The Ultimate Guide to Dissertations

There comes a time in every young (and not-so-young) doctoral candidate's life when they must begin battling the ever-looming final boss of their degree plans — The Dissertation. This intimidating document wields the power to wholly validate or utterly destroy their entire academic careers. But the well-prepared, savvy student knows how to make that Cerberus of scholarly pursuits flip over on its back and beg for a belly rub. Completing the dissertation will not be an easy journey. It will involve a number of challenges and the occasional existential overload. In spite of the myriad inherent difficulties, however, winning that diploma makes all the cliched blood, sweat, and tears well worth it.

Stage One: The Basics

Inspirational Facebook images love that old adage about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step, and it actually applies pretty well to the dissertation process. A dissertation is nothing without a cogent thesis. It needs to be focused (but not too narrow) and contribute at least something new to the overarching body of research on the chosen subject.

For example, writing about how A Confederacy of Dunces parallels doomed author John Kennedy Toole's life covers extremely well-known scholarly territory. No faculty or department would approve this proposal. But pitching them parallels between the lively cast of A Confederacy of Dunces and archetypes common to Greek tragedy might pique their interest. It's specific enough to fill the sometimes hundreds of pages necessary to complete a doctoral program, but it's not so narrow that sources will not support the main ideas.

How students must structure their dissertations hinges largely on the school, the program, the major, and even the subject itself. There are no definitive rules for how long these documents must be upon completion, and no statistics about the average length appear to exist. Some dissertations can be as short as 30 pages. Others reach book length. Students will need to delve into specific programs' general expectations before applying. Otherwise, they might find that 40-pager they were banking on is actually supposed to be a veritable phone book.

Dr. Jami Kovach, associate professor in the College of Technology at University of Houston and director of the Lean Six Sigma program, notes that some students receive the privilege of breaking one massive dissertation into several smaller, more manageable essays. “I think the format or structure of the traditional dissertation is starting to change (or at least there are more options). For example, as opposed to the traditional 8 or so chapter model, there is a growing trend for the 3-paper model,” she says.

“I like the idea of the 3-paper model because one of the most important things in the academic world is publishing research articles,” she continues. “So, why not teach Ph.D. students to do this through writing their dissertations? Then, when Ph.D. students graduate, they have some publications (or at least some under review) to bolster their C.V.”

Tone, however, is a little less negotiable. Everyone writes with their own personal flair, but they need to write scholarly, knowledgably, and clearly. The dissertation is a serious undertaking — not really a space for experimental stream-of-conscious automatic writing or competing for the title of America's Next Top Tina Fey. Regardless of the discipline, professors and committees want Ph.D. candidates to write with the utmost clarity and heavy detail.

Dr. Heath Huckabay, a postdoctoral research associate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who recently completed his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, offers up an example from the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields:

“The tone of a scientific dissertation follows that of the scientific literature, which generally isn't something seen elsewhere. … When you're looking to publish scientific research, every word means something. ” he explains. “The phrase ‘cell reproduction was 15% faster at 32C as compared to reproduction at 22C' means much more to a scientist than ‘the hotter cells reproduced faster,' so word choice can alter how convincing a scientific explanation is.”

Depending on the discipline, the aspiring Ph.D. will have to know MLA, Chicago/Turabian, or APA formatting styles. Each department has its own standards for margins, font size, and spacing. However, every dissertation will require a bibliography of works cited and consulted in the required style, and frequently an abstract. Many fields, particularly the sciences, need a detailed explanation of research methods to ensure validity.

Most dissertations also involve an oral defense. Usually between 20 and 40 minutes, this component requires students to defend their research in front of a faculty panel. They explain the thesis, methodology, and conclusions behind their dissertations, and must prepare themselves to answer a volley of questions afterwards. Committees want proof that their graduates can think off-the-cuff about their chosen disciplines and know the content from all angles. As with the written portion, the oral defense should not be considered an opportunity to make jokes. Stay professional. A few splashes of lightheartedness can absolutely help add piquancy an oral defense, but it isn't the place for breaking out the zany humor.

Dissertations take on different forms depending on the aforementioned variables. The lack of any industry standards defining how students should approach them makes the life-changing document seem even more intimidating. But the one thing they all have in common — no matter the school or industry or page length or decision to incorporate ed-tech — happens to be the one thing that actively chips away at the dissertation's big, scary presence. Unlike the familiar essays written for class, dissertations are almost always self-directed. Even though they involve faculty advising, there are no prompts or rubrics to keep scholars focused, so they enjoy far more control over what direction they wish to take their research. That high degree of flexibility and independence empower Ph.D. candidates and grant them control over one of the most important documents they'll ever write.

“Typically, you will select a dissertation advisor/committee chair at some point during your coursework,” Kovach says. “You will then develop a prospectus regarding your research topic and select a committee (usually 2-3 additional faculty members beyond your chair, although some universities are now entertaining the option of an industry committee member, I believe, especially when the research is being done or relates to an issue in industry).

“Near the end of your coursework, you will take a qualifying exam (sometimes called by other names in other fields, but this is what we called it in engineering), and then you officially become a Ph.D. candidate (if you pass),” Kovach continues. “Once your coursework is finished, you register for and receive academic credit for working on your research. Maybe halfway or two-thirds of the way through your research, you write your proposal and present it to your committee for approval (and feedback). If approved, you finish your research and defend your dissertation.”

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