The Ultimate Guide to Dissertations

Stage Two: Sourcing and Researching

A dissertation may inform its audience, but its purpose is not to serve exclusively as a straightforward resource. It must also present a thorough analysis of relevant, current, and available research and a unique perspective tying it all together. In the end, the dissertation adds value to the overall discussion regarding the subject at hand rather than regurgitating the same familiar points. Strive to write something future students and academics can themselves cite as a resource.

Outlines will change over time, based on available research and findings. But creating a solid one before searching for sources expedites the process of searching for support.

“As most may already know, outlines are effective starting points for any other essay or presentation, and the dissertation is no exception,” says Huckabay. “For someone deep into their graduate career with several publications under their belt, this may appear as a simple task … however, keep in mind that you have to tell a story, so there's an underlying narrative that all of your work has to fit into. Preparing a structure to tessellate the puzzle pieces of your graduate career will do wonders for building your masterpiece, so spend some time on this.”

Types of Sources

Ph.D. candidates pull sources from a wide range of media. The only thing they needs to have in common are relevance and legitimacy. Once both points have been established, writers have their pick of books, journal articles, periodicals, interviews with industry experts, videos, audio, and more to supplement their major themes. Sources come in three fun flavors: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary sources are anything original. Like the label states, they are the first bits of data created. For example, a political science student exploring American foreign policy during the Cold War might download a public domain audio clip of President John F. Kennedy's April 1961 speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Secondary sources relate to or analyze primary sources. The very same political science student might check for reactions from members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors quoting the speech in an article on the Bay of Pigs. Alternately, a secondary source here would be a biography on JFK discussing the impact his talk may have held, or its place within the broader historical context at the time.

Tertiary sources compile primary and secondary sources into one reference guide. They could be a bibliography, an archive, an encyclopedia, or something similar. While clearly not the most advisable resource for critical analysis, they can provide quite a boon for researchers scrambling for primary and secondary sources. When browsing for a little more information about JFK's Cold War actions, our hypothetical political science doctoral candidate might consult an online bibliography listing recommended reads.

The strongest dissertations rely heavily on primary and secondary sources for their information, with as many of the former as possible. Try to avoid citing too many tertiary sources, as they are by nature the furthest removed from the most reliable primaries. More information about what constitutes a primary, secondary, or tertiary resource can be found here.


Effective dissertations support every point with legitimate, relevant research. Fail to illustrate why the connections being made are being made, fail the doctorate. Fail to include reliable information from reliable sources, fail the doctorate.

Ph.D. candidates not only need to investigate their chosen topics, but the actual research as well. A discredited or unreliable source severely hamstrings a dissertation's validity. Luckily, ferreting out the right works isn't a Sisyphean undertaking. Qualified sources can easily be discovered with a couple of simple tips.

  • Peer-reviewed: Most of the studies published in academic journals have been evaluated and confirmed by multiple sets of neutral professors and scholars using double-blinded methods. If no retractions, updates, or negations have been subsequently published, then the source is probably valid. Every college library will provide access to the most reliable, trusted periodicals in academia. JSTOR, the largest repository for academic journals, is available through institutional or individual accounts. Both of these provide excellent starting points when searching for peer-reviewed works.
  • Current: Doctoral candidates in all fields, especially those involving health and safety, must take pains to only include the latest relevant research in their dissertations. Paying close attention to all the current publications might mean completely altering the direction of project should new studies emerge. And that's a pain but well worth the effort, especially once the oral defense rolls around. Committee members will more than likely ask questions gauging awareness of current scholarship.
  • From a proven source: As a general rule of Internet research, sites ending with .edu and .gov are safe to cite. Beyond the digital realm, check for books, periodicals, and other media hailing from accepted scholars who have not been discredited as a result of falsified data, plagiarism, losing their license, or similar academic or professional crime. A very public, relatively recent example of an unreliable source would be Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Though published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, he lost his license to practice medicine in the U.K. when his reports linking autism to vaccines proved entirely fraudulent. The periodical then retracted its publication of his infamous article. Because of these charges involving egregious academic misconduct, it is likely most dissertations including him as a reliable source will not hold up to committee scrutiny.
  • Backs up with reliable sources or explains methodology: Strong resources pull their information from other strong resources. Check the bibliographies and works cited of sources to ensure veracity. Even if the rhetoric sounds fancy, a book or an article just will not do if the information comes from unreliable references. Researchers hoping to someday be strong resources in their own right need to detail exactly how they came about compiling and analyzing their data; failing to explicitly illustrate methodology, however accidental, could lead negate several years' worth of research.

Within the STEM fields, there is one unique dictate doctoral candidates need to always follow if they hope to succeed academically and professionally.

“The most important advice I can give for scientific research is that results must be reproducible. If you can't repeat an experiment, people generally won't believe your argument, no matter how convincing,” says Huckabay. “If you get an interesting result from an experiment, do it again — if it's repeatable, you can get statistics. If you have statistics backing your results, you can make a very strong argument for your way of doing something. It's very difficult to argue with numbers.”

Reference librarians, faculty members, advisors, and even industry experts may all be consulted when determining which resources to trust. They give insight into which academics have lost their authority and which studies and theories might have been disproven or updated. Even better, these individuals might know a few folks up for an interview.

Stage Three: The Advisor

Common advice for Ph.D. students before they even send in their applications tells them to scope out — even contact — faculty members whose research matches their academic interests. This means reading over their CVs and tracking down their published works. A particular professor can be just as helpful to a student as the doctoral program itself. There's no guarantee you'll get to work with your No. 1 choice, though, so it is best to enter studies with a few different options in mind.

When approaching a candidate to serve as a faculty advisor, be straightforward, polite, and professional. A sloppy or incomprehensible pitch or a poor attitude can ruin any chances of working with a desired professor. It's also a great idea to become familiar with his or her credentials before inquiring as well. This shows a serious dedication to the subjects involved and is a signal that the faculty member was not selected blindly. In some instances, more than one advisor might be necessary.

“It's a good idea to select a topic that you are really interested in and select a chair that you enjoy working with, because for the next few years you will live, breath, and eat this topic and work very closely with your chair,” advises Kovach. “This person will likely have the most important influence on your research and will provide guidance throughout the process.”

An advisor's role involves keeping doctoral candidates accountable and on track as they research, write, and defend their dissertations. They serve as a point person for regular check-ins on research progress, offering advice about recommended resources and how to move forward after hitting a snag. In the case of the sciences, this might also mean providing lab space and other needed equipment and materials. Faculty advisors also make for a great way to find interviews with industry and academic experts who might prove crucial to the dissertation's success.

Huckabay points out that even the professors with the CVs most congruent with a student's needs still might not work out as advisors. Students must also look into professors' teaching and classroom or lab management styles.

“If you join a group with little guidance and don't work well alone, you're going to end up languishing in graduate school,” he says. “On the other hand, if you're an independent worker and you pick an advisor who's peering over your shoulder during every move of the pipette, you'll go insane dealing with the day-to-day. The best choice you can make early on in graduate school is to choose a research path that interests you with a compatible advisor.”

Once the dissertation has wrapped and the Ph.D. has been conferred, make sure to extend a token of gratitude to the faculty advisor. A personal gift and a card should suffice, and thanking them after the oral defense is a courteous and highly recommended gesture.

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