I have designed this guide to assist graduate students in the many aspects of defending a thesis or dissertation. It is my intention to share some of the many ideas that have emerged in recent years, that definitely makes graduation easier.
A guide of this nature generally focuses on the implementation of research. This is not the purpose of this guide. Rather than examining aspects such as appropriate sample size and testing of appropriate statistical methods, this guide looks at many of the quasi-political aspects of the process. Issues such as selecting a support committee, how to make a full presentation of your research results, and the strategy for the research to be written and analyzed are discussed.
Of course, many of the ideas presented can be used successfully by other graduate students studying under the direction of other advisers and from various disciplines. However, the use of this guide does not imply a total guarantee. If in doubt, you should consult your counselor. Probably the best advice to start with is the idea of not trying to do your research entirely by yourself. Do it in conjunction with your counselor. Seek their input and help. Stay in touch with your counselor so that you both know what is going on. This way you have a much better chance of reaching the end of your project with a smile.
With this in mind, enjoy the guide. I hope it helps you reach your graduation in good shape. Good luck and good research !!!
THE STAGE OF THOUGHT:
The “thinking” stage is when you are finally faced with the reality of completing your degree. Usually the early stages of a graduation program happen in a clear and structured way, usually happening in the same way as an undergraduate program. There are clear requirements and expectations, and the graduate student advances, step by step, getting closer and closer to finishing the program. One day, however, the clear structure begins to diminish and now you are approaching the stage of The Dissertation. This is a new and different stage, much more defined by you than by your counselor, Program, or Department.
1. Be Inclusive with your thinking. Don’t try to eliminate ideas. Build on your ideas and check out the various research projects that can be identified. Develop your idea as much as possible at this stage, as you will not be able to do it later. Try to be creative.
2. Write down your ideas. This will allow you to refer to an idea discussed above. Or, you can modify or change an idea. If you don’t write down your ideas, they are going to have a tendency of continuous change and you will have the feeling that you are going nowhere. What a great feeling to be able to explore the many ideas that you have been thinking if they are written.
3. Try not to be overly influenced at this time by what others expect of you (your colleagues, your profession, your academic department, etc.) You have a better chance to select a topic that is really of interest to you, if is your theme. This will be one of the few opportunities you may have in your professional life to focus on research in which you can select the topic.
4. Do not develop your idea assuming that your research will attract international attention to you! Rather, be realistic in setting your goal. Make sure your expectations are centered around:
the research is to satisfy an academic requirement;
the fact that the process of conducting the investigation is as important (or more important) than the results of the investigation; and
the idea that the research project should first and foremost be a learning experience for you.
If you keep these ideas in mind as you conduct your research, you have an excellent opportunity to develop your research project.
5. Be realistic about the time you are willing to devote to your research project. If you think it’s a 10-year project, admit it upfront, and decide if you have that time. If the project requires more time than you have available, then we are facing a problem.
It might be a bit premature, but it’s never too early to sketch out times and dates. Try using the 6 stages (see next item) and set a start and end time for each of them. Put your time table in a visible place (on your monitor), then this will continually remind you what you need to do. Periodically update your schedule with new dates and tasks. ( (Thanks to a visitor to the Philadelphia website for sharing this idea) )
6. If you are going to request a leave from your job for the period that you will be working on your research, this is not the right time. There are stages when you can carry out your research without a license. Assuming there are six important phases that you will have during your research project, probably the best time to apply for a license will be during the fourth phase – the writing phase *. This is the period when you really need to think hard. Being able to work on your writing for long periods of time without interruption is really important. A license from your job may allow this to happen, however, a license requested before this stage may not be of any value.
Stage 1 – Thinking about the topic
Stage 2 – Preparation of the proposal
Stage 3 – Conducting the investigation
Stage 4 – Writing the research paper *
Stage 5 – Sharing research results with others
Stage 6 – Reviewing the research work
7. It may be more helpful in this first instance to attempt a more narrow preliminary study of the research, to help you gain additional confidence in what you would like to do in the future. The study should be as simple as conducting a half dozen informal interviews without having to document what it is about. The key is that this will give you a chance to get closer to your research and to test whether or not you are really interested in the matter. And you can do it before you’ve started doing something you don’t like. Take your time and give it a try.
PREPARATION OF THE PROPOSAL:
If you have made a good development of the idea in the thinking stage of your research, then you are ready to prepare the proposal. An attention call. Those students who tend to have trouble writing a proposal are often the ones who try to move quickly through the thinking stage, and get into proposal writing quickly. Let’s do a checkup. Do you feel reflected in each of the following statements? If so, you are ready to prepare your research proposal.
I am familiar with other research that has been conducted in the areas related to my research project.
(____ yes, I am)
(No, I am not ____)
I have a clear understanding of the steps and stages that I will use when conducting my research.
(____ yes, I have it)
(No, I don’t have it ____)
I feel that I have the ability to follow each of the steps and stages necessary to complete my research project.
(____ yes, I’m sorry)
(No, I’m not sorry ____)
I know that I am motivated and have the drive to continue with all the steps and stages of the research project.
(____ yes, I am)
(No, I am not ____)
Well, you are ready to write your research proposal. Here are some ideas to help you with your homework:
8. Reading of other research proposals. We often find ourselves with a blockage in our mind, and it is because we do not have a complete idea of our research. How has the other proposal been ordered? What are the titles that have been used? Does the other proposal seem clear? Does your writing suggest that there is knowledge on the subject? Can I design my proposal, after I have reviewed others? If you can’t easily find one or two sample proposals to consult, ask your counselor. Occasionally they have data on where it can be consulted.
9. Make sure your proposal has an extensive literature review. Now, this primary idea may seem to make no sense. I have heard many students tell me that “this is just the proposal. I will do a full literary review for the dissertation. I do not wish to waste time now.” But, this is the time to do it. The rational analysis of the literature review consists of an argument with two lines of analysis 1) this research is necessary, and 2) the methodology I have chosen is the most appropriate for the questions posed. So why would you want to wait? This is the time to get information and learn from others who have come before you! If you wait until you are writing the dissertation it will be too late. What’s more, you will probably want to include the literature review in your final dissertation. (Thanks to a visitor to the Mobile, Alabama website for helping clarify this point. )
10. With the wide availability of existing photocopiers today, you can easily get around many problems that previous researchers had to go through to develop their literary review. When you read something that is important to your study, photocopy the relevant article or section. Keep your photocopies sorted by categories and sections. And, most importantly, photocopy the citation so that you can easily reference it in your bibliography. So when you decide to actually write the review, take your photocopied sections, put them in logical and sequential order, and then start writing.
11. What is a proposal? A good proposal should consist of the first three chapters of the dissertation. It should begin by stating the problem/background (typically chapter 1 of the dissertation), then do a review of the literature (chapter 2) and conclude with the definition of the research methodology (chapter 3). Of course, it must be written in the future tense since it is a proposal. Now to make a good proposal we should change the first three chapters of the dissertation from future tense to past tense (from “this is what I wanted to do” to “this is what I did”), and make any changes based on the way you actually did the research compared to what you proposed to do. Often times the suggestions we make in our proposal turn out to be different and we have to make appropriate changes to transform them from proposal to dissertation.
12. Focus your research specifically. Don’t try to make your research cover too wide an area. You may now think that this will change what you want to do. This may be the case, but you can do the project if you define it specifically. A broadly defined project is generally not feasible. Defining it broadly it may look better, but there is a good chance that it will be unmanageable as a research project. When you finish a research project, it is important that you have something specific and definitive to say. This can be modified and enhanced by narrowing down your project. Otherwise, you have only very broad points to say over large areas that really provide little guidance to others who may follow you. Researchers often find that what they originally thought was a good research project actually turns out to be a group of research projects. Make a single project for your dissertation and save the other projects for later development in your career. Do not try to solve all the problems in this research project.
13. Include a title in your Proposal. I’m amazed at how often the title is left until the end of the writing, and then forgotten to include it when the proposal is prepared for the committee. A good proposal has a good title and is the first item by which the reader understands the nature of your work. Use it wisely! Work on your title early and review it often. It is easy for a reader to identify the proposals when the title has been well focused by the student. Preparing a good title means:
have the most important words appear at the beginning of your title;
limit the use of ambiguous or confusing words;
separate in title and subtitle when it has many words; and
include keywords that help future researchers to find your work.
14. It is important that your research proposal is organized around a set of questions that will guide your research. By selecting these questions try to write them in such a way that they frame your research and put it in perspective with other research. These questions should serve to establish the connection between your research and those that preceded it. Your research questions should show very specifically the relationship of your research to your field of study. Don’t downplay this point and ask very specific questions. You should start with relatively broad questions.
A good question:
Can rural adult education have similar characteristics to adult education in general?
A poor question:
What are the characteristics of rural adult education in an educational program? (very specific).
A poor question:
How can the XYZ agency improve the development of rural adult education? (not generalizable)
15. Now here are some more ideas regarding defining your research project from the base of your proposal.
a. Make sure you are benefiting those who participate in your research. Do not view subjects only as sources of information for you to analyze. Be sure to treat them as research participants. They have the right to understand what you are doing and you have the responsibility to share the results with them. Your research should not only empower you with new insights, but it should also empower those who are engaging with you.
b. Choose your methodology wisely. Don’t quickly dismiss the use of quantitative methodologies because you fear the use of statistics. A qualitative approach to research can result in new and exciting insights, but it will not be taken into account because it does not have quantitative research. A well-designed quantitative investigation can often be achieved more clearly and concisely. A similar but qualitative study will generally require more time and dedication!
c. A combined methodology sometimes makes more sense. You can combine a qualitative preliminary study (defining your population more clearly, developing your instrumentation more specifically, or establishing hypotheses for research) with a quantitative main study to result in a good research project.
d. Deciding where you are going to conduct your research is an important decision. If you are from another area of the country or from a different country there is often the expectation that you will return to “your home” to conduct the investigation. This may yield more significant results, but it will also most likely create a situation whereby you are expected to fulfill other obligations while in place. For many students, the opportunity to conduct a research project away from home is important as they can control many variables that they cannot control in their country. Think carefully about your own situation before making your decision.
e. To have the opportunity to conduct their research jointly with another agency or project working in related areas. Should you do it? This works well on certain occasions. Most of the time the principal investigator gives freedom to conduct the research project jointly with someone else, in this case, make sure that the trade-offs are in your favor. It can be very disastrous that the other agency project is behind schedule and therefore you will find that your own research project will be temporarily delayed. Or, you tripled the size of your sample because the agency was willing to pay the cost of postage. They paid the postage for the pre-survey and are now unable to assist you with the postage for the post-survey. So what happens to your research? I generally find that the cost of research is not prohibitive and the rewards of working with another agency are not in your favor. Think twice before altering your project to include someone else. Enjoy the power and freedom to make your own decisions (and mistakes!) – this is how we learn!
16. The selection and preparation of your advisory committee to review your proposal should not be taken lightly. If you do good “homework,” your advisory committee can be helpful to you. Try these ideas:
a. If you are given the opportunity to select your committee, do so wisely. Don’t just focus on experts. Make sure you have selected members who will endorse you and are willing to successfully assist you in completing your research. You want a committee that you can ask for help and know that it will be provided. Don’t forget that you may have access to experts who are not on your committee at any time during your research project.
b. Your Consultant Professor / Director is your ally. When you go to the committee for an answer, make sure your consultant fully supports you. Spend time before the meeting so your plans are clear and you know you have full support. The proposal review meeting should be seen as an opportunity for you and your lead professor to seek the advice of the committee. Don’t go to the meeting feeling like you are against them!
c. Provide committee members with a well-written proposal prior to the meeting. Make sure they have enough time to read the proposal.
d. Plan your proposal presentation meeting well. If you require graphic presentations to help the committee understand, be sure to prepare them for that. A well-planned meeting will help your committee understand that you are ready to move forward with your investigation. Your presentation style at the meeting should not belittle the committee members (make it sound like you know they have read your offer), but be sure not to brag too much (present every detail with the fact in mind that perhaps a member of the committee has not read a section).
WRITING THE DISSERTATION OR THESIS
Now, this is the part we’ve been waiting for. I must assume that you have found a good idea for your research, your proposal has been approved, you have collected the data, you have conducted your analysis and now you are about to start writing your Thesis or Dissertation. If you’ve done the first part right, this part shouldn’t give you a problem.
17. The main myth in writing a dissertation is that you should start in chapter one and finish your writing in chapter five. This is rarely the norm. The most productive way to write the Thesis is to start writing those parts with which you feel most comfortable. Then move on in your writing, completing various sections based on your thinking. At some point, you will find that all the sections of your Thesis have been written. Now you can order them in the best way and see which one needs to be added. This way seems to make the most sense and bases its construction on those aspects of your study that are most interesting to you. Think about what interests you, start writing about those points, and then build on them.
(David Kraenzel – North Dakota State University – wrote the “A to Z Method”. Look at the first section of your proposal. When you are ready go and write it down. If you are not ready, move section by section of your proposal until you find one in which you have information to include and continue to move through your proposal – A to Z – writing and adding to those sections for which you have certain input. Every time you work on your proposal follow the same process from A to Z. This will help you to visualize the final product of your efforts very early and each time you work you will build part of your Thesis. Thanks David!)
18. If you prepared a detailed proposal, now you will be rewarded. Take the proposal and start by controlling your research methodology. Change your sentences from future tense to past tense and then make any necessary additions or changes so that the methodology truly reflects what you did. You have now been able to change sections of the proposal to sections for the dissertation or thesis. Move on to problem posing and literature review in a similar way.
19. I must assume that you are using some form of computer word processing to write your dissertation (if you are not doing it, you have missed a very important part of your doctorate preparation). If your work has specific names of people, institutions, and places that must be changed to provide anonymity or don’t do it too early. Go ahead and write your dissertation using the real names. Then at the end of the writing process, you can easily have the computer make all the appropriate substitutions. If you make these substitutions too early, it can really confuse your work.
20. Since you have been involved in writing your dissertation, you will find that the preoccupation with preserving the original document gradually fades away. As soon as you print a draft of a chapter, a variety of necessary changes will appear, and before that, you find out another draft will be printed. And, it will seem almost impossible to discard a draft. After a while, it will become extremely difficult to remember which draft of your chapter is highly regarded. Print each draft of your dissertation on different colored paper. With the different colors of the paper, it will be easy to see which is the last draft and you can then quickly see which draft the committee should read. (Thanks to Michelle O’Malley from the University of Florida for sharing this idea. )
21. The only area in which you should be careful when using word processors is in creating elaborate graphs or tables. I have seen many students spend many hours trying to use their word processor to create a graphic that could have been done by hand in 15 minutes. Use hand drawing to create graphs and tables for your draft dissertation. Make sure your committee can clearly understand your charts but don’t waste time trying to perfect them. After you defend your thesis, it is time to prepare the “perfect” design for your graphs and tables.
22. The writing style of the dissertation is not designed to be entertaining. The written dissertation must be clear and unambiguous. To do this well you must make a list of the keywords that are important to your research and then your writing should use this set of keywords throughout. There is nothing that frustrates a reader as much as a manuscript that uses alternative words to say the same thing. If you have decided that a key phrase for your research is “educational workshop”, then do not try to substitute other phrases like “in-service program”, “training workshop”, “educational institute”, or “educational program”. Always stay with the same phrase – “educational workshop”. It will be very clear to the reader what exactly you are referring to.
23. Review two or three well-organized and well-presented dissertations. Examine the use of titles, overall style, typography, and organization. Use them as a template for preparing your own dissertation. This way you will have an idea, at the beginning, of what your finished dissertation will look like. It is a very rewarding prospect!
24. A simple rule of thumb – if you are presenting information in the form of tables or graphs be sure to insert the table or graph in your text. And then following the Table / Graph insert be sure to discuss it. If there is nothing to discuss about that table or graph then ask yourself if it is really interesting to include it.
25. Another simple rule – if you have a large series of very similar tables, try using similar words to describe each one. Don’t try to be creative and entertaining with your writing. If you use the same phraseology in each introduction and discussion of similar tables, then the reader can easily see the differences in each table.
26. We are all familiar with how useful the table of contents is to a reader. Sometimes we do not realize how valuable it is also for the writer. Use the table of contents to help you improve your manuscript. Use it to see if you have left something out, if you are presenting your sections in the most logical order, or if you need to make your wording a little clearer. Thanks to the miracle of computing, you can easily copy and paste each of your titles from your text, to the table of contents. Then see if the table of contents is clear and makes good sense to the reader. It will be easy for you to see which areas need more attention. Don’t wait until the end to make your table of contents. Do it early, then you will benefit from the information.
27. If you are including a Conclusions section in your dissertation be sure to actually present conclusions and deductions. The writer often uses the concluding section to simply state the research results in a modified form. Don’t waste my time. I have already read the results and now, in the Conclusions section, I would like you to help me understand all that this means. This is the key section of the dissertation and often best done after you’ve waited a few days and put your research into perspective. If you do this, you will no doubt be able to point out a number of facts that will help you connect your research with other areas. I generally think of conclusions/implications as “so what” style statements. In other words, what are the key ideas that we can draw from your study to apply them in my areas of knowledge?
28. Potentially the dumbest part of the dissertation is the suggestions for future research. This section is usually written at the end of your project and little energy is left to make it really meaningful. The biggest problem with this section is that the suggestions are often the ones that could be made before you conducted your research. Read and reread this section until you are sure that you have made the suggestions emanating from your experiences, from conducting research, and from the results you have found. Make sure that your suggestions for future research serve as a link between your project and other future projects, and that they provide opportunities for the reader to better understand what you have done.
29. Now it is time to write the last chapter. But what is the last chapter? My perception is that the last chapter should be the first chapter. I really don’t think this should be taken literally. You certainly wrote chapter one at the beginning of this process. Now, in the end, it is time to “rewrite” chapter one. After you have had a chance to write your dissertation, reread chapter one carefully, making sure you have completed chapter five. Chapter one clearly helps the reader move in the direction of chapter five? The important concepts that will be necessary for understanding chapter five are presented in chapter one?
THE DEFENSE OF DISSERTATION/THESIS
What a terrible name – a Thesis defense. It suggests some kind of war that you are trying to win. And, of course, with four or five of them facing only you. This sounds like they can win the war before fighting the first battle. I wish they had called it a Professional Seminar or Symposium. I think these names would have presented a much better picture of what to expect from this meeting.
No matter what the meeting is called, try to remember that the purpose is for you to show everyone how well you have conducted your research study and the preparation of your dissertation. In addition, there should be a seminar atmosphere where the exchange of ideas is valued. You are clearly the best-informed person in this meeting when it comes to your subject. And, your committee members are there to listen and help you better understand the research you’ve invested so much in the last few weeks. The purpose is to help you meet your graduation requirements. Of course, other topics appear quietly often. If that happens, try to stay on track and get the meeting back on your schedule.
The following ideas should help you keep the meeting on your agenda.
30. The most obvious suggestion is one that is rarely followed. Try to attend one or more defenses before yours. Find out what other students are defending your research and assist in their defense. In many departments, this is expected of all graduate students. If this is not your case, talk to your counselor to make sure you are invited to attend some defenses.
On defense try and pay attention to the interactions that occur. Does the student seem relaxed? What strategies does the student use to stay relaxed? How does the student interact with the committee members? Does the student seem to be able to answer the questions well? What would you do to make the situation better? What should you avoid? You can learn a lot from attending such meetings.
31. Find opportunities to discuss your research with your friends and colleagues. Listen carefully to your questions. See if you can present your research in a clear and consistent way. Are there aspects of your research that are confusing and need further explanation? Are there things you forgot to say? Could you change the order of the information presented and get a better understanding?
32. I hope you don’t try to circulate the chapters of the dissertation to the committee members while you are writing them. I find this practice to be the most annoying and creates considerable problems for the student. You must work side by side with your thesis advisor. He is the person you want to meet. Develop a strategy with your project manager regarding how and when your writing should be shared. Only after your director approves what you have done should you try to share it with the rest of the committee. And by then it’s time for defense. If you prematurely share sections of your writing with committee members, you will probably find yourself in a situation where one committee member tells you to do one thing and another member tells you to do another. What should you do? The best answer is not to get into such trouble.
33. It is important that you have the feeling when entering your defense, that you are not doing it alone. As mentioned above, your main professor should be seen as your ally, “in your corner” on defense. Don’t forget that if you get puzzled on the defense, you will be puzzling your manager too. So, assure both the guarantees so as not to be ashamed. Then meet in time with your director and discuss the strategy to use in defense. Identify any possible problems that may occur and how it should be treated. Try and make defense a team effort.
34. Don’t be defensive in your defense(sounds confusing!). This is easy to say but not easy to do. You have just spent a considerable amount of time on your research and there is a strong tendency for you to want to defend everything you have done. However, committee members bring a new perspective and may have some great thoughts to share. Probably the easiest way to deal with the new opinion is to say something like “Thank you very much for your idea. I will give you a wide consideration.” There, you have managed to vanish a potentially explosive situation and you have not backed down, nor has the committee member had to. But you have not promised anything. Try and be politically savvy right now. Don’t forget that your ultimate goal is to successfully complete your graduation.
35. Probably the most disorganized defense I have ever attended is the one in which the thesis supervisor started the meeting by saying, “You have already read the entire thesis. What questions do you have for the student?” What a mess. Questions begin to be asked by launching the student from one part of the dissertation to another. There was no order and the meeting almost lost control due to a lack of organization. At that time I vowed to protect my students from falling into such trouble by helping them organize the defense in the style of an educational presentation.
This is what we do:
I ask the student to prepare a 20 – 25 minute detailed presentation that goes over the entire study. This is done with the help of a series of 10 to 12 large pieces of paper, cardboard sheets, which have been sequentially fixed around the walls of the room. Each piece of paper contains the keywords regarding each of the various aspects of the study. Some pieces of paper contain information about the issues, questions, and methodology of the study. Other sheets present results and finally others present the conclusions. By preparing these sheets on the wall in advance, the student can relax during the presentation and use the pieces of paper as if they were a road map to the goal. The stroke is done with a dark marker and additional notes are included in very small pen calligraphy (so no one can really see). We have also tried projecting transparencies, but they don’t work as well. The transparencies go out of sight after a few seconds. The cardstock sheets remain attached to the wall for everyone to contemplate and maintain attention.
Following this presentation structure, the committee begins to ask questions, but as you can expect the questions follow the order of the sheets on the wall, and the entire discussion proceeds in an orderly fashion. If unforeseen issues arise in the defense, this form of presentation also helps to move forward and understand exactly what has happened during the investigation.
36. Consider recording your defense. Using a small portable recorder, record your presentation, questions, and comments from committee members. This helps in two ways. First, the student has documentation to assist him in making suggested changes and corrections in the dissertation. The student can relax more and listen to what is being said by the committee members. The recorder is taking notes! Second, the student has a permanent record of their study presentation. Keeping the written sheets and the tape together may be useful for reviewing the research in future years when a presentation request is made. (Take the tape and sheets the night before your presentation and you can hear yourself doing the presentation. What a great way to review!)
By following the above suggestions and ideas, I hope it will be possible for you to finish your graduation program in the most timely and enjoyable manner. Looking ahead to the various aspects of this final part of your undergraduate study, it becomes clear that you can do a number of things to ensure your success. Good luck!!
37. Oh, I almost forgot. There is one last thing. Stay busy and prepare an article or report that shares the results of your research. There will be no better time to do this than now. Directly after your defense is when you have the freshest knowledge of your study, and you will be in the best position to put your knowledge on paper. If you did not contemplate this task, it will probably never be done. Capitalize on all the investments you’ve made in your research and reap some added benefit – start writing.