Post written by guest author Jessica Marter Kenyon, a doctoral student in Geography.
The dissertation is the sine qua non of the doctoral program. The task is a rite of passage: considered necessary for students to undertake before they become fully-fledged scholars. The quality of the central dissertation question, as well as the way in which it is researched, has a heavy bearing on job prospects once the Ph.D. is completed. It's no surprise, therefore, that the undertaking constitutes perhaps one of the major sources of stress for doctoral students. Here, broken down into six areas, are some tips to help you along the way. Though they are organized numerically and somewhat chronologically, there are exchanges between most of the ‘steps.’ Some may be most applicable to social scientists, and to those early on in their doctoral programs, but many others are generally relevant.
Produce the idea
- The right idea can launch your career and put you in position to make a real impact in your field. Consider that your research question will overwhelmingly direct your study. It will influence the contours of the methodological and technical skills you gain, the people with whom you come in contact, the theories you explore, and your eligibility for job postings.
- Choose something you really enjoy: you’ll need to be motivated enough to study this topic throughout your graduate career (and, perhaps, for a while after!). The most basic requirements the dissertation question must fulfill are: originality (as far as its contribution to the literature) and feasibility (is it actually possible to answer using the methods you’ve chosen, the funding you have, your technical skills, etc.).
- Keep a journal of ideas. When you are reading literature related to your general issue area, write down any ideas you have about flaws or gaps you identify (How would the conclusions change if the study were conducted in a different place? With a different population? Using a different methodology?). Often, writers will include a section at the end of each article that outlines areas for future research. Pay special attention to those paragraphs!
- Talk to as many knowledgeable people as you can, especially in your department. Find out what your fellow students and the faculty think is the most exciting (yet feasible) idea. Make sure your advisor is on board, as their support could be crucial.
- Consider marketability. Is your topic pushing theoretical or methodological boundaries in some aspect? Where do your questions and approach situate you as a researcher?
- For more guidance (geared to an audience of economics students), read this note from Don Davis, of Columbia University’s Economics Department
Determine your approach/methods
Remember that, while you must select the methodology most appropriate to your research question, you will also be defining yourself by your methods. So make sure your question helps you use the methodologies you are interested in. In some cases, the research question will lead the selection of your methods while, in others, the reverse may be true. Since methodologies are discipline and question-specific, I will simply provide some food for thought:
- Is your dissertation going to take the form of a series of papers (typical of physical/life science) or a book (typical of social science and humanities)? Your choice will likely be driven by the morays of your discipline or sub-discipline. Your advisor and other mentors should be able to help you understand what is de rigeur in your field.
- Be strategic. Are there technical skills or techniques you wish to gain over the course of your studies? If so, it would be wise to find an appropriate way to incorporate these into your dissertation research. Of course, you will also need to dedicate time and resources to acquiring these skills.
- There are two major pairs of methodological binaries to consider when selecting your methods: qualitative vs. quantitative and empirical vs. theoretical. You will need to assess where you want to situate your research: on either side of these binaries, or perhaps in the middle. Increasingly, researchers are finding interesting ways to bridge these traditional divisions, or to apply unorthodox methods to questions that have only been explored in one way.
- Lastly, consider your data needs and sources. Will you be using primary or secondary data? Does your field value collecting your own data? If so, you may want to build in a time and financial budget that allows you to do your own fieldwork. If not, consider using existing data in order to save time and money. How will you get access to the data?
Not only is outside funding quite likely necessary for you to complete your degree, it’s also a good way to show future employers that you are fundable and can independently garner financial support for your research. Below are some general things to consider. For more detailed information on successfully finding funding, see Daniel Ervin’s GradPost here.
- More funding is available at the all-but-dissertation (ABD) stage, so if you are a first or second year, don’t be too discouraged: there will be more opportunities later on!
- Consider discipline-specific, professional society subgroups, UC-wide grants, and UCSB-specific grants because the pool of applicants will be somewhat more limited
- For larger grants (from the NSF or NIH, for example, consider teaming up with faculty or fellow students)
- Once you’ve written one funding application, the subsequent ones will be easier because you already have a lot of the important language (about yourself and your research) written down. At this point, you should be applying for every opportunity you can. Take the hours necessary to tailor your existing language to the grant opportunity on offer. Like dating, funding is to some extent a numbers game.
- Grant proposals may require a budget. Be as thorough as you can in considering every possible expense so as not to literally shortchange yourself.
Once you have your research questions, methods, and funding all lined up, it’ll be time to actually start executing your project. As with methods selection, the ways in which researchers conduct their research is highly question and discipline-specific. So, here I will provide you just with some general tips on staying ahead of the game.
- Organization is key to successfully conducting research. You must be able to intellectually and physically manage everything you’ve read. A lot of software programs exist to help you manage your bibliography. Check out this helpful comparison from Wikipedia.
- Another good tip is that maintaining flexibility throughout the course of research may help you avoid some stress (and produce an intellectually honest piece of work at the end). It’s difficult to control every parameter that can impinge on your work (particularly if you are working outside of a laboratory setting). You may wish to sit down and evaluate which aspects of your work are non-negotiable, and which are not. If you encounter a hiccup, can you be flexible with regards to your research site, for example?
- Don’t forget to back up your data daily. There can be few things more demoralizing than losing all of your hard work.
In order to graduate, you’ll have to set down your findings on paper. The quality of your writing is also an important factor in how seriously your work is taken. If you can’t communicate your ideas to other people, they will have a limited impact. At the very least, it is important to be direct, clear and explicit. Many students come up against the common difficulty of ‘writer’s block’, however.
- By now, you probably have enough experience writing for classes to know your major writing hang-ups. Take some time to explicitly identify what these are.
- Are you a perfectionist? Can you not move on from a phrase or paragraph until it’s exactly as you want it? Try and let that compunction go for a few minutes and just write out a ‘flow’ version, where you spill out all of your thoughts in plain language or in bullet points. You can go back to edit, rephrase, and add citations.
- Are you hung up on what you want to say? Free writing can kick you into gear. Give yourself a specified (probably short) amount of time to answer some fundamental questions, such as “Who is my audience?”, “What am I really trying to say with this piece?”, “What is the major thrust of my argument?”, “If someone could take away only three things from this paper, what would they be?”. This should provide you with more clarity about your goals.
- Does it just not sound right? Your writing will improve with practice, and over time you will become familiar with your discipline’s language. Review the organization and language of papers written by relevant researchers, note their commonalities, and try and apply them in your own work.
- Do you never seem to have the time or will to write? Consider scheduling weekly times that you dedicate to writing and rarely deviate from. Many experts on writer’s block advise that you should write something every day, even if what you write isn’t necessary very long or very good. Lastly, be honest with yourself and maintain a diary (even if just for a week or two) in which you track how much time you’ve spent writing. Both the act of keeping the diary and the subsequent analysis of your writing behavior may provide you with a better sense of how much time you really do spend writing, and whether/when the time is productive.
- For more, check out Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center Completing Your Dissertation Without Tears.
Promote the dissertation
Early on in your academic career, peers, students, and employers will use your dissertation as a shorthand way of understanding who you are. Therefore, you’re going to want to find ways to promote your work so that it reflects well upon you and your capabilities and future trajectory as a researcher.
- When given the opportunity, you want to be able to discuss your work in a succinct and exciting way. Be able to give 1, 2, and 5-minute ‘pitches’ in which you outline the context, questions and purpose of your research. You’ll have ample opportunities to practice these pitches with family members and friends. Pay attention to when and why people stop listening to you (they will eventually). These may be areas of your pitch to focus on tightening up.
- Present your work at conferences. This is a good way to get your name out there within the relevant academic community, and also a good way to solicit preliminary feedback about your ideas.
- If you have the work, try and publish parts of your dissertation before you graduate.
- Student paper competitions abound, especially within subspecialty groups. Look for announcements and consider sending your paper in: it’s pretty low-work, high-reward.
- You’ll want to be smart about leveraging your dissertation into a job. Think about how your work might be applicable to a variety of departments. If you’ve chosen something ‘trendy’, beware that you have more competition, and think about how to frame your work as distinct from the competition.
The dissertation is a formidable personal project, and one that has a lot of moving parts. Nonetheless, many of its aspects become highly manageable as long as you invest some foresight and organization into your process. If you take one thing away from this post, it should be that you aren’t alone! Many academics have preceded you in this undertaking, which means there is a lot of tried and true advice out there to strategically help you along the way.