor in your word processing program, but finding that mental place is another matter.)
That daily writing time can be spent doing anything that moves the process forward so that you remain connected to the work. I kept a list of things to do when I really did not want to do the most complex tasks, such as analyzing data and writing. On this list of “they’re simple chores, but they must get done anyway” were tasks like these: create a table of contents and automate it, work on bibliography, and write acknowledgements.
With a project as big as a dissertation, it is important to celebrate milestones. They help to keep you going. Celebrate the completion of any one chapter, for example—or a hard to write paragraph. That celebration does not have to be elaborate; once I celebrated by buying a pretty—but inexpensive—journal in which I chronicled some of the dissertation experience. Last, but perhaps most important, having people who can cheer you on and help you through any dissertation jitters is priceless!