Are You Interested in Finishing Your Dissertation?


I love birding (most people call it bird watching). For me, there is nothing equal to an afternoon sitting around feeders or walking in the open spaces to see what species are there. I can identify many birds by their calls and flight patterns. Each species has its peculiar behaviors that persist even when at a feeding station. A nuthatch will land on a pole and skitter down it to get a seed from the feeder, then go back up only to turn around and eat the seed while facing the ground. A blue jay makes a grand, noisy entrance, sits and stuffs several seeds into its craw then goes somewhere else to eat. There are as many behaviors as there are birds. Bored yet? Ha! Unless you are interested in birds, you are probably ready to stop reading now.

If We Like It, We Will Know About It

We all have our favorite activities and when we like something, we gain a deeper understanding of it. Computers, sports activities, hobbies, our professions...we will likely know more about our favorites than the average person. Writing a dissertation is much the same. Only when we know the literature about the topic, can we find a specific problem/question around which we can propose and later, conduct research to expand existing knowledge. By the time we finish, we are experts about the subject.

It takes a tremendous amount of work to finish a dissertation.

According to the US Census - 8.9% of the population has a master's degree or higher. The increase in public school teachers with a master's or higher in the past 10 years is pointed to for a significant amount of this growth.

Only 3% of the US population has a doctorate or professional degree. [emphasis added] In 2000 this was only 1% -- that indicates a very significant increase over the past 1/2 decade but it's still a very low percentage of the total population.

Since professional degrees are included in this statistic, some people feel that the numbers are higher because some degrees that were master's or bachelor's in the past have since become first professional doctorates.

The part of these that is specifically the PhD is believed to be well under 1% but no separate census data is available to pull that number out. [emphasis added]
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I contend that one of the main reasons many students never complete their dissertations is because they fail to develop the depth of knowledge necessary to propose and conduct research. Just like it is difficult to plan a trip without knowing where you want to go, it is equally difficult to develop a research plan without identifying and justifying the specific problem. In their rush to finish, many will bypass the basic steps critical to successfully completing their dissertation.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

There are varying philosophies about what students should do first when developing a dissertation/thesis proposal. Some tell students to focus on writing the problem statement while others first direct the student toward the literature related to the topic. There is no right or wrong approach but the approach will depend upon the student's prior learning about the topic. Sometimes, those of us who work with dissertation students mistakenly assume that they have done the background research necessary to write a clear, concise problem statement validated by current scholarly work. In the ideal world, students should not begin the dissertation journey without a strong background in the literature related to the topic. As faculty, we need to recognize that deficit early in the process and direct them back to the literature as a first step in developing a problem statement.

Are You On a Journey or a Trip?

Conducting an in-depth review of the literature about a specific topic requires considerable time and effort. This is a difficult thing to accept in a society where we expect instant gratification. Further, we often procrastinate when faced with difficult tasks. If you are working on your dissertation, no doubt you have heard the analogy of the dissertation as a journey. This is not a trip like dinner out or a movie. Think of it more like a "Lord of the Rings" journey. If I could have talked to you before you started your doctoral program, I would have recommended having some kind of system to keep track of all the articles and papers you do, starting with the first course. I have several posts about planning and organization but it has amazed me how few take advantage of many easy-to-learn tools that can save hours and even days over the course of the journey. A little organization can make the journey much easier.