Dissertation Guide

When you enter a doctorate program online or on campus, you will need to create a dissertation plan. Many people confuse the terms “dissertation” and “thesis.” A thesis is a research project for a master's degree intended to show complete comprehension of what you've learned during your program. A dissertation, on the other hand, is for a doctoral degree and much more involved: extensive research amounting to a novel contribution to your academic field. It usually requires many months of planning, research, writing, and editing. This guide is intended to make it a little easier.

Preparing for a Dissertation – What to Expect

The dissertation process may seem overwhelming when you look over your doctoral program's requirements. The best approach for surmounting this challenge is to break your dissertation into several smaller tasks. First, write a list of potential research ideas. They should be innovative and original, adding to the discussion in your field, but they don't yet need to be fully fleshed out.

Once you've done some initial research and selected the best idea, you will need to submit a prospectus to your dissertation committee. This is a 5-10 page document summarizing your research thesis and ideas. Once this is approved, create an outline and schedule for sections and chapters. The first draft can take a year or more, depending on your subject. Have faculty members and mentors review major sections during your writing process. The first draft should be ready about five to six months before your dissertation is due. Obtain revision feedback from your mentors, make edits, and prepare for your dissertation defense.

Prepare Mentally

Dissertations require extremely thorough research that revolves around a specific topic and question. You will need an intimate understanding of your work habits, procrastination tendencies, and ability to meet deadlines. You need to give yourself a realistic window to dig into your subject and collect data. If your research relies on public surveys, you should conduct a trial run on a small group. This will allow you to identify research flaws and opportunities early in the process.

Professors and Ph.D. students know how emotionally draining this process can be. It is important to schedule activities to help yourself de-stress. This survey from Keele University collected graduate student reports of their surprising and vivid struggles with confidence, personal values, and productivity. The hundreds of pages you dedicate to a dissertation may cause you to rethink some of your own fundamental assumptions. For some, this can be an enlightening experience. Others may feel lost, like their core values have been shaken. You can manage the stress by using campus counselors, extracurricular activities, and faculty members during this challenging period.

Strategies for Making It Through

Break it down

Once your begin your Ph.D. program, you need to take out a calendar and mark your dissertation due date. Once you have an outline of your content, you need to set miniature deadlines for each section, spanning the next year and a half. Spend the first three to four months writing your prospectus. Author Liena Vayzman knows what's it's like to struggle with a dissertation schedule. As a Ph.D. graduate from Yale University, she now coaches students through the trials of writing a dissertation. Vayzman instructs students to try bursts of writing, like a few 40-minute sessions, training yourself to develop a daily writing habit.

Get some help

Depending on your specialty and field of study, your dissertation argument may be strengthened by collaborating with other professors or students. You will need to obtain permission from your dissertation committee before embarking on a co-authored project. Credit for co-authored materials must be carefully formatted, following authorship listings provided by your school.

Just write, plainly and regularly

Every scholar has an individual writing style. You may have an inkling about your tendencies and shortcomings based on previous essay experiences. Avoid linguistic flourishes and filler phrases like “would seem to show,” “due to,” and “in light of.” Be succinct and direct. But don't let your inner editor slow your progress down. You may find it easier to churn out several paragraphs throughout the day, and then edit near the end of each session.

Writing and revisions are a cyclical process. You shouldn't write your first draft in isolation, allowing revisions to pile up. You must meet with your dissertation committee every few months to make sure you're on the right track. Include faculty appointments within your writing schedule, and bring finished sections to these revision meetings. The Graduate School of Education at the University of Buffalo recommends you give faculty members 14 days to respond to each draft request.

Don't forget the little things

Professor Tara Brabazon warns against submitting a bibliography that is incorrectly formatted or full of low-quality sources. As you compile a list of citation materials, check to see that a reputable publisher backs each source, and that an expert within your field authors it. Dissertation committees will scrutinize your references to make sure you have read the breadth of canonical material relating to your subject. They will also take errors in reference formatting very seriously, since it is critical for scholars to use appropriate citations in all doctoral-level work.

The editing process should be broken up throughout your writing schedule, as you submit portions of your dissertation as your write them. Once you complete these revisions and have your first draft, you may wish to hire a professional editor to view your project. Make sure to comply with your college's guidelines on ethical editor use. This may include a hiring screening process and committee approval.

Online Dissertations

Many reputable colleges now offer online doctoral degrees, leading to major shifts in academic traditions and dissertation processes. As well-known colleges such as University of Houston and Arizona State University join the ranks of online graduate schools, department heads and dissertation committees are furthering the role of technology in the dissertation writing process.

Online students may be worried about the lack of face-to-face interaction, but online institutions, such as Walden University, are sure to follow traditional committee nomination requirements and provide plenty of online options for communication. Most require students to have a three-person committee before starting a dissertation. Students can correspond with online writing centers and advisors via email or over the phone to plan and revise drafts. In any case, you will still need to be very proactive, since you will not have the luxury of seeing professors and advisors in person each day.

Many online research methods you cultivated during your online program will come in handy as you research your dissertation. Any citations should be from reputable sources. Your school library should give you access to article databases like JSTOR and EBSCO. They may also have contacts for reference librarians who can compile lists of suggested reading.

Online colleges often host academic discussion boards, social media apps, and networking tools for you to contact students and professors. You may consider reaching out to another academic within your field to co-author a dissertation, if your school permits it. Consider the contacts you have built up during your academic career, and ask these individuals if they would like to contribute to your project.

A dissertation is a monumental capstone in your academic career, demonstrating your commitment and contribution to your area of study. When you first enroll in a Ph.D. program, you must understand that your dissertation project will require great amounts of focus, dedication, research, revisions, and committee collaboration. While the process may feel overwhelming, most Ph.D. students complete their dissertations with a new understanding of their work ethic and passion for their field of study.