5 Dissertation Tips from a Professor

Dissertation writing

Some people find that once they get their undergraduate degree, they are hungry for more. Earning a master’s degree is next, and ultimately, continuing your education in a doctoral degree may be the right path. Advanced degrees take learning to the next level and require a different type of focus, often one that’s rooted in research. Most likely any student working on a dissertation has felt like walking away from the project at some point–I know I did, several times in fact. The dissertation is unlike any other academic project you could encounter. It’s tedious, exhausting, and at times frustrating. It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be. The dissertation is meant to test us intellectually and psychologically. Designing and completing original research is our chance to prove that we have the knowledge and skills necessary to earn the title of “Doctor.”

The good news is that there are some strategies you can use to successfully complete a dissertation.

Be Realistic

When many students start the dissertation process, they believe their study will change the world. The reality is that the majority of dissertations do not drastically alter the literature on your topic or change the world. But, it doesn’t have to. The dissertation simply showcases that you can do research in your field. So, pick a realistic, manageable topic. You have years of research ahead of you to change the world.

Get Organized

There are many strategies for organizing your resources, from reference management software to simple excel spreadsheets. The key is that you need to pick a system that works for you. If you struggle with reference management software and spend more time figuring it out than actually researching, perhaps choose a less-advanced method. There is no wrong system if it works for you. Put a system in place that you can easily use and commit to, then do it.

Find Balance

Many people will say that you need to spend time on your dissertation every single day. While that might work for some people, for others it can lead to burnout. The best plan is to have a schedule, and again, it needs to work for you. If you are productive Monday through Friday, it’s okay to take Saturday off to spend time with your family.

Celebrate

The dissertation is a long process, but you probably already know that. To keep yourself motivated and moving forward, celebrate every milestone. Celebrate when your letter of intent (LOI) is approved, celebrate when you have a committee in place, celebrate when Chapter 1 is approved – the key is to celebrate. Those milestones mean that you are making progress, and each step gets you closer to the end. Do not lose sight of that.

Write

This one is no surprise. You need to write to finish the dissertation. I’m sorry, but there is simply no way around it. What I really mean, though, is don’t get stuck on the small details. Many students become so worried about citation format and other APA style issues that they cannot write at all. Instead, just focus on writing the content. When you have all of the ideas in place, you can go back to revise and edit those details.

I want to be clear that the challenge of a dissertation is what makes it so rewarding when you do finish. When you get final approval and then walk across a stage at graduation, you will feel in awe of yourself and what you have accomplished – that feeling is what you need to focus on during the times when things get frustrating or overwhelming.  

For help with developing your problem statement, see this guide, and for help with your letter of intent, see this sample.

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Written by Dr. Christy Fraenza, Learning Services Writing Center.

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