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You are nearing the end of your graduate program and you are tasked with completing arguably the most important and most challenging milestone of your graduate career—the dissertation (or thesis). Beginning, let alone finishing, a dissertation can seem like an insurmountable feat. You must now make a meaningful contribution to your field of study by conducting novel research. The thought of completing such an arduous task can be overwhelming, but remind yourself that you have already accomplished several other important milestones in your graduate program (e.g., comprehensive exams, field experiences, projects). In that regard, think of the dissertation as one big, final project that you simply need to complete before you graduate. In fact, that is just what a dissertation is… “a project.” A project is a planned undertaking that requires you to assemble many different parts to form a whole, finished project. For this project, the dissertation, these many different parts may include: an introduction; literature review and theoretical framework; hypotheses and research questions; method and procedure; and results, and discussion. The aforementioned items are simply the moving parts that need to be ordered, managed, and essentially, brought to life. From my own personal experience, adopting that mindset allowed me to understand that although a dissertation is indeed challenging, it is feasible and not impossible.
With the understanding that a dissertation is just a project, now you must begin the task of generating topics. What are topics that appeal to you? What are issues that should be researched more thoroughly in your field of study? These questions serve as a great launching pad for topic generation. As you create this list, you may find yourself falling down the “rabbit hole,” which is okay. Allow yourself to dive head first into topics that are general, specific, broad, unusual, and creative. To accomplish this, you can conduct searches on scholarly databases, speak to colleagues, check out books from the library, etc. Once you have developed a list of topics, take the time to review the feasibility of carrying out this research. For instance, conducting research on individuals’ attitudes regarding the impact of a ketogenic diet on learning, may sound interesting, but how would you execute it? Where would you find potential subjects? How many subjects would be needed to have adequate statistical power? Ask yourself these challenging questions as you generate a list of potential topics.
A powerful tool that I relied upon throughout the course of the dissertation process was book called, Dissertations and Theses From Start to Finish: Psychology and Related Fields, written by John D. Cone and Sharon L. Foster. This book clearly broke down how I needed to start the dissertation process. While self-starting this process, it is imperative that you consult your advisor. In fact, consulting your advisor before you begin, may be more helpful as he or she will help to steer you in the right direction. Although you will be spearheading the dissertation, it is important to keep in mind this project is not a solitary endeavor and should not be considered as such. Use your advisor. Your advisor may become your chair, so it is important that the both of you remain on the same page in terms of the direction of your research. Thus, it is important to always maintain clarity of what you will be doing. Remember, your advisor has done this before, so he or she is equipped to provide you guidance. It may helpful to ask your advisor to provide examples of successfully defended dissertation proposals and dissertations from students that he or she had served as primary chair. You should look at ProQuest, which provides a comprehensive database of dissertations. You can look at previously written dissertations in your field of study, which is helpful because it offers a working model.
In terms of forming your committee, generating a list of potential faculty members will be helpful. How many faculty members are needed to form a committee? Do these faculty members have interest, expertise, or knowledge of the particular topic you will be researching? Are they well-versed in statistics? Have you worked with them before? Are you familiar with their research? These are wise questions to ask yourself because they will be providing your critical feedback of your work. A common concern is having adequate statistical knowledge to carry out a dissertation. In my experience, I referred to books and websites to help guide statistical operations. Depending on your field of study and statistical software, I highly recommend Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics, written by Andy Field. After you have created a list of faculty members whom you would like to comprise your committee, asking them to formally join your committee is the next step. When requesting their membership to your committee, explain to them the nature of your research, why you believe your research is important for your particular field of study, and why their involvement in your committee is important. Obviously, one of the many responsibilities of faculty is to serve on committees, but approaching them in an organized, thoughtful manner is important because it demonstrates your level of commitment to the process. As a final note, deferring to your graduate program’s handbook is ultimately your best course of action when embarking upon this process. The handbook will inform you of your program’s policies, deadlines, and other requirements. If the handbook does not provide clear instruction regarding the completion of certain tasks, you should get that information from your advisor or the director of your graduate program.
Cone, J. D. & Foster, S. L. (2006). Dissertations and theses from start to finish: Psychology and
related fields. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Field, A. (2013). Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics, Fourth Edition. New Delhi,
India: Sage Publications.