When it comes to dissertations, students make the same mistakes every term, says Lynette Bikos, PhD, psychology professor at Seattle Pacific University who sits on three dissertation committees.
Among the most common are mismanaging their time or making style flaws, she says. Chances are, such mistakes won't make or break your capstone project, but they are not going to enhance it either. Avoid the most common problems by:
Allowing enough time. "Even our best students underestimate the amount of time it takes for the faculty to review [proposals] and to get revisions together," says Bikos.
Many students think that their first proposal will get turned around in a few weeks, but dissertation chairs generally require numerous rewrites before even passing along the proposal to the rest of the committee, she notes. The committee may then require revisions or meetings before they approve your proposal.
Help keep your dissertation on track by working directly with your adviser to create a reverse calendar: Start with the proposal deadline and work backward, creating progress benchmarks along the way, advises Bikos.
Time traps can be further avoided by taking a critical look at the scope of your project, says John D. Cone, PhD, author of "Dissertations and Theses from Start to Finish" (APA, 2006). If your research project is too ambitious, you can find yourself with too much work and not enough time. "By looking at recent dissertations completed under the chair, students can get a good idea of the size of previously successful research projects," Cone says.
Picking a committee that fits your research. Students often choose committee members for reasons that do not relate directly to their dissertations, says Bikos. Dr. Doe may be your favorite professor, but if he's not an expert on your research topic, leave him off your committee. Instead, find committee members who are versed in your dissertation area, who can recommend appropriate research designs to address your proposed questions, she notes.
In addition to expertise, consider potential committee members' other commitments. "Assembling a committee that will be consistently available is important," says Cone. "Know their sabbatical plans, and when they take time off—like summers."
Writing with a narrative thread. Your dissertation should tell a story, says Bikos. All too often, students present the individual aspects of their research separately without addressing how those aspects reflect on the bigger picture. For example, when you discuss your results, remember to explain how they fill the gap in the literature you brought up in your introduction, she advises.
Students often forget the big picture when they describe the variables in their projects, says Bikos. "Students describe the first variable, describe the second variable, and describe the third variable, but they haven't told the reader why they belong together," Bikos says.
To avoid this common pitfall, don't be afraid to remind the reader of your main point, says Bikos. Also, remember to use transition sentences between sections — they force you to think about how ideas connect with one another and ease the way for your reader.
Knowing APA style. Don't let your project sink because of poorly formatted citations or other small style mistakes. "Folks make a lot of assumptions about what APA style says when they don't know it all that well," says Bikos. Consult an APA style guide frequently, especially sections on citing research.
"Starting with simple outlines that go through review and revisions are a good way to prevent small mistakes in APA style," says Cone.
Also recognize that dissertations require both past and present tense, says Bikos. Use past tense for the introduction, method and results sections; use present tense for your discussion. Additionally, feel free to use words like, "I" and "we," Bikos notes. You did all the research, after all. Take credit for it.