Matters to a Degree

Dissertations are an important method of demonstrating that you can identify a topic of concern to the field, and read, understand and incorporate the relevant literature into a new research question to be investigated. The dissertation process allows you to design and implement a study that illuminates the research question, followed by analyzing the data, discussing the results and identifying the implications.

For many, this process seems daunting, particularly if you adopt the belief that your dissertation topic will determine your career trajectory and earmark your area of study and expertise forever. While producing a quality dissertation is necessary, the process is much more important than the outcome. The dissertation is an academic exercise to prove one's ability for entry into the profession. Following are some of the most common roadblocks that students must overcome to successfully finish the dissertation.

  • Not carefully selecting your chair and committee members. A good chair and committee can make the process infinitely difficult or very smooth (if you do your part). What makes a good chair? Someone who is available, committed to helping you move along and finish in a reasonable time frame, flexible, consistent, sees the dissertation being primarily about you (not him or her), and able to get along with his or her own colleagues. Students sometimes forget that they are consumers: You are paying tuition for an educational service, which includes dissertation assistance. Be sure that your chair and members are going to be able to help you in the ways that you need it. You should interview all potential chairs and committee members.

Consider these questions: How many other dissertations are they chairing? What types of dissertations have they overseen before? What's the average time it's taken for their students to complete their project from start to finish? How do they prefer to communicate about revisions and suggestions? How often are they willing to meet with you? How long does it usually take them to read drafts and provide feedback? Are they planning a sabbatical or leave of absence? Do they have any special requirements or expectations? How do they handle differences of opinion with students and committee members?

  • Not understanding the requirements of the program/university. It is critical that you have read and know your program handbook well, which outlines dissertation and other requirements. Understand the procedures for conflict resolution. Know what types of dissertations are acceptable in your program, as well as any unwritten expectations. Confirm whether changes in program requirements after you started the program apply to you. You should know your program's timelines, sequencing of requirements for advancement to candidacy and dissertation policies. It can be helpful to map out a detailed schedule for every phase of your dissertation and share it with your chair for feedback. Be sure to schedule regular time each day or week for dissertation tasks in a manner that is compatible with your work style. If changes are made to your dissertation plan, confirm them in writing.

  • Not knowing when to say "enough!" Your dissertation need not become your life's work, even though it may seem as if it is at the time. The dissertation is designed for you to demonstrate critical-thinking and research skills appropriate for an entry-level psychologist. You will write and rewrite your dissertation many times, but it is endlessly perfectible. You have to stop at some point. Thus, you should work to restrict, not expand topics, and conclude your literature review even though new data is being published on your topic all the time. Take full responsibility for completion by initiating communication and updates with your chair and members. Don't wait for them to come to you, and don't become so obsessed with the process that you lose sight of the objective.

  • Not taking time for yourself. Although it may be tempting when you're pressed for time, avoid eliminating self-care activities. This is the biggest mistake students can make, because when you're overtired and keep working, you end up being less effective for longer periods, and become even more exhausted, depleted, stressed and even angry. You deserve guiltless self-care and should find ways to celebrate dissertation milestones along the way. It's always important to consider life balance and maintain perspective throughout the process so that dissertation roadblocks can be addressed and overcome.