Very often, when doctoral candidates complete their dissertations, they seek dissertation editors to give them guidance on the structure and organization of their writing. Such guidance can range from the document or chapter level to the individual clause level and includes proofreading for typographical and grammatical errors. However, no matter how capable your dissertation editor, the dissertation will be stronger if you consider the following tips early on during your doctoral studies.
Selecting a Dissertation Topic
1. Find a topic that you love and care about. Choose a topic that you will be able to live with, think about constantly, and even dream about for a few years. When you complete the dissertation, you should be, for a brief time at least, the world’s foremost expert on your topic. In order to reach that goal, you must care about your topic enough to become deeply involved with it and want to know everything about it.
2. Begin thinking about your dissertation topic from the beginning of your studies. Every course you take will require you to submit a paper or some sort of project. Try to make an original observation about the topic in every paper or project you submit. Doing so may result in a viable dissertation topic. Consider each topic available for you to write about in terms of whether you could live with that topic for an extended period of time, whether it fits with your long-range career goals, and whether you would really have anything original to say about the topic.
3. When considering original research topics for your dissertation, don’t overlook the possibility of synthesizing subdisciplines. It isn’t unusual to find two different disciplines or subdisciplines that address the same problem on different domains or with different methodologies. Would using an entirely different methodology from another field reveal any new information about your area of interest? Can you build a bridge or make connections between findings from separate subdisciplines and view your topic from a new perspective?
Take Charge of Your Learning
4. When taking classes and reading assignments, make a note of every term, concept, and reference to another work that you are not familiar with. Then, take the time to learn about unfamiliar ideas. Unfortunately, many people don’t learn how to be true lifelong learners during their undergraduate studies. If you haven’t learned how to facilitate your own learning and intellectual growth before now, then now is the time to learn this crucial skill. The ability to recognize gaps in your own knowledge and take steps to strengthen your areas of weakness is one mark of a person with a sound education.
5. Learn all you can about research methods in your discipline. While research methods are broadly divided into quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods, within those general areas are many specific submethods. Understand the methodology that is generally used in the subdiscipline you are focusing on and how it compares to other methodologies you could use. Learn to use the terminology correctly, making it part of your everyday vocabulary.
6. When doing research on your selected topic, work on understanding and evaluating all sides of the issues, both in terms of research methods used and in terms of theories pertaining to your area of interest. Be open-minded when reading viewpoints that oppose your own, think clearly about why you don’t agree with an author’s stance, and build clear, specific arguments that directly address the points that you don’t agree with. Again, understand and learn to use terminology correctly.
7. If you will be using statistics, consider auditing a stats course or, at the very least, invest in a good textbook on statistics. Learn to talk and write about statistics correctly and knowledgeably. Being able to input numbers into SAS or another software program and then run a function is not the equivalent of understanding statistics. For your use of statistics to be meaningful and professional, you must understand and be able to talk knowledgeably about population selection, the use of variables and forms of measurement, the appropriate equations to use for your analytical purposes, and what you have actually “found” or “revealed” as a result of the method or methods applied. You need to be able to explain why you are inputting certain numbers, where those numbers came from and what they represent, why a certain statistical function is being used, and what the results indicate about your topic. Practice applying your knowledge of statistics whenever you read about a study using quantitative data.
Organize, Organize, Organize!
8. Set up a good organization system for your library of articles and books at the very beginning of your graduate studies. If you have hard copies of articles, invest in a small file cabinet and folders and file the articles according to topic, subdiscipline, or author name. Use a system that makes sense to you. If you can’t decide how to file a particular article, use a note system within your filing system to indicate the location of a file. For example, if you have an article about research conducted on the effectiveness of using live chat in online learning, but the article begins with an informative discussion about the methodology used, you may want to file the article with others addressing research on the effectiveness of using live chat, but, in folders that contain info on methodology and online learning in general, note the location of this file. (Make brief, clearly written notes on the inside covers of the folder or on sticky notes attached to the inside covers.)
9. Learn and use good file management on your computer. Many articles today are available as PDFs. Such files can be searched for key terms, but you can’t search in an article if you can’t find it. Learn to create folders on your computer and nest them. For example, a folder on online learning could hold folders about specific theories addressing online learning as well as tools that can be used in facilitating online learning.
10. As part of your file management, begin building a spreadsheet file (or a database if you have the software and know-how) of all the articles, books, webpages, and videos you have found. For books containing chapters written by different authors, create an entry for each chapter. Along with the authors’ names (ALL authors’ names) and titles, include the date, publication information, page spans for articles and chapters, original publication information (if applicable), main points about the source (thesis statement, research methods used), and the location of the item in your filing system. For example, “Paper-online learning-live chat” would indicate that the item is a hard copy in your file cabinet in the live-chat folder in the online-learning area or drawer, and “PDF-online learning-quantitative-transcript analysis” would indicate you have a file on your computer in the transcript-analysis folder that is within the quantitative-methods folder within the online-learning folder. If you accessed the item online, be sure to record the DOI (preferred by most documentation styles) or the URL for pages or PDFs at websites. You may also want a field that indicates the various subtopics that the source touches on. (For instance, an article on using live chat in online learning may be also be marked as having information on quantitative research methods and constructivist learning theory.)
Know Your Documentation Style
11. Early on in your research process, determine the documentation style you will use. Your grad school or program may mandate a particular style, or you may be free to select your own. If you can select your own, learn the style that is used most often in your discipline. If the choice is still open, choose an author-date style (references at the end of the document and in-text parenthetical citations within the text) because it is the easiest and least time-consuming to use and is easily revised.
12. Once you know which documentation style you will use for your dissertation, buy the appropriate manual and use it as often as possible for papers written in classes. Note that “documentation” styles include much more than simply how sources are cited. They often specify how numbers are to be treated in the text, how tables and figures are displayed, how sources are referred to (e.g., APA requires past tense when writing about a source while literary works cited in MLA are generally written about in present tense), and even which prefixes occur with hyphens and what types of phrases are hyphenated. Becoming familiar with the documentation style before you actually begin writing the dissertation will make your writing process much easier. Again, being thoroughly familiar with the documentation style for your discipline is one mark of having a sound education.
Taking the time to consider these tips early on in your graduate studies can make the process of writing your dissertation go more smoothly and strengthen the integrity of your work. Tips 4-12 can actually save you time when you move into that time-intensive period of writing parts of your dissertation and passing them to your committee for comments. These tips can also help you avoid embarrassment as a result of the types of comments your committee members could make.
The stronger your dissertation is before you send it to a dissertation editing service, the better your final product will be.