Writing Your Dissertation
Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated November 2010
When you write your graduate school dissertation, you are evolving from a student to a scholar. The dissertation is a much larger and independent undertaking than any of your undergraduate or previous graduate work. Like writing a novel, writing a dissertation is a process that has no weekly deadlines or assignments, as well as no professors or classmates with whom to interact on a regular basis.
As you write your dissertation you are beginning to hone some valuable research and writing skills. You will utilize your analytical thinking and writing skills, as well as your ability to organize your time and integrate complicated information. The dissertation you create is something that you can use during your career as you continue to make additions and revisions. You may even decide to transform your dissertation into a series of articles or a book at a later date.
Help is out there
While writing a dissertation is largely an independent endeavor, you will have available the guidance and support of an advisor. Choose an advisor with whom you have a good relationship and decide how often the two of you will meet. Set up a plan you both agree on for how often you will hand in chapters or drafts to be reviewed.
You should also agree on the type of feedback you expect from your advisor. Decide what type of feedback will help you most, and at what frequency or stages you would like to receive that feedback. Be sure to keep in touch with your advisor, even when you are not handing in drafts. The open communication will help you not feel so alone during the difficult and consuming process of writing your dissertation. If you have trouble maintaining communication with your advisor, you may opt to switch advisors or add a second. Many graduate schools require that you have second and third faculty readers who will also critique your dissertation, and some programs will allow (or even require) that one of these readers be from another university.
It is important that you maintain communication with all the professors who are helping you with the dissertation. Ask them if they would like to review drafts. You could also keep in contact with them even if you are not sending drafts, and you can usually let them know when you are having any troubles in your dissertation process. The first chapter you submit is especially important, and you will want to pay close attention to what your advisors say about the approach, tone and style you employ in this chapter, as this will help establish the way you prepare later chapters.
Management and planning
As you write your dissertation you will find yourself juggling how to deal with personal and professional struggles. You will also have to manage your time and money while you are working so hard on your dissertation. Many students try to obtain a fellowship, grant or scholarship to help with finances. If you find yourself exhausted, you should combat it with whatever works for you, whether it is exercise or relaxation techniques.
You may want to schedule your dissertation work by using a daily, weekly or monthly planner. Set short- and long-term goals and deadlines for yourself, and try to adhere to your schedule. Prioritize your tasks and be sure to save time for what is important. While you are engaged in writing your dissertation, don't be afraid to say "no" to things that will distract you. You cannot be expected to be a superhero-everyone has limits.
Work when you think the clearest and in a place in which you can concentrate with minimal interruptions. You could create some work rituals to get you in the mood to get down to business and outfit your workspace with dÉcor that stimulates and inspires you. But no matter how much you plan and manage, it is important to understand that, at times, you will have to work under less-than-ideal conditions.
Once you have successfully defended your dissertation proposal to your committee and chosen your advisor, you are ready to focus on your topic. You should not feel stuck with your topic if it is not panning out-your topic is likely to change as you conduct your research and write your dissertation. Just be sure to keep your advisor and committee abreast of any major changes in the focus of your topic.
Editing for length, depth and scholarly value can help you to narrow the focus of your topic and keep your dissertation on the right track. If you feel things are spiraling out of control, get in contact with your advisor for some assistance. You may find that you need to rein in your topic or broaden your focus. Your advisor can help you make educated decisions regarding what to leave in and what to omit.
You may find it helpful to use your Table of Contents as an organization tool. It may also be helpful to work off of your proposal, where your ideas originated. This will help you stay focused. Your writing should be clear and concise, and you should use an active voice, as well as the present tense when it is appropriate. Begin writing the portions of your dissertation that you are the most confident about. You do not have to write it in a linear manner from Chapter 1 to Chapter 5.
The dissertation should define the problem or issue that inspired your research. It should outline why the problem or issue is important, as well as any past findings by other scholars. The crux of your dissertation is your new contribution to the problem or issue and the experiments that corroborate your findings. You may well find that the last chapter you write is your introductory chapter, because you are more capable of defining your topic and the value of your findings, once you've finished the rest of the dissertation.
The organization and structure of your dissertation is important. Your introduction should define any new terms that you will be using. Your dissertation should be tied together with a conceptual theme, and the experimental measurements should be detailed. It should be wrapped up with content regarding consequences and ended with some clear conclusions. After you've finished the dissertation and prepared a bibliography, you will need to write an abstract (a relatively short summary of your dissertation's goals and conclusions).
Take a deep breath. Writing a dissertation can be consuming in a number of ways, but it will be one of the most important things you write in your life. Once you have landed yourself a helpful advisor, developed a full understanding of what you need to include and prepared a schedule for your work, the task may not seem so daunting.
So what are you waiting for? Get to it!
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