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As a teenager, I once participated in a midnight corn maze race. I’m from Texas; it’s a whole thing. It was supposed to be a 45-minute course, but nearly two hours later, my best friend and I were still in the thick of it. Exhausted from having made circles back to landmarks we had created to indicate that we had already been there and depleted of confidence in any ability to navigate, we found ourselves asking each other rhetorical questions grounded in deep philosophy. Was the moon ahead of us when we started or behind us and is it even the moon or should it be a star that serves as our point of reference? What did the Mayans do? Is security on the premises and do they keep footage we might need to destroy later? We eventually made it to an opening where we were led by the muffled voices of people who had made it to the end, now sharing their own experiences in commiseration. When we finally crossed the threshold into the open air and looked out at the unobstructed view with miles of flat Texas terrain in sight, we jumped up and down with newfound energy and embraced in the joy and relief for the freedom we had previously taken for granted.
The dissertation process is kind of like that.
Your doctoral dissertation is a demonstration of your scholarly effort and represents the pinnacle of your advanced studies. So how do all of the blood, sweat, and tears that are painstakingly poured into this one critical project culminate into a beautifully crated piece of literature? Well, let’s first acknowledge that for some people, it may not. According to the Ph.D. Completion Project, a six-year initiative developed by the Council of Graduate Schools to collect data on completion rates, 65% of doctoral students in psychology have fulfilled the requirements of their degree at 10 years (Sowell, 2008). That is, a good amount of students meet the fate of becoming ABD (All But Dissertation), also known as academic purgatory. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic but the truth is, it happens. Now, I’m no dissertation rock star (please see intro metaphor), but I have made it to the other side of my own defense with all fingers, toes, and some dignity. Taking from my own experience, I have identified five indispensible elements of planning that are central to the process.
Your doctoral dissertation is a demonstration of your scholarly effort and represents the pinnacle of your advanced studies.
1. Become familiar with your program’s requirements and protocol.
It may seem silly to jump ahead when things are out of context; after all, it’s nearly impossible to fully understand the details without having gone through the process firsthand. However, having a strong general sense of what is to come will help keep you organized and prepared. Many institutions have an internal web portal that holds all the forms you’ll need in addition to detailed instructions of their protocol. You should note the prerequisites that must be met prior to initiating the process. For example, do you need to have taken and passed all of your comps? Is it necessary to have certain classes completed (e.g. statistics and methodology)? Must you apply to internships before you may submit a proposal? There are distinct phases of a dissertation. Figure out the steps and identify corresponding documents. Will you need to submit an IRB and if so, what does the application process entail? Who must sign off on your pre-proposal and proposal? Don’t overlook the small steps that take place near the end, like how to reserve a room for your defense and which forms to have printed for your committee to sign off on after you’ve defended. Once you have become well acquainted with the process, create a general timeline for yourself. My personal advice is to start at the end and work your way to present. This will help you frame your timeline within the perspective of the larger picture. If you are planning on obtaining an accredited internship, keep in mind that often times, a dissertation defense and submission of applications fall within the same year, which is a big, fat, double ouch. Put it all on a timeline suited to your personal preference and be honest about what you think you may be able to accomplish.
2. Identify your interest early.
You don’t need a structured list of outlined hypotheses or even a fully developed idea initially. What will serve you best is if you have identified a general area or a few areas of interest based on your exposure to the subject matter. Many students have accomplished this before entering graduate school and have already aligned with faculty whose research interests correspond with theirs. Some students have no intention of pursuing a career in research or academia and may be more ambivalent about their research direction in school. That is okay. Ask yourself whether there is a particular psychiatric or developmental population you have an interest in studying that may one day inform your clinical practice. Is there a psychological phenomenon or theory that you would like to test? Are the psychometric properties of a particular psychological test or measure interesting to you or is there a population you would like to see tested with these tools? You can find novelty in almost any topic so start general and then make moves to find faculty whose interest may align with yours. If you’re having a difficult time ascertaining your research interest, it may be helpful to start by looking at research conducted by the faculty within your institution and determine if there is a particular person with whom you would like to work with. Once you have a topic in mind, take a peek at the literature. Based on face value, is there a ton on the topic? What does the most recent literature say? It is also wise to keep feasibility in mind and recognize the limitations of your department. If you plan on using archival data, whose would you use? If you want to recruit participants, how will you go about it? There’s much to keep in mind and it’s easy for the target to move, especially when you begin brainstorming with others and ideas start flooding in. This is okay and it typically means you are on the right track!
3. Determine your committee and pick a chair based on best fit. This is critical. Your chair is your corn maze best friend.
3. Determine your committee and pick a chair based on best fit.
This is critical. Your chair is your corn maze best friend. That is, they will share navigational responsibilities; which can either be wonderful if you share the same goals and the direction is clear, or it can be miserable if you hold disparate views on dissertation production or if they are unavailable to you. This person could be the reason you do or do not meet your timeline goals. So choose wisely.
Typically, a dissertation committee comprises of tenure or tenure track faculty among whom you will identify one sole chair, and usually three additional graduate faculty members. There is some flexibility, such that you may have two co-chairs. Additionally, many institutions will allow for an outside member to provide expertise on the discipline. The third and fourth readers often read only the completed dissertation before the defense. They are usually chosen in consultation with your chair to provide thematic or methodological expertise. Sometimes, as was the case in my graduate program, the fourth reader is chosen at random to reduce bias. When selecting your committee, you should be asking questions about the fit. Fundamentally, do they hold knowledge on your topic? Importantly, is this someone whom you feel is a good mentor? You’ll want to know if you will feel comfortable brainstorming with this person. Is their teaching style and professional approach compatible with your values? Determine how they view the purpose of a dissertation. Do they feel as though it must be Nobel Prize worthy or do they understand that it is a requirement for the larger goal of graduating? You’d be surprised to learn that there is a range of views. It is also important to know if they plan on taking sabbatical or are interested in taking a leave of absence. My third reader had a baby two months before I defended, making it difficult to schedule a defense date and evoking lots of anxiety. Life happens, things will not go according to plan entirely, but if you are aware of any bumps ahead, you’ll be better prepared to work around them.
4. Commit time to your literature review.
There is nothing more valuable than a comprehensive and well-constructed literature review. To advance your understanding of the subject matter, you must know what has been done before, the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in the literature, and what that means for future direction. Shulman (1999) emphasized that generativity, or the ability to build on the research of those who have come before us, is the hallmark of scholarship. In addition to developing good practice in science, a strong literature review will help consolidate your thoughts and direct your goals by providing a framework for your project. It will also help you become an expert on the subject matter so that when the time comes to defend your project, you can field all questions with sound knowledge. You won’t ever regret dedicating time to this phase!
5. Find support.
I think it goes without saying that having a support system in place is key to your mental and physical health. Have you ever read the ‘acknowledgements’ section of a dissertation? A large majority share content similar to an Academy Award speech. Something to the effect of, “I’d like to thank my friends and family… I couldn’t have done it without you… I’ll never forget your unwavering support”. Find your people. We need sounding boards and someone to go to when we become emotional (possibly irrational) and need feedback, or validation, or… a drink. Don’t underestimate the saying that ‘misery loves company’. It’s true. How nice to have someone who understands the process and can gripe about the same things you may be experiencing?! Find a hobby. Truly, something that has absolutely nothing to do with your line of work. This will allow you to have a healthy space, which ironically enough, can improve your work by creating clarity. It doesn't have to be fancy. Take up running, meditation, or cooking. Volunteer your time to philanthropy if it brings you joy; travel if you have the means, and make it a priority. I’ve always believed that people (or millennials if you want to be specific) do what they truly want to do. Last but not least, be good to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend and allow room for mistakes. Find humor in the process and I promise, it won't be entirely painful!
Shuman, L.S. (1999). Professing educational scholarship. Issues in education research: Problems and possibilities (159-165).
Sowell. R. (2008). Ph.D. Completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline data. Advocacy, Research, and Innovation.