In conjunction with the accompanying Facebook page I have been writing and posting Notes for my "Fans" every week or two. These short Notes/Essays deal with a variety of topics often brought up by readers working on their thesis or dissertation. Recently the Facebook page has been acting very temperamental and I've not been very successful in having them posted. So, I have decided to also include them here. Just click here to go to the Facebook Notes Archive. I think you will find a variety of ideas that will be helpful to you as you work toward the completion of your thesis or dissertation.
(NOTE: Periodically I receive requests for information on how to prepare a "thesis statement" rather than actually writing a thesis/dissertation. How To Write a Thesis Statement is an excellent website that clearly sets forth what a "thesis statement" is and how to actually prepare one.)
The Thinking About It Stage
The "thinking about it stage" is when you are finally faced with the reality of completing your degree. Usually the early phases of a graduate program proceed in clear and very structured ways. The beginning phases of a graduate program proceed in much the same manner as an undergraduate degree program. There are clear requirements and expectations, and the graduate student moves along, step by step, getting ever closer to the completion of the program. One day, however, the clear structure begins to diminish and now you're approaching the thesis/dissertation stage. This is a new and different time. These next steps are more and more defined by you and not your adviser, the program, or the department.
1. Be inclusive with your thinking.Don't try to eliminate ideas too quickly. Build on your ideas and see how many different research projects you can identify. Give yourself the luxury of being expansive in your thinking at this stage -- you won't be able to do this later on. Try and be creative.
2. Write down your ideas. This will allow you to revisit an idea later on. Or, you can modify and change an idea. If you don't write your ideas they tend to be in a continual state of change and you will probably have the feeling that you're not going anywhere. What a great feeling it is to be able to sit down and scan the many ideas you have been thinking about, if they're written down.
3. Try not to be overly influenced at this time by what you feel others expect from you (your colleagues, your profession, your academic department, etc.). You have a much better chance of selecting a topic that will be really of interest to you if it is your topic. This will be one of the few opportunities you may have in your professional life to focus in on a research topic that is really of your own choosing.
4. Don't begin your thinking by assuming that your research will draw international attention to you!! Instead, be realistic in setting your goal. Make sure your expectations are tempered by:
... the realization that you are fulfilling an academic requirement,
... the fact that the process of conducting the research may be just as important (or more important) than the outcomes of the research, and
... the idea that first and foremost the whole research project should be a learning experience for you.
If you can keep these ideas in mind while you're thinking through your research you stand an excellent chance of having your research project turn out well.
5. Be realistic about the time that you're willing to commit to your research project. If it's a 10 year project that you're thinking about admit it at the beginning and then decide whether or not you have 10 years to give to it. If the project you'd like to do is going to demand more time than you're willing to commit then you have a problem.
I know it's still early in your thinking but it's never too early to create a draft of a timeline. Try using the 6 Stages (see the next item) and put a start and a finish time for each. Post your timeline in a conspicuous place (above your computer monitor?) so that it continually reminds you how you're doing. Periodically update your timeline with new dates as needed.
6. If you're going to ask for a leave of absence from your job while you're working on your research this isn't a good time to do it. Chances are you can do the "thinking about it" stage without a leave of absence. Assuming that there are six major phases that you will have during your research project, probably the best time to get the most from a leave of absence is during the fourth stage* - the writing stage. This is the time when you really need to be thinking well. To be able to work at your writing in large blocks of time without interruptions is something really important. A leave of absence from your job can allow this to happen. A leave of absence from your job prior to this stage may not be a very efficient use of the valuable time away from your work.
Stage 1 - Thinking About It
Stage 2 - Preparing the Proposal
Stage 3- Conducting the Research
Stage 4- Writing the Research Paper*
Stage 5- Sharing the Research Outcomes with Others
Stage 6- Revising the Research Paper
7. It can be most helpful at this early stage to try a very small preliminary research study to test out some of your ideas to help you gain further confidence in what you'd like to do. The study can be as simple as conducting half a dozen informal interviews with no attempt to document what is said. The key is that it will give you a chance to get closer to your research and to test out whether or not you really are interested in the topic. And, you can do it before you have committed yourself to doing something you may not like. Take your time and try it first.
Assuming you've done a good job of "thinking about" your research project, you're ready to actually prepare the proposal. A word of caution - those students who tend to have a problem in coming up with a viable proposal often are the ones that have tried to rush through the "thinking about it" part and move too quickly to trying to write the proposal. Here's a final check. Do each of these statements describe you? If they do you're ready to prepare your research proposal.
- I am familiar with other research that has been conducted in areas related to my research project.
- (___Yes, it's me)
( ___No, not me)
- (___Yes, it's me)
( ___No, not me)
- (___Yes, it's me)
( ___No, not me)
- (___Yes, it's me)
( ___No, not me)
Okay, you're ready to write your research proposal. Here are some ideas to help with the task:
8. Read through someone else's research proposal. Very often a real stumbling block is that we don't have an image in our mind of what the finished research proposal should look like. How has the other proposal been organized? What are the headings that have been used? Does the other proposal seem clear? Does it seem to suggest that the writer knows the subject area? Can I model my proposal after one of the ones that I've seen? If you can't readily find a proposal or two to look at, ask your adviser to see some. Chances are your adviser has a file drawer filled with them.
9. Make sure your proposal has a comprehensive review of the literature included. Now this idea, at first thought, may not seem to make sense. I have heard many students tell me that "This is only the proposal. I'll do a complete literature search for the dissertation. I don't want to waste the time now." But, this is the time to do it. The rationale behind the literature review consists of an argument with two lines of analysis: 1) this research is needed, and 2) the methodology I have chosen is most appropriate for the question that is being asked. Now, why would you want to wait? Now is the time to get informed and to learn from others who have preceded you! If you wait until you are writing the dissertation it is too late. You've got to do it some time so you might as well get on with it and do it now. Plus, you will probably want to add to the literature review when you're writing the final dissertation.
10. With the ready availability of photocopy machines you should be able to bypass many of the hardships that previous dissertation researchers had to deal with in developing their literature review. When you read something that is important to your study, photocopy the relevant article or section. Keep your photocopies organized according to categories and sections. And, most importantly, photocopy the bibliographic citation so that you can easily reference the material in your bibliography. Then, when you decide to sit down and actually write the literature review, bring out your photocopied sections, put them into logical and sequential order, and then begin your writing.
11. What is a proposal anyway? A good proposal should consist of the first three chapters of the dissertation. It should begin with a statement of the problem/background information (typically Chapter I of the dissertation), then move on to a review of the literature (Chapter 2), and conclude with a defining of the research methodology (Chapter 3). Of course, it should be written in a future tense since it is a proposal. To turn a good proposal into the first three chapters of the dissertation consists of changing the tense from future tense to past tense (from "This is what I would like to do" to "This is what I did") and making any changes based on the way you actually carried out the research when compared to how you proposed to do it. Often the intentions we state in our proposal turn out different in reality and we then have to make appropriate editorial changes to move it from proposal to dissertation.
12. Focus your research very specifically. Don't try to have your research cover too broad an area. Now you may think that this will distort what you want to do. This may be the case, but you will be able to do the project if it is narrowly defined. Usually a broadly defined project is not do-able. By defining too broadly it may sound better to you, but there is a great chance that it will be unmanageable as a research project. When you complete your research project it is important that you have something specific and definitive to say. This can be accommodated and enhanced by narrowly defining your project. Otherwise you may have only broadly based things to say about large areas that really provide little guidance to others that may follow you. Often the researcher finds that what he/she originally thought to be a good research project turns out to really be a group of research projects. Do one project for your dissertation and save the other projects for later in your career. Don't try to solve all of the problems in this one research project.
13. Include a title on your proposal. I'm amazed at how often the title is left for the end of the student's writing and then somehow forgotten when the proposal is prepared for the committee. A good proposal has a good title and it is the first thing to help the reader begin to understand the nature of your work. Use it wisely! Work on your title early in the process and revisit it often. It's easy for a reader to identify those proposals where the title has been focused upon by the student. Preparing a good title means:
- ...having the most important words appear toward the beginning of your title,
...limiting the use of ambiguous or confusing words,
..breaking your title up into a title and subtitle when you have too many words, and
...including key words that will help researchers in the future find your work.
14. It's important that your research proposal be organized around a set of questions that will guide your research. When selecting these guiding questions try to write them so that they frame your research and put it into perspective with other research. These questions must serve to establish the link between your research and other research that has preceded you. Your research questions should clearly show the relationship of your research to your field of study. Don't be carried away at this point and make your questions too narrow. You must start with broad relational questions.
A good question:
Do adult learners in a rural adult education setting have characteristics that are similar to adult learners in general ?
A poor question:
What are the characteristics of rural adult learners in an adult education program? (too narrow)
A poor question:
How can the XYZ Agency better serve rural adult learners? (not generalizable)
15. Now here are a few more ideas regarding the defining of your research project through your proposal.
a. Make sure that you will be benefitting those whoare participating in the research. Don't only see the subjects as sources of data for you to analyze. Make sure you treat them as participants in the research. They have the right to understand what you are doing and you have a responsibility to share the findings with them for their reaction. Your research should not only empower you with new understandings but it should also empower those who are participating with you.
b. Choose your methodology wisely. Don't be too quick in running away from using a quantitative methodology because you fear the use of statistics. A qualitative approach to research can yield new and exciting understandings, but it should not be undertaken because of a fear of quantitative research. A well designed quantitative research study can often be accomplished in very clear and direct ways. A similar study of a qualitative nature usually requires considerably more time and a tremendous burden to create new paths for analysis where previously no path had existed. Choose your methodology wisely!
c. Sometimes a combined methodology makes the most sense. You can combine a qualitative preliminary study (to define your population more clearly, to develop your instrumentation more specifically or to establish hypotheses for investigation) with a quantitative main study to yield a research project that works well.
d. Deciding on where you will conduct the research is a major decision. If you are from another area of the country or a different country there is often an expectation that you will return to your "home" to conduct the research. This may yield more meaningful results, but it will also most likely create a situation whereby you are expected to fulfill other obligations while you are home. For many students the opportunity to conduct a research project away from home is an important one since they are able to better control many of the intervening variables that they can not control at home. Think carefully regarding your own situation before you make your decision.
e. What if you have the opportunity for conducting your research in conjunction with another agency or project that is working in related areas. Should you do it? Sometimes this works well, but most often the dissertation researcher gives up valuable freedom to conduct the research project in conjunction with something else. Make sure thetrade-offs are in yourfavor. It can be very disastrous to have the other project suddenly get off schedule and to find your own research project temporarily delayed. Or, you had tripled the size of your sample since the agency was willing to pay the cost of postage. They paid for the postage for the pre-questionnaire. Now they are unable to assist with postage for the post-questionnaire. What happens to your research? I usually find that the cost of conducting dissertation research is not prohibitive and the trade-offs to work in conjunction with another agency are not in favor of the researcher. Think twice before altering your project to accommodate someone else. Enjoy the power and the freedom to make your own decisions (and mistakes!) -- this is the way we learn!
16. Selecting and preparing your advisory committee to respond to your proposal should not be taken lightly. If you do your "homework" well your advisory committee can be most helpful to you. Try these ideas:
a. If you are given the opportunity to select your dissertation committee do it wisely. Don't only focus on content experts. Make sure you have selected faculty for your committee who are supportive of youand are willing to assist you in successfully completing your research. You want a committee that you can ask for help and know that they will provide it for you. Don't forget, you can always access content experts who are not on your committee at any time during your research project.
b. Your major professor/adviser/chairperson is your ally. When you go to the committee for reactions to your proposal make sure your major professor is fully supportive of you. Spend time with him/her before the meeting so that your plans are clear and you know you have full support. The proposal meeting should be seen as an opportunity for you and your major professor to seek the advice of the committee. Don't ever go into the proposal meeting with the feeling that it is you against them!
c. Provide the committee members with a well-written proposal well in advance of the meeting. Make sure they have ample time to read the proposal.
d. Plan the proposal meeting well.If graphic presentations are necessary to help the committee with understandings make sure you prepare them so they look good. A well planned meeting will help your committee understand that you are prepared to move forward with well planned research. Your presentation style at the meeting should not belittle your committee members (make it sound like you know they have read your proposal) but you should not assume too much (go through each of the details with an assumption that maybe one of the members skipped over that section).
Now this is the part we've been waiting for. I must assume that you have come up with a good idea for research, had your proposal approved, collected the data, conducted your analyses and now you're about to start writing the dissertation. If you've done the first steps well this part shouldn't be too bad. In fact it might even be enjoyable!
17. The major myth in writing a dissertation is that you start writing at Chapter One and then finish your writing at Chapter Five. This is seldom the case. The most productive approach in writing the dissertation is to begin writing those parts of the dissertation that you are most comfortable with. Then move about in your writing by completing various sections as you think of them. At some point you will be able to spread out in front of you all of the sections that you have written. You will be able to sequence them in the best order and then see what is missing and should be added to the dissertation. This way seems to make sense and builds on those aspects of your study that are of most interest to you at any particular time. Go with what interests you, start your writing there, and then keep building!
18. If you prepared a comprehensive proposal you will now be rewarded! Pull out the proposal and begin by checking your proposed research methodology. Change the tense from future tense to past tense and then make any additions or changes so that the methodology section truly reflects what you did. You have now been able to change sections from the proposal to sections for the dissertation. Move on to the Statement of the Problem and the Literature Review in the same manner.
19. I must assume you're using some form of word processing on a computer to write your dissertation. (if you aren't, you've missed a major part of your doctoral preparation!) If your study has specific names of people, institutions and places that must be changed to provide anonymity don't do it too soon. Go ahead and write your dissertation using the real names. Then at the end of the writing stage you can easily have the computer make all of the appropriate name substitutions. If you make these substitutions too early it can really confuse your writing.
20. As you get involved in the actual writing of your dissertation you will find that conservation of paper will begin to fade away as a concern. Just as soon as you print a draft of a chapter there will appear a variety of needed changes and before you know it another draft will be printed. And, it seems almost impossible to throw away any of the drafts! After awhile it will become extremely difficult to remember which draft of your chapter you may be looking at. Print each draft of your dissertation on a different color paper. With the different colors of paper it will be easy to see which is the latest draft and you can quickly see which draft a committee member might be reading.
To attain a doctoral degree, every Ph.D. student needs to navigate the dissertation-writing process. Writing from A to B: A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies demystifies this process. The author, Dr. Keith Hjortshoj, has drawn upon his many years of experience with Cornell’s renowned John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines to craft this invaluable manual, which provides clear and cogent insights to lead you through each phase.
Through the generosity of a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools, I am delighted to make Writing from A to B: A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies available. You will find this guide to be indispensible to each stage of your dissertation, from conceptualization to final revision.
Download Writing from A to B (PDF).
As you enter this important phase of your graduate education, remember that you have the support of your special committee, your field, and the Graduate School. Cornell has many resources to assist our students in reaching their degree goals, and we urge you to communicate regularly with your advisors so that they can help you move forward and access whatever support services you may need to complete your Ph.D.
We wish you the very best for your dissertation work, and we look forward to the conferral of your doctoral degree.
Barbara A. Knuth
Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School