Advice on Writing a Dissertation

[When I was looking into PhD programs I roamed the web looking for advice; I’m sure thousands do the same. I am putting these thoughts down for others who like myself, are looking into PhD work in theology or related fields in the humanities. I may add content when I find it.] 

The basics. A dissertation is an original contribution to your field. It involves answering a question that is of deep interest to yourself and/or others. Answering the question involves substantial research that proceeds by means of a methodology that can be clearly presented. The goal is to contribute  an original piece of research to a field. The dissertation is done under the guidance of a supervisor. It is read by one or more internal readers and one or more external (i.e. not from your institution) readers. In some institutions the dissertation is followed by a live (i.e. oral) defense. In the humanities you will write a work of 80,000 words or more. Many dissertations are then published in a dissertation series. Some dissertations are modified for more popular publishers.

Keeping Your Dissertation in Perspective. 

  • There is a great graphic by Matt Might on the reality of what is being contributed in one’s PhD. While this work will compromise the majority of the author’s life for 2-3 years, and will further characterize their life after that, their dissertation is not the center of other people’s lives. It will contribute only a tiny bit of information to an overall field. 
  • Pick a topic that you don’t mind characterizing your life for years to come. Don’t write on a topic you think you may become sick of after a year.
  • Leaving things out, not pursuing things is an important decision to make; it is important to know what you are focusing on so as to be able to be able to say yes to the right things and no to questions that will sap time and energy.
  • It is typical for a person want to begin their PhD journey with one research topic in mind but to switch it one or more times before finishing their dissertation.
  • Motivation. Success in a PhD program is not about who is the smartest. Often it is a matter of grit. Self control and grit is equally important.  Lack of motivation is a challenge for finishing a dissertation. Picasso once said “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Find ways to celebrate small successes: papers finished, articles submitted, articles accepted, stages completed.
  • Agree with your spouse on how your PhD fits into your larger life. Why do you want a PhD? Is it primarily so you can have the letters behind your name? If you and your spouse are disagreed upon the importance of your research, your are in for a frustrating ride. (My wife and I agreed that a PhD was important for my work in the church. We also agreed before I began that even if it did not lead to a job it was still worth doing the PhD. She already had a professional career before I began. As a result, the financial risk created by not dedicating core years of my life to career was mitigated. )
  • The job market in humanities, especially in theology, is routinely described as dismal. Don’t ignore this. You could spend 2-5 years of your life getting a degree/training that will earn you money and completely change your life. By contrast you could pour thousands of dollars and days into a PhD that will ultimately not translate into anything other than information you could have learned in your spare time for enjoyment. While discussing money let me add here that while I was doing my MA in philosophy I heard others say, “You don’t do your PhD unless someone pays for it.”
  • Get on with it. Get it done and get on with your life. You can write on whatever else you want when you are done. Some in fact have suggested that it is the book after your dissertation that shows the capacities of a scholar more than the dissertation itself.

On Selecting a Dissertation Topic/Research Question. 

Multiple people advise that one should be careful selecting a topic based purely on personal interest and instead focus on where the literature is at. See the pyramid below where instead of starting in the center one should get further towards the bottom.  See Dr. Francis Chumney’s advice on selecting a dissertation topic here.  Below is her dissertation pyramid, (I took a screenshot from her youtube video – credit goes to her fully). One moves from bottom towards the top:

Dissertation Pyramid

When selecting a dissertation topic, it might be useful to think about what others might think about this topic. Is it of interest to others or only to you. There is no law against working on what is primarily of interest to you, but it seems illogical to write on what is of interest to you alone while dreaming of making an impact with your research. On that point, others warn against delusions of writing

Great Advice From Others on Dissertation Writing

 Oral Defense of the Dissertation/Thesis. In many institutions a written dissertation is followed by an oral defense.    This is often called a “viva” which comes from from the latin viva voce (by live voice). In some institutions this is a public lecture and in others is held behind closed doors. Different institutions put different amounts of weighting on the dissertation defense for the successful completion of a PhD. No one can give advice for every institution. Furthermore things will differ in each field.  Ultimately one has to ask what goes on at their own institution. However much of what is below is worth thinking about as general advice. ( Dr. Ballester from Texas A&M, who participated in over 60 defenses gave some thoughts of a very general sort in a video you can find on YouTube.)

  • A defense is our chance to succinctly and clearly present your contribution to the field.
  • In some fields a defense is optional in other fields it is not.
  • A defense is not and should not be a grilling by faculty
  • If someone disagrees with your points you should be prepared to give a defense of your position. At times it can be a good sign if attending faculty break off into discussion on some point you have made. This is good.
  • Know your committee and and what they expect during the defense.
  • Give your advising committee enough time to read the dissertation. (In some institutions there is the possibility of actually hearing back from some of them the line of questioning they might bring up during your viva. Other institutions may not allow this.) If faculty only have a short time to read it, they will most likely read through it the night before and you will have no warning as to what they might be inclined to ask
  • The main question you should be ready to answer is, “Tell me about your dissertation.”
    • The Problem. What led me to research
    • Thesis. This is what my thesis (humanities) or hypothesis (sciences)
    • Method. This is the method I used to do the research.
    • Major Findings. This is what I found.
    • Significance. Here is the significance of my research. Here is how it can be applied.
    • Next Steps. Your next steps in your scholarly career. Not what jobs you applied for, but what articles, books, or research grants this work will lead to next.
  • Will your committee bring their own copy to the defense? If so, bring your copy.
  • Be prepared to answer questions like “You said X on page 55. Why didn’t you say Y?”
  • Recall that others don’t know your topic like you do and have not been working along with you.
  • Be prepared for technical difficulties; have a backup for slides (e.g. handouts). It is not easy to schedule all the professors to meet in a room on the same day, so don’t let technical difficulties create a setback.
  • If you give out handouts, put
  • Ask how long the presentation is. At some institutions it is 8-10min and then questions. Ask your supervisor how long you have.
  • During questions: if you don’t known an answer try: (a) “I don’t know” (b) Try to say something  that is associated with your research. There is never perfect data. You are the expert in this topic so you should have something to say. (c) Never fake an answer. Your colleagues will not be fooled.

Productivity Suggestions.

  • I have personally found that bibliographic software such as Zotero minimizes the time required to type in bibliographic data.   ISBN or DOI numbers pasted into software like Zotero will allow the software to retrieve most of the bibliographic data from the web.
  • Select a dissertation topic that your supervisor shares an interest in. If your supervisor has little interest or experience with a topic, will be on your own in many ways. (See video above on selecting a dissertation topic rightly). Supervisors with experience in your area of research can save you substantial time by point you to important issues and gaps in your work.
  • The sooner you discover your research question the sooner you can bend all of your paper writing efforts towards answering that question. Some students fit this profile. Other students need time to grow and thing and look over different questions. However, those who do have their research question set early on, can often take seminar papers and reuse them towards chapters in their dissertation. This shortens the PhD process.
  • Consider keeping a research log or journal. You will forget questions. You will have flashes of insight. You will forget certain background assumptions that were in mind when you asked a question. The dullest pencil is sharper than the best memory.

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