How to Write a Dissertation

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are about to write your dissertation, you might be overwhelmed by the daunting task in front of you. This lesson gives you some tips for writing a strong and efficient dissertation.

Dissertation Writing

If you are at the dissertation stage of your graduate career, you have already covered an impressive amount of ground. You are knowledgeable about your field and focused in terms of what you want to study. Yet when the dissertation looms in front of you, it is all too easy to be overwhelmed. This lesson will help you through the major steps of writing a dissertation, one step at a time. It cannot take the place of strong academic advice from your adviser and other experts in your field, but it will break down the process and some of its challenges to make the task more manageable.

Build a Great Committee

One of the most important things you can do before starting your dissertation is establish a strong committee to back you up. Every institution has different regulations about how a committee is put together, but it will always be important to choose faculty who are experts in a field of study similar or related to what you hope to research. It is also helpful to choose a mixture of junior and senior faculty. Younger faculty members may have a sense of the current job market, while senior faculty will bring more scholarly experience to the committee. Make sure your committee members get along with each other, and establish clear expectations for assignments and communication.

Ask a Strong Question

The first step to actually writing your dissertation is to clearly define your research question: one or two questions that you plan to focus your dissertation on answering. Your question should build on previous research in your field. A clearly-defined research question will set you up to choose an appropriate methodology and organize your writing process. It will also enable you to talk intelligently with others about your work. Questions will look dramatically different in different fields, so as you are writing yours, check archives in your department for examples of how a question might look.

Select a Methodology

Your research methodology, or how you plan to conduct your study, will be informed by your research question, the traditions and theory in your discipline, and the feasibility of the prospective methods. Think about how you will answer your question and how you will justify your approach to answering it. Try to choose a methodology that will enable you to work on your dissertation efficiently and without using more funding than you have available. Remember that you will have the rest of your career to continue pursuing important questions, so the dissertation is not the endpoint of your scholarly work. Therefore, commit only to research methods that will help you answer your research questions, and avoid unnecessarily extravagant or expensive tactics.

Gather Data

In many fields, once you have selected a methodology, you will devote a solid amount of time to gathering and analyzing data. Make sure to check in with your committee frequently throughout this process, and stay true to both your question and your methodology. Also, make sure you have gone through appropriate institutional channels for ethical data collection. Data analysis will probably get tricky at some points, so call on supports as you need them.

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