Category Archives: Tips for Grad Students

Finding Yourself: Speaking Your Truth Through Your Dissertation Research

I really didn’t have a topic for my dissertation as I finished my coursework. I knew that teaching was one of my strengths, but research was not. I had earned my teaching certification as an undergraduate. Then during seminary I found myself gravitating to topics relate to education, human development, and spiritual development, but I just wasn’t sure the direction I should go for my research.

Then it happened—fatherhood! When I found out that we were expecting I began that 9-month process of reading everything my hands could find related to parenting. My life started to take shape as a parent-to-be. Suddenly it clicked. I would research Christian parenting theories and how they impact faith and childhood development. This was perfect for me, bringing together my past studies and experience along with my current life situation. Becoming a parent was the thing that brought focus to my life and to my research.

In doing so I found my voice. I was living this search for the best parenting theory in my personal life and in my research. This topic was almost too personal at times, but it was definitely me, through and through. Life experience had led me to this place. But is this for everyone? If so, how can you express your voice and passion in finding the right topic for your dissertation?

Look at your experience. You will probably find yourself working in your areas of interest long before graduate school. Think of what interests you and turn your attention and studies in that direction. Your experience and interests are part of your passion, who you truly are, and hopefully can become part of your dissertation.

Consider your strengths and weaknesses. You do not want to work on a dissertation that requires skills you do not possess. You may find that you can do so for a small time, but this effort will wear on your passion as well as the rest of you. You can talk with your professors honestly about your strengths and weaknesses and trust their guidance.

Meet others with similar writing, work, and research. Place yourself in similar situations with those who are writing and researching projects that interest you. Ask yourself if you would you be happy examining that topic for months or years. That is the reality of what you will do, so do not pick a topic or scope that is so difficult that you cannot stand to work on it every day.

It’s OK to switch directions. If you are heading down the wrong path, it can be devastating. Putting work, time, and money into research that proves wrong for you and your project is frustrating. Taking stock of your research whether changing scope or completely changing plans is OK. You will not be the first to do it. Better to find your sweet spot early in the process than to do so later.

Find the happy medium between passion and obsession. Be able to distance yourself from your research and disassociate criticisms of your project from your personal feelings. Not being able to do so is setting you up for many difficulties along the way. A healthy passion means that your work inspires you to action and motivates you, but that you can step back and examine your work when needed. Inability to stop and step away from your work will interfere with daily life and should serve as a warning sign to gain perspective.

— Dr. William. Staff Editor

4 Crucial Tips in Writing Your Dissertation

DR. WILLIAM SAYS:

Cover as much ground as possible up front with your proposal.
• Build a detailed outline for every chapter.
• Get approval from your committee on sources you will review for your literature review.
• Talk through your hypotheses with your professors.
• Find out where to bracket the conversation so that your topic does not get too broad.
• Gain all institutional approvals needed for research studies.
• Don’t assume anything!

Lay the foundation correctly up front and your dissertation writing will go much more smoothly, with greater focus, and with an understanding of where the problem spots are.
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DR. GORDON SAYS:

Always cover your back: ensure that you can back up everything you say with documentary or experimental evidence, and ensure that your evidence supports your thesis and does not undermine it. You should also make sure that everything is properly documented, namely that every quotation is referenced, and that every citation in the text matches an entry in the Bibliography (this very rarely happens in practice). Look for possible alternative readings of what you write, and ensure you have answers to obvious objections to your positions. In short, be ready to answer almost any foreseeable challenge to your case.

Remember that your examiners will not have read all your sources or performed your experiments, so you will know your material better than they will. Your job is to lead them through the material and to show them how it supports your thesis. The more clearly and precisely you write, the less likely it is that they will misunderstand you.

Provided you can bring this off, and anticipate the major objections your examiners may raise, you should be well prepared for a successful defence of your dissertation.

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DR. DAN SAYS:

Recognize that the dissertation is there to get you your degree.
This is probably not the tip that your dissertation committee will want you to pay attention to. Very often dissertation advisors see dissertations as vanity projects or even as proxy research projects, so they try to push their grad students into directions of research that apply to their interests, not to the study.
This, by the way, is often the cause behind the Miltonic Satan vs. Death grudge match that advisory committees can degenerate into. Faculty can often sense how the dissertation begins to reflect one prof’s influence and this can cause others to react. Again, they may want to see you as their proxy, so keep a low profile.
While your research may be ground-breaking and change the future of Horace Walpole studies forevermore, causing all the other scholars to immediately close up their laptops and leave the field to you, it’s more likely that it won’t. And that’s fine.
In other words, accept that the dissertation is a small first step in your academic career. Mine it for articles later, find a small press looking for quality texts from up-and-coming scholars, or be content that it will be indexed and available for scholars coming after you.
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DR. CHRISTINE SAYS:

You may have heard the frequent refrain when opening a business: location, location, location. Just like your business wouldn’t exist in a void, neither does your dissertation. The #1 tip for writing a good dissertation is simple: audience, audience, audience. Audience is to writing what location is to commerce. How can you best reach the people you want to interest in your project?

The first thing NOT to do is assume the only people interested in your work are your department chair and dissertation committee. Such an assumption almost guarantees your dissertation will be dry, and more importantly, difficult to write. When you are able to imagine a curious and compassionate reader, who may not be the expert that you now are after years of graduate school, you can make writing decisions that will enhance your work.

Even within the constraints of the typical dissertation framework – introduction, literature review, study design, results, conclusions – your work can still be unique and compelling at the prose level. Think of yourself as someone teaching the material, which in many cases, you will be soon. How do you keep the students from nodding off? How do you keep your colleagues’ attention? The same things that interested you initially about the research will most likely interest your audience. What were they?

Audience consideration can solve many common writing issues. If you are consistently aware of your reader, you will not repeat information with no elaboration or contextualization because you will know the reader already has that information. If you consider your reader as someone who is not as knowledgeable as you are, you will take the time to explain concepts and provide illuminating examples. If you think of your project as a narrative that you are walking your reader through, you will be able ensure you keep her attention and organize your ideas in the most logical way possible.

–by the Staff of Edit911,Inc. & Baldwin Book Publishing

Surviving Graduate School: How to Deal with Your Professors

Dr. William Says:

  • Don’t overlook the basics. Pay attention to what name your professor asks to be called by. If he introduces himself as Dr., then by all means call him Dr. If she asks to be called by her first name, then it is okay to take her up on that.
  • Professors desire students to be engaged in class. It draws other students into discussions and adds a great deal to the effectiveness of teaching.
  • Professors enjoy hearing how students integrate what they are learning into their lives. It does not mean you have to agree with your professor. Just grappling with issues raised brings about a new level of understanding.
  • Professors like to be kept in the loop about your progress. If you are at a phase when you are out of classes and writing on your own, don’t go for long periods of time without contacting your professors.
  • Professors don’t mind questions, especially regarding your writing, direction, and problem spots. The worst thing you can do is spend lots of time on your best educated guess when you could have asked a question and saved yourself lots of time.

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Dr. Gordon Says:

If you’re having problems in class, the most important thing to do is acknowledge the fact and seek help.

Bottling up problems does you no good, and does nothing to resolve them. It’s quite likely that if you are having difficulties, others are too. There are a number of strategies you can use.

First, talk to the professor one on one, and try to get him or her to explain things more clearly. Do this gently and tactfully, but make sure you get across that there is a problem.

You may wish to consider a follow-up a few weeks later, to acknowledge that things have improved or to indicate that the problems persist.

It may also be helpful to talk to other students to try to find out if they are also having problems. If they are, you may be able to form a group to help each other work through the problems.

If this does not work, you can try student services.

Many colleges and universities have tutoring services, and even if yours does not, they will be able to offer help, and suggest practical things you can do to help resolve the difficulties.

Another option is to talk to departmental administrators or other professors, who may also be able to suggest ways forward. Whether doing this resolves the difficulty or not, the department will then be aware that there is a problem.

The ultimate step is to go to the dean or another senior official, but this step should not be taken lightly, and should be regarded as a last resort, as it may have far-reaching consequences. Once again, it needs to be done tactfully.

Above all, be respectful and constructive at every stage. Getting angry is likely to be counterproductive.

Many universities ask students to fill out a survey at the end of the course so that the department and the professor receive feedback on how well the course went. If your problem is not resolved, you may wish to indicate this and explain why. This may lead to improvements, which may be helpful to future students.

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Dr. Dan Says:

Maintain a certain amount of distance.

No matter how much a professor sees a grad student as a fellow seeker-after-the-truth, the reality is that the terminal degree and the publications do make a difference that they don’t easily let go of.

In grad school, I worked with a professor who would play basketball with us every Friday (he was good, too) and allowed us to call him “Jake.” However, he still gave grades and supervised independent studies, and I could tell that, while he enjoyed the exercise and the bonhomie, he enjoyed the role of mentor just as much.

That’s the simple advice, of course. The “Jakes” of the department are easy. How does one deal with the prof whose academic credentials suggest that s/he can crush cars with brain power alone or the bitter prof who seeks every opportunity to take out grievances on others?

  • Be sure to know exactly what you want. When you approach them with a project or are looking for advice, have as much settled, decided or known as possible. Have the list of books ready. In short, this will keep personality from entering your relationship as much as possible. Professors’ time is valuable and they’ll appreciate if you respect this.
  • Likewise, keep appointments. If you can’t make it to a meeting, give plenty of notice. And if you skip a meeting, don’t make the mistake of being someplace where you can be seen without a good alibi.
  • And, for heaven’s sake, if you use electronic communication of any kind, be professional! Use a salutation (“Hey” doesn’t count; use “Dr.” or “Professor”) and a signature.

Okay, but, what if the professor wants to hijack the work, creating a kind of proxy of his/her own interests? There’s no easy way around this one.

I’d recommend appealing to the integrity of your work: your research/thesis appears to need your particular approach and anything else would fundamentally change your project into something that it’s not.

–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc. & Baldwin Book Publishing

 

How to be a Scholar: Second, Love the Work

Dr. Dan Says: Be a teacher.

We all like to think of ourselves as scholars in the best tradition of those great names that dominate our respective fields.

However, we should also keep in mind that our privileged positions in higher education also give us the responsibility to share what we know and how we know it to others: students and fellow scholars alike.

In your research and in your writing, try to keep the perspective that you are trying to contribute to the scholarly conversation regarding your field.

And, keep your students in mind when doing the research and the writing, as this can help your focus.

I’m sure you’ll agree that the critics you best remember are the ones who taught you something, who inspired you to follow a particular line of thought. See yourself in that same tradition.

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Dr. Sandy Says: What does it take to be a scholar? Knowledge of your field and a passion for learning are certainly requirements. You must also be disciplined and reflective, the embodiment of “I think; therefore, I am.”  But the most important attribute is the desire to understand.

Knowing facts without understanding their significance, their interconnectivity, is essentially useless. Having a plethora of facts at your command may help you become a Jeopardy champion, but it doesn’t make you a scholar.

Facts are only puzzle pieces. As a scholar, you are either fitting the pieces together to discover the picture they comprise or looking at the picture to see where the pieces you have fit.

To borrow from Stephen Covey, you must “seek first to understand.” You explore the universe through the perspective of your particular field. You question and analyze, reflect and meditate. You are the little boy on the cereal box, holding a box of the cereal. No matter how deeply you delve, there is always one more cereal box with a picture of a little boy holding a box of the cereal. Each answer leads to another question.

And that is the forte of the scholar: relentlessly searching for the next piece of the puzzle in hope of answering one more question for humankind.

–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc. & Baldwin Book Publishing

 

 

 

How to be a Scholar: First, Do the Work

Dr. William Says: The characteristic that most defines a scholar is perseverance.

There are going to be periods of writer’s block, of lack of motivation, of adversity and conflict with others, of life challenges, and numerous other obstacles.

It is important to keep yourself to the task and with your goal in mind.

In times when I had most trouble being consistent with my dissertation writing, I often had to jump start my writing again by taking a week off from work, sending the family to visit relatives, and devoting an entire week to writing.

I’ll never forget how one week in the middle of summer with nothing but my research, a laptop, and The Weather Channel for background noise propelled me forward to finishing my dissertation.

Don’t lose heart when you think you’ve finished writing but begin the long process of edits and rewrites that take time, attention, and yes—perseverance—to get to the finish line.

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Dr. Gordon Says: The most important attribute of a scholar is thoroughness.

If possible, it is useful to read every relevant word written on your subject, at least in languages you can understand, and to analyse and digest this material before developing a thesis or designing an experiment.

This also requires a methodical approach, so that lesser-known material is not missed. In the process, you will undoubtedly discover material that seems to be relevant, but is not, but you may also turn up some hidden gem that has been long neglected.

Whether you take this brute force approach or decide to be more selective, however, it’s important to gain mastery of your material, without which it will be difficult to persuade other scholars of your case.

When writing a dissertation, depth is essential, but breadth is also necessary to develop perspective. Developing both provides a good foundation for sound scholarship.

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Dr. Robert Advises:  Write Publishable Articles and Essays!

Few, if any, graduate students in the humanities these days are unaware that the job market is “soft.” Most also realize that, in order to be competitive, their curricula vitae need to be adorned with a few publication credits beyond the completion of a doctoral dissertation. Such has been the case at least since the mid-1980s.

As a department chair at two universities for eleven years until 1998, I have read literally thousands of applications.

More often than not, what persuaded our selection committees to recommend candidates for interviews at national conventions was documented evidence of professional achievement before conferral of the Ph.D.

Although this widespread expectation is lamentable, at least in some quarters, it does attest to a brutal reality of academic hiring today.

It makes sense, therefore, to be pragmatic during one’s graduate apprenticeship. Long vanished are the days when a doctorate alone guaranteed tenurable employment.

Prospective investors in your scholarly future look for proof that you are “on the make”—in other words, grasping for the brass ring of peer recognition on the carousel of “professionalism.” Refereed publication casts a long shadow in this regard.

Herewith a humble case in point. Well before the crunch in college/university hiring of aspiring faculty, I became enamored, partly through boredom with the insularity of graduate study, of the supposedly wider world of publication-worthy scholarship.

I therefore tackled seminar papers with an eye toward that end. Happily, three of such revised productions on Sir Thomas Malory, Thomas Gray, and Lord Byron were accepted for journal publication, opening the gates for initial employment as an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Tech.

The point is to mine your graduate-school research, even when it is not congruent with your main field of specialization, in order to enhance your qualifications for employment.

Everything will probably change after that initial appointment, but at least you then will have a basis on which to start anew and reinvent your professional persona.

–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc.

 

Approaching Reality, Encroaching on Truth

One of the biggest problems most people have is they think they know what’s real and true. Their reality is the reality; their truth the truth.

Wonderful, Awful Words

A dog is a dog. A house is a house. A job is a job. We can all agree on those words representing the things to which they refer. Right? Common realities and truths. Right?

Wrong.

What specific dog are you talking about when you say “dog”? I hear “dog” and I may picture a kennel full of mutts about to be euthanized, while you may be thinking about Fido who slobbers on your face and makes your heart race with joy.

A house may be your house, a dozen houses, a row of them on skid street. My house may be a home, full of warm memories, making me cry about my little gone girls all grown up and living far away.

Your job might be a dream or a nightmare, what you’ve always wanted or never wanted. I think of “job” and there’s a dozen car lots and a few teaching positions, but mainly now sitting at the computer writing emails and processing editing work.

Writing my novels and these blog essays isn’t a job for me. It’s a pure kick of joy.

The Words Mean What They Don’t

Point? Our realities and truths are definitionally dependent. Words denote and connote. They try to refer to specific things—a dog, a house, a job—but they always refer to very different actualities in our individual brains.

So what you think of one way (cool dog, a house is a house, rotten job), I think of another (dumb animal, my house as my home, my job ain’t my life).

Everybody attaches different denotations to every word. So every reality is different; every truth contingent. (No, I am not a radical relativist. I’ll discuss the distinction another time.)

And connotations? Holy cow, Harry Carey. Just as every word evokes its own specific representation (your word “dog” means something different to you than my word “dog”), every word triggers emotions, feelings, memories, associations.

Take the Rodney King L.A. riot of 1992. It may mean nothing to you: no emotions, no memories, no feelings whatsoever. You can bet it means more than just about anything in their lives to thousands of people who lived through it. The emotions run strong; the memories are seared in their soul’s flesh.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round, Round and Round….

So your reality and truth is not my reality and truth. But neither of us is necessarily living in a false world or delusional mindset.

We’re just figures of speech, really. Humans as metaphors, with lives like words—open to interpretation, closed to conformity. Gliding and sliding down an endless slope of signification, where one thing leads to another—eternally.

Not buying it? Then let’s hear another theory for how 10,000 years of human “communication” has led to this current state of global uber-miscommunication that has us all teetering on the brink of total annihilation.  How else to explain it but to blame it on the words themselves? And our failure to compose them into compatible realities and cooperative truths.

 

 

 

10 Academic Writing Tips from PhDs

DR. JOHN Ke SAYS: I think almost everyone would agree that a lot of academic writing leaves a lot to be desired.  It can be dry and tedious, aimed only at the two or three other scholars who do similar work, rather than trying to reach a broader audience.  At its best, academic writing should avoid this.  It should be interesting and accessible to the interested layperson, and help make readers more interested, rather than less, in the topic under discussion.

As with any other writing, I think the key to good academic writing is to find a voice that is genuine and personal.  Writing can only have an effect when it seems to come from a real person.  Of course,  in academic writing one also has to cultivate an “academic” voice – one that is informed and authoritative and conversant with the other literature in the topic.  But that voice ought to also seem like it’s coming from a real person, and it ought to show why you are excited about the topic you are writing about.

If you can’t convey to your readers why you think a topic is interesting and worthy of study, you can’t expect your reader to be interested in it.   Any really good academic writing, like all good writing of any sort, needs to draw the reader in, to make the reader care about the work and understand why it is important and worth doing.

Obviously, there’s much more to successful writing than this – conveying often complicated information clearly and elegantly; finding the structure that works best to present your argument; and finding the tone that shows you are a competent, professional scholar.  But more than any of this, good academic writing must meet the most basic goal of any piece of writing – making a connection to its readers.

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DR. WILLIAM SAYS: Here’s my personal “recipe” for good, academic writing:

The professor who served as my primary advisor for my major and dissertation writing advised me to post a visual reminder to guide my writing: to tape my primary hypothesis on my computer screen so that I never sat down to write without keeping the main thing the main thing.

Nothing’s worse than getting off track in your writing and having to hit that dreaded delete button.

You must be willing to edit your own writing at a very basic level. At least read over your work for missing thoughts, run spell and grammar check, and read your writing out loud.

You also must be willing to let others read your work. They will see things you do not. They will point our areas of confusion that may have made perfect sense in your own mind in the middle of the night. Your team of helpers will fine tune your writing and take it to a higher level.

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DR. JOHN Ku SAYS: Don’t Start with the Introduction!

Unless this is your strength, don’t start with introductory paragraphs or even your introductory chapter.  Most of us are pretty sequential in our thinking.  We do this first, then this, and then that.

With academic papers, this order generally manifests with trying to write our introductions first, then the literature review, followed by the study design, etc.

However, the most effective and efficient approach is to start with sections that you are the most comfortable with, and then move around from section to section.

At some point you’ll begin to organize your logic, and eventually your sections will follow suit.

Another piece of advice, particularly if you are planning on writing a thesis or dissertation, is to first conduct and write-up your literature review.

During my dissertation proposal, when I was wrestling with a topic, I was advised to complete and write a literature review around issues I found interesting.

This was perhaps the best piece of academic advice ever given to me.

After the literature review (or chapter 2 in standard dissertations), I knew my problem statement, the gaps in the research, how similar studies have been conducted, what data collection instruments prior researchers have used, and how my study would contribute to the field.

As a result, the preceding (introduction) and following (proposed method) chapters pretty much wrote themselves after this literature review was complete.

Not bad, for a graduate student who couldn’t narrow down a topic six months before.

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DR. JOHN Ku’s “Six Rules for Good Writing”

In 1946, George Orwell presented an essay critiquing the often vague and boring manner of written English.  Perhaps a similar argument can be made today with academic writing.

When I was a first-year graduate student, I sat next to a dictionary and a pitcher of coffee trying to read long and mundane peer-reviewed scholarly articles.  When it was my turn to produce such content, I caught myself falling into a similar trap.

After years of reading and writing academic material, I now try creating content that can read by non-academics and academics alike.

To prevent you from falling into the vague and boring style of academic writing, Orwell recommends the following six strategies:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I’ll add a few recommendations to Orwell’s list:

  • Get to the point
  • Don’t repeat yourself (unless you’re writing to politicians)
  • And usually, the more succinct a manuscript, the better (you can’t hide behind a stick, as my former advisor would say).

 

–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc. and Baldwin Book Publishing