Degree In Sight
Alarm, terror, worry, despair, panic. Do those words describe how you feel about writing your dissertation? If so, you're not alone. The dreaded doctoral dissertation can inspire fear in even the most courageous students.
After you've selected a topic, one of the first major tasks is writing the literature review — the section some experts say is the most difficult and time-consuming. Unlike the methods and results sections, which follow a highly regimented format, the literature review gives students more latitude to develop their own ideas, says Sharon Foster, PhD, a psychologist at Alliant International University and co-author of "Dissertations And Theses from Start to Finish: Psychology and Related Fields" (1993). "You're not just summarizing what's known," Foster says. "You're also trying to figure out what needs to be known to advance the science."
That means critically evaluating the literature and looking for holes, unanswered questions and methodological weaknesses.
Here are five strategies to keep you focused and productive as you tackle the first section of your dissertation:
To conduct a thorough review of the literature, you'll need to read dozens of papers. Unless you possess supernatural powers of memorization, you'll want to create a system for keeping track of the important information. What kind of system is up to you. "There is no template," says Joan Bolker, EdD, author of "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis" (1998). "You have to look at who you are. You have to figure out what's going to fit for you."
For example, if you're the type of student who makes detailed outlines, keeps immaculate files and thinks organizational software is fun, approach your dissertation with the same organizational gusto that you approach the rest of your life. If you're technologically savvy, use the latest smartphone app to keep track of your notes. But if organization doesn't come naturally, keep your system simple. A complex method of index cards and color-coded tabs may make you feel overwhelmed. Even keeping separate, albeit messy, piles can help tame the chaos. You don't have to be an organizational guru to write a dissertation, Bolker says. "I've had several [students who were] slobs who wrote fantastic dissertations."
Whatever system you choose, keep track of your citations. You don't want to be one of the students "scurrying around the library to look up the references" right before the deadline, Bolker notes.
Students often cast too wide a net when they start their literature reviews, Foster says. "They think they have to write about everything they've read." The result is a huge literature review with too much background and not enough information about your specific research topic. If your dissertation is on relational aggression among elementary school kids, focus in quickly on the type of aggression you're interested in and the age group rather than writing 20 pages of background on aggression, Foster says.
To help narrow your focus, Foster recommends writing the end of the literature review — the part directly relevant to your research question — first. "Then go back and write your introductory materials," she says.
Set a Schedule
Writing is a creative process, but that doesn't mean you should only work when inspiration strikes, says Kjell Rudestam, PhD, associate dean at Fielding Graduate University and author of "Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process, 3rd edition" (2007). Instead, set aside time to work on your literature review. How much time? That depends on the requirements of your department and how quickly you work. "Some [departments] prefer a very broad and comprehensive review, whereas others prefer a review that is more publication-ready," Rudestam says. The average review may take six months to write and require multiple revisions. "If you don't schedule some time for the dissertation," he says, "it will slip into the background."
Seek Feedback Early and Often
Don't avoid your dissertation committee. Many students do, Rudestam says, because they're afraid that the committee members will raise questions and create more work for them. But you need that kind of feedback. "Typically, it's the committee members, especially the chair of the committee, who have the most awareness and knowledge about the available literature," he says. So your committee can be a valuable resource if you need help figuring out which topics to cover in your literature review or identifying key studies. A student who gets lots of critical feedback early on is more likely to end up with "a dissertation that's bulletproof," Rudestam says.
Seek advice, but don't be afraid to take only what you need. "Three [committee] members are likely to give three different sorts of advice and drive the writer nuts," Bolker says.
Find Your Voice
One of the biggest challenges students face is "making the work their own," Rudestam says. When students write a first draft of the literature review, they often rely too heavily on the opinions of others. "Smith said this. Jones did this. Schwartz thinks this," he says. "You wonder where the author is." Instead of citing an exhaustive list of articles, identify the argument you want to make and then select only the papers that are relevant — those that either support your argument or dispute your hypothesis.
The process of writing a dissertation's literature review is undoubtedly labor-intensive, but it can also be immensely rewarding. "I've had a lot of students who have started out dreading doing a dissertation," Rudestam says. By the end, however, they regard their dissertation as "the most meaningful thing that they did with their graduate studies."
Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.
Miller, A.B. (2009). Finish your dissertation once and for all! How to overcome psychological barriers, get results, and move on with your life. Washington, DC: APA.