Getting to the Finish: Completing your Dissertation
By Dr. Pressley Rankin
Recently, I have been reflecting on the dissertation process as a whole. Five years ago, I finished my dissertation. Since then, I have been advising other doctoral students on getting through the process. Recently, two of the students for whom I chaired have graduated. Thinking about all that I have seen, I wanted to blog about what I have learned during these last five years and give students tips on getting through and finishing their dissertation. There are three areas of advice I offer: a) knowing when to stop reading, b) building an effective working relationship with your chair, and c) growing as a scholar in your field.
The Dissertation is Unique
A doctoral dissertation is the final step in students’ doctoral journey. It marks a change from being a student to becoming a professional. It is during that change that many things come up for students that can stand in the way of finishing.
Note, professional development isn’t the same as instruction. There are no textbooks to tell you how to complete your particular dissertation project. Each dissertation is a unique exercise. It is special, like a snowflake. While there are many books that can give you hints and tips, this is ultimately your journey. No two dissertation journeys are the same.
That being said, there are some challenges or struggles that I have found students have in common during this process, and that commonality forms the basis of my advice.
Knowing when you have read enough
The dissertation topic is something that grows during the research and reading you have done throughout the program. Once you narrow down the final topic for your dissertation, you will still have a lot more reading, researching, and drafting to do. Connecting the dots and defining the literature takes time and a lot of reading. But, when do you stop reading?
In my experience, the process of reading about your topic is like following a rabbit down a rabbit hole. Each new batch of literature you find is exciting and will often lead you down new paths of discovery. Those paths, however, can lead to more rabbit holes. Those rabbit holes lead to others and then to others. Soon you are in a strange land utterly unrelated to your topic.
To save yourself from that fate, think of your topic as a mission statement. It is your guide through the literature. As you are reading and jumping down rabbit holes, look back to the topic as a gage to see how far you ventured from it. If the topic starts to seem far away, it is time to stop and go back. Once you get to the point that everything is a new rabbit hole, you have read enough on your topic.
The relationship with your Dissertation Chairperson
The relationship between you and your chair on the dissertation journey is one of mentorship and guidance. The chair is your guide to help you navigate through this stage of your life. Your chair is not your instructor, your editor, your best friend, your mother or father, or your guru. The chair and ultimately your committee, are professionals who have completed the task you are attempting to complete. They are there to make sure you complete the task properly, professionally, and timely.
The relationship you form with your chair can last a lifetime. Your chair can help you publish, find jobs, navigate the politics of academia, develop a consulting practice, or give you advice about moving up the corporate ladder. Stay on your chair’s good side and here are some tips:
- Don’t ignore your chair’s advice. Listen and be open-minded.
- Don’t expect your chair to edit your work or to decipher your rough draft. Always give your best work to your chair.
- You are responsible for building an effective communication channel. Don’t expect your chair is going to hunt you. They have full-time jobs and other commitments.
- As above, you are responsible for timelines. If you submitted work and haven’t heard back in the required amount of time, follow-up. Don’t be shy.
- Don’t argue. Don’t complain.
- If you disagree with something, ask about it, but you must have a valid research-supported point. Let the research do the talking not your opinion.
- Your chair, committee, and others will have feedback for you. At different times, they may ask you to remove something, then later ask you to add it back. The dissertation draft is a living thing. Changing one word or one idea can change a lot more.
- Expect you will go back and forth several times until it is right. Think of it as a learning roller-coaster and sit back and enjoy the ride.
CityU works hard to hire and train the best possible people to be chairs and committee members for our students. We pride ourselves on creating processes that make the dissertation as easy as something so life changing can be. We are committed to getting your finished.
You are a scholar
The dissertation journey is a journey of scholarship. You are learning not only how to think but how to create new knowledge. Contributing to knowledge creation is a magical thing. It is special. It will make you crazy.
An important part of being a scholar is to be fully grounded in all aspects of your study. It is not enough to rely on the textbooks or the comments of others– you must truly know the why, the what, and the how. For example, if you are going to interview 10 people for your study, you should know:
- why 10 people and not more or less;
- why are you interviewing instead of a conducting a survey;
- why are the 10 people you are interviewing going to be the right ones to interview;
- how will the interviews be conducted;
- what will you ask them;
- why are you asking them that;
- how do you expect they will respond to you asking them questions?
In short, you are the expert, or at least you will be. Therefore, if someone asks, you must have an answer for all of those questions. You must have a research-based answer of all of those questions. Know the why, what, and how.
The dissertation journey will affect your life
Creating is tough work. The scholarship is tough work. Professional development is tough work. Do you see a theme here? The dissertation will be hard. It will be work. It is going to affect your life. There are no breaks, no summers off, no life crises that you get to put everything on hold for. You have several years from the time you started the program to finish. That is it. You have worked too hard and invested so much NOT to finish.
You are going to have to take time for this project away from your friends, your family, your normal life. You may have to use vacation time to get away to research and write. You may have to miss family events to write. You will have to give up personal time to get this done.
So what is the good news? You will get this done. You will finish. You will be a doctor, and, I know you won’t believe it, but you will look back and be happy you did it.