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?