If you are or were at some point in a doctoral program then you have probably heard the following before: The best dissertation is a done dissertation. But how to get it done?
I am at the annual meetings of the National Communication Association where I have been asked to present on a panel about “Strategies for Successful Dissertation Completion”. It is hard to say whether I have any more expertise in this area than anyone else with a PhD, but I did sit down to come up with a list that I thought may be worth sharing here. I want to acknowledge the contributions of my grad school friend Erica Field who kindly entertained this question over dinner last night and offered several helpful additions to the list. Since we had spent countless dinners during grad school discussing our dissertations her contributions to all this have been more significant than simply talking about it over one meal.
I welcome additions to the list. I plan to share this with students in the future so the more helpful pointers the better.
It is probably fair to note that I did not follow all of these points, but if I had to do it all over again, I likely would. The list is presented in no particular order.
Also, several of the items are likely helpful for people who are at more advanced stages of their academic careers so you may get something out of this even if you already have a PhD.
Strategies for successful dissertation completion
1. Start early in your grad school years. Do not wait for a grand idea to strike. Sometimes very solid dissertation ideas come from relatively small ideas you have early on. Start exploring those.
2. Keep track of everything you do by filing material (whether digitally or not) and by keeping a diary of progress in your research.
3. Related to #3, but worth a point on its own: back up everything!
4. Identify your thesis committee early. Set up meetings with them on a regular basis. Profs are busy, you have to be forceful about this. Do not be shy. They are (or are supposed to be) there to help you get through the program.
5. Get feedback on your work regularly. You do not want to write five chapters only to be told that your basic premise is completely faulty and you have to start over.
6. Do not be discouraged if you find another project that * sounds * like yours, chances are good that it is not. Often enough you will encounter projects that make you think your work has already been done. Before you get completely stressed out about this, check the details of the other project. In all likelihood it is different from yours in significant ways.
7. Keep a notebook of all of your ideas even if they seem tangential to the project. You never know when they will be helpful later whether for this project or another one.
8. Do not be scared of contacting researchers elsewhere who may have relevant material/ideas for you.
9. Go to conferences. These are helpful for several reasons. (In fact, a whole other list could be written about them.) Directly related to dissertation completion is that they offer serious motivation to get parts of your dissertation done since you have deadlines to meet for presentations. Also, getting feedback about your project should be helpful as is meeting others in the field of your work so you can learn about more research that is relevant to your project.
10. Form a group with other students to motivate progress. Get together every couple of weeks either to share drafts or in the least to discuss what progress you had made since the last meeting. This kind of accountability can help motivate you to get work done.
11. If you need resources, look for and write grants to get funding. These are probably available both at the level of your university and outside. Ask others about the sources of their funding to find out about opportunities.
12. If you need a lot of resources then join a big project that is related to your interests as a research assistant. (This project does not have to be at your own university.) If you do good work and show dedication to the project then you may be able to carve out a piece for your own dissertation data collection/analysis.
Related to all this, it may be a good time to revisit Kieran’s list of Indispensable Applications.
I will take this opportunity to point to a document that does not focuse on dissertation completion per se, but has lots of helpful general advice for PhDs: Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network.
Of course, there are countless books available on this topic as well for those looking for more.