Dissertation tips

The dissertation process can be a creative experience, but often can be very challenging both intellectually and emotionally. At the University Counseling Center, we work with graduate students to help them successfully complete that process by offering both individual and group counseling specifically designed for graduate students. The following is a list of suggestions to help you avoid some obstacles and guide you towards successfully completing your dissertation.

Do what is "do-able."

  • Pick a topic that is clear, focused, and manageable - something that can be complete within 3 years maximum.
  • By keeping within this time frame, you will lessen your debt load and keep from making the dissertation your life, instead of the dissertation making possible the life you want.

Choose a committee whose members can work with you and with each other.

  • A dissertation is a work by committee and not a singular project. You will have to satisfy all the members of the committee - so it is best if they are all in reasonable agreement with you about your topic and goals.

 Seek guidance from those who have gone before you.

  • Talk with other students in your program about the dissertation process to know what to expect and how to navigate.
  • Review their dissertations to see how it was done, as this will provide a guide to what is expected.

 The dissertation is not the first and last word on your worth as a person.

  • any people view the dissertation as their "magnum opus." It is unlikely that it can and will be that for you. Once again, it is a work by committee. It is, by nature, limited in scope and format.
  • It is an original piece of scholarship that can be refined and revised for later publication, but it is foremost one of the requirements for your degree and not by any means the most important work you will ever do in your field.

 Treat the dissertation like a job or a class, scheduling regular time each week to work on it.

  • Five days a week is probably optimal, but this can be adjusted as needed. It is probably best not to work every day. You need some time away from the project to address other life needs, such as healthful eating, exercise, and rest, as well as to give you time away to have a fresh mind to return to the project.
  • Schedule set time blocks on the days you will be working on your dissertation. Some people work best in long time blocks, others in shorter blocks of time. You will need to assess this for yourself.
  • On the days that you are scheduled to work, always do something. For example, read an article, review your chapter, write an outline, write further on your chapter, organize your index cards, check your sources. etc. Break the project into smaller tasks that can be completed in a reasonable time frame. Even if you just have a brief time that day to work, do something small. "Inch by inch" - you will be getting closer to completion.
  • Start writing "zero-drafts" (versions to edit later), even before you have all your research material in hand. That way you won't gather more material than you can use, and you will have a better sense of what you really need to gather if more is needed.

A dissertation is a string of term papers strung together.

  • Many people view "The Dissertation" as a monumental project, but it really is a set of chapters with prescribed formats or topic areas to address - and in that way is much like several related term papers. You have written scores of these by this time, and you can do this one as well.
  • If you view the chapters as separate but related term papers, you will feel less overwhelmed by the size of the project.

Stay focused.

  • Keep asking yourself from time to time, "What is my question?" "What is my focus or theme?" "What is it I am trying to find out?"
  • It is very easy to get lost in all the material that you will be reading and researching and to lose the focus of the project. It is easy to get lost on tangents. It is okay to revise and amend the project as you go, so long as you can stay clear as to what it is that you are working on.
  • Write down what the questions are that you are trying to answer and use them as a guide as you read and review your sources. This way you will know what is important for the project as you go along.

Don't isolate yourself.

  • A dissertation process can be a lonely affair. You get steeped in material that few others know about or understand (even, sometimes, your committee members!). Make sure that there are people on or off your committee whom you can talk to about your project and keep you clear about what you're doing, open you up to other possible approaches, and support you in the value of what you are doing.
  • Meet with people who don't have any connection to the project as well. You need to have time away from the project, to clear your mind a bit and bring you back to it with renewed interest and energy.

Following the above strategies can be helpful, but many people can still get stuck in the process. If so, contact the University Counseling Center. We offer individual counseling to all students and a support group for female graduate students. For more information, contact our office.