Want to Get Started Writing That Dissertation


I do not want to minimize the size of the task entailed by writing a dissertation. It is a rite of passage. As such it needs to be big enough to push your limits, cause you some pain, force you to learn endurance, so that you will be glad to celebrate your success and accomplishment on the other end. Anyone who has earned her doctorate will tell you that these things are part of the journey. Without the extremity of the challenge we would not become peers with all the great people before us who have also been Doctors. That is the point of the journey.

On the other hand many others have gone before you. And they leave the a wide highway that is well paved as to how to get there. All you have to do is follow their lead to get started on a path that will lead you to success. The first hurdle that you must cross is one of organization. A common mistake is that students do not know how big a task a dissertation is compared to other writing they have done. When you start you may be tempted to take the requirements and write it up like it is every other paper you have turned in and then think you are done. The results will likely be sadness, unhappiness, and frustration when your doctoral adviser sends back your first set of comments. A recent student told me, “When I got over the tears I got on it and now am on my way – thanks for the feedback.” Much of this can be avoided by understanding ahead of time how big a task you are taking on, and then preparing yourself for it. You would not climb Mount Everest in shorts and your tennis shoes.

This article assumes that as a doctoral student you have been developing an idea of what it is you want to research, and the addition that you want to make to your field. Now it is time to get started writing. I recommend you start by gathering a few good tools:

1. Guidelines from your university as to formatting and content requirements for your final document. If your university uses a rubric for judging your dissertation, then exactly use those topic heading as your content headings for ease of judgment later.
2. Several dissertations that you can use as models, these may be from your university or not- all 5 chapter dissertations have much in common with each other. Choose one that is more or less on your topic, a second that uses a methodology you are considering, and the third is just engagingly written, where the author talks directly to you, the audience.
3. A few good dissertation books. The new one that I think it is better than all others is Rudestam and Newton (2007). Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publishing Inc.

Armed with these examples of where you are going, the next thing is to plot your course. Start by looking up your style-sheet information (for instance APA ) and format your dissertation cover sheet as per your university requirements. If they give you a template, use it. If they don’t make one up from finished and published dissertations from your university. Then copy and paste the content headings as though you are starting your table of contents. Next go back to your dissertation models, your university guidelines and your books, and compare and contrast their suggestions/requirements and the topic headings and sub-headings they used with this list. There is no one “right” set of headings so feel free to play with the logic of the three chapters that will by your proposal – changing and reformatting as you go.

As other students have said before you: “Getting started on the right track made all the difference, I had been floundering until I took your advise and started to progress in a logic manner. I recommend to everyone that they follow the steps you gave me.”

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