Research on graduate students' experiences with writing a thesis or dissertation suggests many students aren’t always sure what to expect when they begin the process. Dr. Ken Oldfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Springfield, offers these strategies along with some tips on how to manage the process. We’ve included advice from three UNL graduate students who’ve recently completed a thesis or dissertation.
Start early. Whether you’re writing a thesis or a dissertation, start planning as early as possible. Begin by recording ideas in a notebook (that never leaves your side). Enroll in courses whose instructor and/or subject matter seems compatible with your interests. If possible, choose writing assignments that can serve as a basis for your dissertation or complement your dissertation goals. If you plan strategically, you can develop a “research stream.” Using seminar research papers you’ve completed, you can define your research interests and extend your work into a possible dissertation topic.
Choose your adviser wisely. Oldfield suggests you first consider someone with a reputation for “getting people through.” Ask advanced graduate students about faculty members with reputations for being “high producers” or those who have “positive attitudes and beliefs about graduate students and graduate education.” Learn about faculty who are “more academically and socially engaged with graduate students than their low-productive counterparts.”
Second, you want a thesis or dissertation adviser who pays attention—to the requirements for the degree, to deadlines, and to you. Select a person who understands the process, communicates expectations clearly, and is fair but demanding. Finally, your adviser should have some experience, which means you might not want to select someone new to campus. Faculty members who have served as readers on other dissertation committees will likely be good advisers.
Choose your supervisory committee wisely. Dissertation supervisory committees generally include three or four additional faculty members. Again, consider people with reputations for graduating students and those who, for the most part, work well with their colleagues. Nathan Palmer, who recently completed a master’s thesis in sociology, says “a well-designed committee that complements your skills and abilities eases the process a great deal.”
So how do you identify these folks? Get to know your professors. Attend research colloquia to understand their areas of research. Take classes and engage your professors in conversations. Read their work. Talk to advanced graduate students. Your best strategy, however, is to rely on your adviser to help you choose your committee.
Choose your topic…wisely. When choosing your dissertation topic, remember these three words: Focus. Focus. Focus. You’ll save yourself considerable time and effort by restricting your research problem. Also, choose a manageable topic. While your dissertation will be a huge and, hopefully important project, it shouldn’t take you a lifetime to complete. Rely on your adviser to help you narrow your topic so you don’t remain in graduate school for twenty years.
Finally, Oldfield suggests, select a topic you can love to hate. He explains, “No matter which subject you address, after a while you will despise it. If you choose an uninteresting question, eventually it will be easy to avoid working on it.” Not so with a topic you love.
Schedule regular meetings with your adviser. Stay in touch with your adviser and constantly seek his or her counsel. Your adviser has a broader view of your topic and the thesis/dissertation process, and his or her perspective will keep you focused. To ensure that both you and your adviser get the most out of your meetings, plan ahead. Before each meeting, make a list of the questions you want to ask or the topics you want to discuss. In other words, have an agenda.
Take notes. After the meeting, e-mail your adviser a brief summary of your discussion. It’s more than likely that your adviser will have more than one advisee, and it’s unreasonable to expect him or her to remember exactly what was discussed from one meeting to the next. E-mailing your adviser a summary of your meeting (be sure to keep a copy for your files) ensures that you’re both on the “same page.”
Keep copies of everything. We’ve heard of students who kept copies of their dissertation in the freezer, just in case the house caught fire. Okay, so this might be a little over the top but it is good advice to store copies of your chapters in several places, such as a flash drive or an external hard drive.
Carolyn Brown Kramer, a recent UNL graduate with a Ph.D. in psychology, explains why keeping feedback from your adviser and committee is important: “They may expect to see their comments from previous drafts incorporated into later versions.” She also suggests keeping old drafts in case you’re asked to put something back in; it’s also helpful to keep drafts to see how your ideas have changed over time.
Ask for help. If writing is your Achilles heel, Jennifer Overkamp, who received her doctorate in English last December, highly recommends the UNL Writing Center in Andrews Hall. “It’s free and staffed with graduate students (some writing their own dissertations), and they can help with any stage in the writing process.” The Writing Center helped Overkamp a great deal by keeping her motivated, since she needed to be sure she had written something before each scheduled meeting with a tutor.
Organized dissertation support groups can help you maintain your focus, provide feedback on your thinking and writing, and provide encouragement. Someone to talk to can be especially helpful when you come up against writing blocks or personal or professional problems. And, if you just get bogged down and can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, a CAPS counselor is available at the University Health Center.
Just do it. In the end, it comes down to this. An effective strategy for accomplishing an important goal, such as writing a thesis or dissertation, is to establish routines. And write! For Jennifer Overkamp, that meant scheduling writing time when and where she was most productive. She treated her dissertation like a part-time “job” and designated hours each week to work on it. Creating a timeline – or a backwards calendar – for completing your dissertation is another effective strategy. Include the major benchmarks (data collection, analyses, chapters, dissertation defense) and set realistic goals.
A special thank you to our good friend Dr. Ken Oldfield for giving us permission—and latitude—to share his great ideas. For more tips, see his article, “How to Deal with Some of the Practical Problems Associated With Writing a Dissertation” (1988), College Student Journal, 22, 3, 270–276.