Dissertation Notes

by Maureen Grasso, Dean of the Graduate School
The University of Georgia

Maureen GrassoGraduate education is a process that transforms individuals into self-directed, active, life-long learners who create new knowledge and share that knowledge with the world. The dissertation is an important vehicle to share the knowledge you create.

To be successful in this important endeavor, you must have the intention that completing the dissertation is what you want. The topic you select, or the question you seek to answer, must be one about which you are passionate. If you are not excited about your research you will loose interest quickly and not have the staying power to finish your work. Your excitement and love of your topic will help you through the difficult times and will help you move through the process toward completion and graduation.

If you are just starting out, read and look at the current dissertations in your discipline. You can learn much from the articulation of research problems, to the style and format, and begin to understand what a dissertation looks like.

If you are writing your proposal, you need to clearly define your problem. One suggestion that will help you to clearly define your problem is to talk about what you are doing to as many people as you can find who will listen. By doing so, you will find that the listeners will ask questions that will help you think through your problem. My advice is to keep talking about your research all the way through to the end. Read your proposal often. This is your "contract" with the committee as to what you will do. Reading the proposal often will help you to stay on task and not to stray from your intended work.

Your committee and advisor are there to guide you through the process and to help you think through things more deeply and clearly. But remember, this is your project and your creation. Much has been written about the careful selection of the advisor and committee. They can be like family members that get along well and are supportive, or they can be a great example of a dysfunctional group. Choose carefully and wisely. Seek lots of input before you select. Talk to other graduate students, faculty, administrative assistants in the department, and technicians in the lab. They can be insightful. Be clear about your needs and expectations, as well as those of your advisor.

The dissertation process provides a wonderful opportunity for you to practice time management and organizational skills. I always suggest that students put together a project time line by beginning with the day of commencement and working backwards to the beginning of the process. The time line should include every deadline for the Graduate School, a date for an oral defense, a date to give the committee the final draft, and all the other important milestones. At first you may not have all the details filled in, but keep working on it, and you will find that you will be adding to the time line. Keep that time line in front of you always. Remember that your committee and advisor are very busy and may be directing other students through the process. Thus, allow time for faculty to read chapters and get back to you. Here again you will be developing your leadership talents by increasing your communication with the committee to follow up with how they are doing with the reviews, and following through with what you said you would do (like revise the literature review). If you are asked to make changes, do not ignore those requests. Such a response may derail your progress.

Writing -- outlining is writing, jotting down notes is writing, editing is writing. Always leave off with a thought that you can pick up with the next day. One does not have to binge write, but can write and do something in ten minutes (reviewing the bibliography, checking tables, editing a paragraph). Do not think you need big blocks of time to write. Do not think that you need to have the dissertation or complete chapters in "your head" before you begin putting words to paper. People often have a "ritual" or something they do before they begin writing (such as sharpening pencils, clearing off the desk, turning on music). Whatever it is for you, do it and honor it, but don't let the ritual get in the way of writing.

The first draft to any written piece is the hardest to do. You are creating. I like to think of writing the first draft as "vomiting" on the page -- it can be messy. Purging is the hard part -- getting the first words and thoughts to paper. But you have to do it -- get the words and thoughts out of your head and onto the paper. The easy part is the "clean up" (editing and rewriting). I figure out what is the easiest for me to write, and that is where I begin. Sometimes that is in the middle. I love to write methodologies, and I hate to write introductions. So I start in the middle. If I find I don't know what to write, I just start writing anything, and that gets the thoughts flowing. I write down everything as fast as I can, and I do not worry about grammar or spelling. I circle what I am not sure about and go back later. The circled words or phrases are great items for me to work on in the 10 minutes I may have tomorrow. I always tell my students just get it down and then spend time editing. Always leave time. Let your written work sit a day to allow your thoughts to clear. Letting time pass (not too long) before taking the paper on again allows the head to clear and thoughts to flow from a fresh perspective. Save your work often and always make back ups.

DO NOT TAKE A JOB OR POSITION until you have turned in your dissertation to the Graduate School. My experience as a chair and now as dean has documented for me the reality that students cannot serve two masters at the same time. Your attention will be pulled from the dissertation to the needs of the new position. Your new employer will expect and demand your full attention in the new position. In a short time, you will be fully immersed in the new position, and the dissertation will no longer be on your radar screen. Remember your goal is to graduate.