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Great links: All the best advice on dissertation writing in one post!

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Most of the search hits to my blog are related to finishing thesis and/or dissertation writing. There are many great authors and bloggers out there sharing great advice for dissertation writing (along with other graduate student issues, too). I thought it would be useful to aggregate what I think are some of the best pieces of advice out there, so that it could all be easily accessible in one place!

*Note: all links to external sites will open in a new tab or window.

Understanding the dissertation genre

Demystifying the Dissertation” blog post series from Inside Higher Education, written by Peg Boyle Single who has an excellent book by the same title

On the different types of literature reviews: “Not all literature reviews are the same,” via Pat Thomson, doctoral writing expert and book author

Six steps to writing a literature review by Tanya Golash-Boza

Writing your dissertation conclusion, Part 1 and Part 2, via Pat Thomson (two excellent posts on this difficult part of your dissertation!)

How long is the average dissertation? by Marcus Beck — scroll to the bottom of the post to see the average length in your field!

Writing tips and strategies

Using a spreadsheet to keep track of your writing progress via yours truly

How to deliberately practice your academic writing with some great advice on how focusing on verbs can help you improve your academic writing via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How I wrote my PhD thesis in 3 months by James Hayton

Top 10 Tips for Fast Thesis/Dissertation Writing by James Hayton

10 Ways You Can Write Every Day by Tanya Golash-Boza

A faculty member’s advice for finishing your dissertation via Claremont Graduate University’s Dissertation Bootcamp blog

Five time management ideas for part-time students, by part-time students via The Thesis Whisperer blog

Dissertations and baseball: You’ve got to “live to fight another day” from Jim Brown

Dealing with your committee

Are you on the same page as your supervisor? Some advice about how to talk to your chair and committee members about the type of writer you are and the feedback you need to success via The Thesis Whisperer blog

How to communicate effectively with your thesis supervisor by Dora Farkas

Dealing with negative face-to-face feedback from your committee – great tips for handling a difficult situation, via Pat Thomson

blogs dedicated to graduate student writing

The archives of these blogs are a treasure trove of information and advice for thesis and dissertation writers. Bookmark these and search them when you need to!

The Thesis Whisperer by Inger Mewbern

Patter by Pat Thomson (She’s currently [as of March 2014] writing about her book writing process – this is a fascinating series for anyone who is thinking of writing a book from their dissertation or after the diss process)

James Hayton (Formerly “The Three Month Thesis”) by James Hayton

Finish Your Thesis by Dora Farkas

Explorations of Style – A Blog about Academic Writing by Rachael Cayley

What’s missing?

Of course, this is just a selection of great posts and blogs that I have been saving over the past few months of developing Thesis and Dissertation Support Services. What other blogs or specific blog posts deserve to be listed here? Leave a comment, and I’ll update the list! In future posts, I’ll share my list of academic publications that are the most helpful for dissertation writers, graduate student job searching blog posts, and emerging resources for #alt-ac job seekers.

How to handle dissertation revisions from your committee

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In my last post, I talked about a key reason why dissertation writing is difficult for doctoral students. In this post, I’m going to address another challenging element to finishing your dissertation: handling committee revisions.

You never receive instruction in revising such a high-stakes document

One of the major elements of the dissertation that many students do not remain conscious of (or perhaps never fully think about) is that a dissertation is a highly negotiated document. From the very beginning of the project, its shape is determined by multiple players — you, the student, your chair, and your fellow committee members. Remember your proposal stage? Most likely, your initial idea for the project wasn’t the one that was approved, but instead, a revised version that you all collectively decided was the path to pursue. All along the way, you are writing and have this work reviewed by your chair, and potentially other committee members, and of course, you have the final revisions that come either right before or immediately following the defense, this time certainly coming from every member of your committee.

However, you never receive instruction in how to handle, negotiate, and complete revisions for your dissertation. Even if you took a writing course, this most likely wasn’t an element. And no part of your curriculum prepares you for this. Think about it — did you ever have to revise a final project for a graduate seminar based on feedback from four faculty members? Or in your undergraduate degree, did you ever even have to revise a paper at all? Probably not. But now, you are expected to tackle hundreds of comments and changes, from the most major revisions down to the deletion of an extra comma, and do so in a timely manner to graduate on time.

Tips for handling committee revision

So you are down to the wire before your dissertation defense (or maybe afterward, facing the final deadline for submitting your ETD) and you have to handle revisions from four committee members in your 150 page document. How do you do it? Here are my three key steps:

  1. Read ALL of the comments. Before you make a single change, read and understand what each committee member is saying. Don’t start with Committee Member #2’s comments and then move to the next one. What if do that, only to find that your chair has given you different advice than Committee Member #2? Assess ALL feedback first, looking for patterns and similarities between members. Write down the common comments (“The labels on your tables are unclear” or “Your discussion should include the connection between your data and current methods of practice”) and see if you can identify the big issues you should start with .
  2. Decide how to approach revisions that need you to make a choice. Sometimes, you will receive conflicting advice from committee members, or you may disagree with a committee member’s suggestion and want to keep something as you originally had it. These revisions require you to make an active decision about what you will do and how you will justify it. This is your work, so you get to make the decision — but you must be able to support it to your committee members. For example, you may choose to go with your chair’s advice for reordering your Results section instead of how another committee member has suggested. You must offer your committee an explanation of this choice. For example, you might say, “I’ve re-ordered with the temperature data reported first because this order is parallel to how I discuss the implications in the discussion section.” It does not have to be long (and shouldn’t be!) but it should be a justifiable explanation for why you have chosen it. This is a part of the intellectual work of a dissertation.
  3. Write out a prioritized task list for each and every revision you have to do. Always, always start with the “big picture” revisions, such as requests for more data, re-organizing a chapter, including additional literature, and so on. Make each item a separate task, things you can break down into 5-10 minute working chunks. Then, when you have 1 hour to tackle your revisions, you can accomplish up to 12 different tasks on your list! You could also enter your revisions into a spreadsheet if you find that easier than a written out list (and it might help you be more organized). Always end with minor details such as spelling, punctuation, labeling, and so on. These may be impacted by your “big picture” revisions (for example, if you have to delete a table, why did you bother correcting the label first?). You may be tempted to do the “easy” spell checking first, but it will save you more time in the end if you start with the big items.

When you are done, you can use your list or spreadsheet to tell your committee what revisions you made and include the justifications that you need to. This could easily be in an email body, with your dissertation as an attachment, or you could insert comments into your document as you go along.

Follow these steps to keep better track of your revisions and to help you accomplish them on time! What advice do you have for finalizing your dissertation revisions?

MacPhail’s “No-fail secret” to finishing your dissertation

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Yesterday, Chronicle Vitae published a quite good article on dissertation writing by Theresa MacPhail, titled, “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation.” The secret:

Just sit down and write.

Now, to a certain point, she is entirely correct. I see many students who run analyses upon analyses of their data, read articles upon articles, and overall do many different tasks on their dissertation BUT write it. So yes, there comes a point (and it’s sooner rather than later) where you just have to sit down and write.

More specifically, she advocates writing every day, and for very good reason. MacPhail asserts,

“Writing is thinking. It takes time and it’s supposed to be challenging. The biggest mistake I’ve seen most graduate students make is to mythologize what I call ‘the moment of genius.’ Because writing is thinking, brilliant thoughts do not just appear on the page after long hours of arduous musing on a subject. In my experience, the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.”

Her article is very good, and I’d recommend that graduate students read it in its entirety for an important perspective on the hard work of writing and the importance of keeping your dissertation work “in your head” everyday, as I say it, because the ideas will come more easily when you make a daily date with your writing.

The only caveat I want to add to this is that there are very real obstacles for students undertaking a dissertation. A dissertation is an occluded genre for doctoral students–there is rarely any formal instruction for writing it, and they only take part in it once they are required to do so to graduate–which makes the idea of “sitting down and writing” difficult for those who do not know what they are sitting down to write. Much of this is disciplinary, as different fields tend toward different types of dissertations, and much of this is more local–doctoral advisors’ requirements for their students can widely differ, even within the same program at an institution.

This is a key reason why my office, Thesis and Dissertation Support Services, exists. There can be scholarly writing instruction for a dissertation, and this type of writing instruction can empower graduate students beyond the completion of a dissertation. If they can learn to recognize the patterns of argument and key features of work in their fields, they are also equipped to do the writing required of them in their research careers after they finish their doctoral degrees. A great example of this is John Swales’ “Create a Research Space” model for writing scientific research article introductions. At NC State, many of the dissertations in the sciences, and increasingly in other disciplines, are comprised of three or more stand alone research articles. While students can intuit some of the elements of a research article introduction from years of reading and perhaps a bit of writing, there is a lot of value in having a workshop and discussion about the CARS model, why the three moves exist, and how students can do them to fit into their own disciplinary conventions.

As a writing across the disciplines scholar whose research focuses on those in the sciences and engineering, I know that our work has value to graduate students and faculty across the institution. For example, I find that advisors intuitively know what makes for a good introduction, but they generally cannot articulate why. They tend to show students an article they feel does a good job and suggest that they emulate this, a strategy that is limited in its success because students are not learning why introductions are structured as they are (and they can get highly frustrated writing as novices trying to emulate seasoned experts). By just trying to emulate writers, students are not learning how to situate their work within a field and articulate its significance. But by providing instruction in this model, students in our workshops learn the how and the why–and now they can export this knowledge to their dissertations and research genres beyond, like grant proposals, conference presentations, and more.

We are making the implicit explicit for our doctoral students. And why not? It might be the only scholarly writing instructions students ever receive in graduate school.

So yes, to finish your dissertation, you must sit down and write. But when you have a stronger understanding of the genre expectations, history, and context, then you are more likely to be successful when you do. Seek out resources as you are developing your dissertation proposals to better understand the genre and the expectations. If you’re at NC State, come to our Thesis and Dissertation Support Services events. If you’re at another institution, follow me on Twitter: @makautry, and ask your faculty where you might find resources like this on your own campus.