So you want to finish your dissertation?
What exactly are you doing to make sure that will happen? What kind of planning have you done? Do you have a master timeline? What are the short-term goals you have set to realize your long-term goal of completing your dissertation? Do you know what steps to take to achieve each goal? How will you know when you have achieved a given goal?
All of these are questions that should be answered if you want to finish your dissertation with the minimum amount of time, effort, and money. I have mentored students who have demonstrated all levels of organization, from a seemingly impromptu approach to highly organized ones. Guess who almost always doesn't finish? FYI, that is a rhetorical question!
How Most of Us Complete Tasks
Each day, we are faced with a multitude of tasks that must be completed, everything from getting ready for the day—eating, cleaning, dressing—to larger more complex tasks at work or school. Different people approach these tasks in different ways, some using more effective methods than others. For simple, repeated, routine tasks, most of us probably use mental planning only because we have done it so many times that they have become habits. For larger, more complex tasks, we most likely will make a list of things to do. What we do with the lists will vary. Some will prioritize the list while others will group items on the list based on time, location, or other delimiters. Still, others will use the “see it, do it” approach, working through the list one item after another. Individual effectiveness will vary to some extent, by the approach used.
Too often, our days resemble an odd collection of items strewn across the floor with lots of space in between each item. In this analogy, the items represent the various tasks we needed to complete and the spaces in between represent nonproductive time. The more ordered our approach to the things that we must accomplish, the less “space” there will be.
This same analogy can be applied to completing a dissertation, one of the most difficult and complicated tasks we will ever undertake. Unfortunately, many students approach the dissertation using the same approach to this daunting task that has been used in much less complex tasks. The result is usually a long and winding road that hopefully ends in a dissertation but more likely, the result is disaster. This can all be avoided by using some simple tools used by successful people and organizations: goals and objectives.
So, what is a goal anyway?
A goal is a statement of the desired result such as reading a specific book, a vacation destination, or in this case, completing a dissertation. The simple definition of a goal is,
something that you are trying to do or achieve
- via www.merriam-webster.com
There is a considerable amount of discussion and writing about not setting goals because they limit our potential. My perspective is that much of this writing is semantics only. Call it a goal, a system, an aspiration…call it anything you want but the basic definition above is still the same. While incorrect goal setting can lead to undesired results, limitations, and frustration, the opposite is true about correct goal setting. Goals that are realistic and achievable guide us forward to reaching our longer term goals.
Why do we need goals in the dissertation process?
A dissertation is something that very few will ever achieve. According to the U.S. Census Report (2015), roughly 3% of the population had an advanced degree (applied or doctorate). Further, only about half of those who seek an advanced degree will achieve it:
ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” a description of a student who has finished coursework and passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend the doctoral thesis. Today, the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate (that is, someone’s status a decade after they begin) is 55–64 percent in STEM, 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities.
- via Slate Magazine
In the study, Hearing their Voices: Factors Doctoral Candidates Attribute to their Persistence, written by Lucinda S. Spaulding and Amanda J. Rockinson-Szapkiw at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA, USA, participant-students name several factors that helped them finish their dissertations. One student in particular notes that goals are critical:
have some goals, and have some completion goals in mind. I want to complete coursework by this date. I want to complete comprehensive exams by this date. I want to have a proposal for the dissertation by this date. I want to have a dissertation to defend by this date. Have realistic goals.
This is a "must-read” article for every dissertation-seeking student!
Goals can provide that extra edge that you need to complete your dissertation. They provide a more structured approach to the process and help you maximize your time in your already tight schedule.
Are all goals the same type?
For the purposes of the dissertation, there are a few long-term goals and many short-term goals. The long-term goals are those that mark the milestones in the process, concept paper, dissertation proposal, and dissertation manuscript. Depending upon the program of study, these might vary somewhat. Short term goals represent the steps needed to reach each milestone. For example, one of the most difficult things for a new dissertation student is finding that specific problem—the tiny piece of the puzzle—around which the research proposal will be developed and the research will be conducted and reported. There are many smaller steps in the process of finding that problem. Those steps are objectives.
What are Objectives and Why are They Important?
To reach short or long term goals requires many smaller steps. These are called objectives. Depending upon the source, objectives are also often referred to as “measurable goals” that lead to the achievement of short or long term goals. In any case, objectives do have some common and important characteristics. The acronym, “SMART” is often used to identify the characteristics of objectives. It takes some practice to write a good objective but once this is mastered, organizing and structuring your time more efficiently becomes much easier. Objectives must be specific, focused on a particular aspect of achieving the desired goal. They must be measurable; otherwise, how would you know when an objective has been met? Objectives must be achievable and realistic. In my opinion, setting unachievable and unrealistic goals has led to the semantics debate over goal setting versus “focus” or “system” as alternatives to goals. This is also the case with objectives. The last characteristic of well-written objectives is that they are time-bound; there is a set timeframe for achieving the objective. If you can write objectives with these five characteristics, you will have moved much closer to completing your dissertation. It is important to note here that achieving objectives requires many smaller actions; these are usually referred to as tasks.
Goals and Objectives in the Dissertation: An example
Let’s look at a practical application of goals and objectives in the dissertation process. One of the challenging aspects of the beginner dissertation student is identifying a specific problem that can be investigated. I discuss this in three other posts. An often overlooked step in finding that specific problem (“must-watch" video!!) is first having a thorough knowledge of the literature related to a specific topic. While that may sound backward, without an expert knowledge of the literature, it is not possible to identify the specific problem so a short term goal is to have a thorough understanding of the topic literature. Notice that there is no specific, measurable, time-bound component to this phrase and that is okay. Having established this goal, let’s write an objective for it. One thing that you need to do in a literature review is gathering relevant scholarly works that are related to the topic. This takes many hours and can easily become overwhelming so let’s break it down. To read and take notes on most scholarly works will take 1-2 hours; yes, I said 1-2 hours…these are not comic books. If you want to gather a hundred or so sources, using an average of 1.5 hours per article will require 150 hours of reading and notetaking. If you are spending 20 hours a week, that equals roughly 8 weeks so a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound objective would be as follows:
By the end of the week, read and take notes on at least 13 scholarly works.
How do I know that this objective has been met? At the end of the week, I should have notes on at least 13 scholarly works.
For my students, I make that objective easier to measure by providing a template that asks all the pertinent questions one should know when finishing an article. They use this to write an Annotated Bibliography for each source. So the above objective would read:
By the end of the week, read at least 13 scholarly works and complete an annotated bibliography template for each.
What do I do now?
Using the degree plan and advice from your dissertation chair, start by making a list of long term goals, put them in chronological order, then make a list of 4-5 short term goals for each long term goal. Write SMART objectives for the first short term goal and get to work. Allocate some time each week to work ahead writing objectives for the future short term goals. Refer to the following and other sources for details about the wording.
In the dissertation process, having firm goals and objectives can save you time, effort, and money. This post provides you with a starting point to incorporate goals and objectives into your dissertation work. Knowing what you need to do and when it will be done should also help reduce some of the stress that accompanies all dissertation students on their journey.