Dissertations - Written by on Sunday, June 19, 2011 5:37 - 0 Comments

Tips for Getting Started on a Dissertation

Getting started on a dissertation can be one of the most challenging aspects of the doctoral process. At no time does the doctoral student feel more out of his/her element or more lost as to where to start. Getting started on a dissertation is not as hard as it seems if you keep the following five tips in mind.

Although these tips are not enough to see you through the entire process, they will get you on track and help you make that all important first step toward finishing your program.

1. Create Milestones

A mountain of research suggests that creating and measuring progress toward goals are the best predictors of whether goals are met. As a doctoral student getting started with a dissertation, you need concern yourself with two levels of goals.

The first is the one at the global level. At this level, goals are as vague as “finish chapter one no later than two weeks from today” and “collect data by September 3rd.” These goals represent the big picture; they answer the question “am I on track?” Unfortunately, global-level goals are not enough. Far too often students stop at this level and forget to set smaller goals.

Smaller goals not only operate at a lower level than the global kind, they offer you the opportunity to observe and celebrate real progress toward the ultimate goal of submitting a final draft of your work. Smaller goals also help you break up the global goals into manageable morsels. Going beyond a second level of goals is likely to bog you down with too many details; you’ll spend more time setting goals and not enough time achieving them.

2. Don’t Concentrate Too Much on the Writing

As a dissertation coach, a common concern I hear from students is, “but I’ve never written so much at one time. I don’t think I can do it!” Let me dispel this myth. Students spend too much time worrying about the length of the writing and not enough about setting themselves up to write.

Suppose the average dissertation is about 160 pages. Take out the front matter, references, tables, figures, and appendices and you’re left with about 120 pages of actual writing. If you write just 4 pages a day, you could write your dissertation in 30 days!

The key to writing any lengthy work is setting yourself up to write. If you do everything correctly, the actual writing isn’t so daunting. If you sit down to write and you realize you don’t know where to begin, you clearly have not set yourself up to write. Once you realize that setting yourself up to write takes longer than the writing itself, you’ve taken your first step to completion.

3. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

If you are confused about what a dissertation is supposed to look like, go to the library. Every student who ever graduated with a doctoral degree from the university likely has his/her dissertation sitting on the shelf.

Start with the most recent dissertation from a student who graduated from your department. Work your way backwards through the last five or so. This should give you a clear idea of what’s expected of you. Look especially for one that used a similar method to the one you intend to use. That dissertation should give you a clear idea of the breadth and depth expected of you in your dissertation.

4. Ask for Help

Many ABD students feel funny about asking their committee chair or members for help; they don’t want to embarrass themselves with a silly question and feel that if they’ve progressed this far, they should be able to do this on their own.

Researchers with decades of experience ask for help from colleagues all the time. The best strategy in the research process is collaborating about ideas and bringing together skills rarely found in one person. Although you can’t collaborate with someone during a dissertation, there are still resources available when you need help.

One of the best resources is a student who recently graduated from a similar program or from the same department. He/she is likely to have words of wisdom and be able to help you avoid pitfalls and errors he/she encountered during the process. If you take this route, consider asking for specific rather than general help; you’ll get the answer you need and won’t waste the other person’s time with vagaries.

If you are really stuck, consider a dissertation coach. Some coaches offer multiple levels of assistance, and no one has to know you turned to a coach. If money is an issue, think of it as an investment. When you consider tuition, loans, and the opportunity costs of delayed employment associated with an extended program, a dissertation coach is an investment that pays for itself.

5. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself

The dissertation experience is supposed to be difficult. If it weren’t, everyone would be able to do it. If you’re confused about how to proceed, you’re probably right where you should be. If you don’t know where to begin, you’re like everyone else who came before you.

The key to getting through the dissertation is perseverance. You are about to make the transition from student to independent thinker, scholar, and researcher. It’s a difficult journey whose destination is well worth the hardship.



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John GargerJohn Garger is a copy editor, proofreader, dissertation coach, researcher, writer, and entrepreneur living in upstate New York, USA.
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