The Dissertation Demystified

For better or for worse, around 50% of students take about five (5) years  to complete their dissertation and receive a degree. Another 30% complete it within 10 years. On Tuesday October 25, 2011 thirty (30+) individuals representing several departments including, Education, Engineering, English, the Information School, and Nursing gathered to have a heart-to-heart talk with Juan Guerra, Associate Professor at University of Washington, Department of English about things related to the dissertation.

Over 90 percent of the people in attendance had their sights set on academia after graduate school so this was an extremely relevant topic. I will summarize the discussion and the answers to some of the questions fielded.

Guerra started by making it clear that the journey to your dissertation is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Still, everyone has the ability to complete it. Whether they exercise this ability is another issue.

From Apprentice to Expert

One of the most significant takeaways was  that as a PhD. candidate you are an apprentice. As such you are prone to mistakes, misjudgments, and even being misguided. At the end of the tunnel you will have emerged an expert. The object that will establish your expertise is the dissertation. Your committee can aid or inhibit your progress towards this.

Using himself as the object of study, Guerra narrated his progression from apprentice to expert, the ups and downs, the role his committee played in the process and the final output. Along the way, he provided a useful comparison between the output of an apprentice and that of an expert.

Apprentice vs. Expert
output 400 pages vs. 100 pages
time 18 months vs. 3+ years

As an apprentice, an individual is usually inexperienced with using theory, manipulating different research designs, synthesizing and scholarly writing. Furthermore, they are constrained by time, funds and other relevant resources.

Questions from the Future Scholars

You probably have questions you want answered about the dissertation process and everything related to it. Perhaps the next section can do this. Below are the approximate answers Guerra provided to a representative sample of the questions asked by those in attendance.

The questions are arranged in the way I thought made most sense. I hope you find them useful.

How do you choose a committee member?

The same way as you selected the chair. Aim for people who really know their stuff. If they are inaccessible then aim for the next best. If they are outside of your department help them understand why being on your committee would be mutually beneficial!

How often shall one meet with their adviser?

It depends on a range of factors–how well you write, how motivated you are, and your availability. Guerra suggests that after you have secured an adviser, you should schedule a meeting just to negotiate the details of that advisor-advisee relationship. Since some students need much more support than others there is not a simple formula to help determine how much time to devote to ensure you’ll complete the apprenticeship process.

How do you handle the advice of your dissertation committee?

Advice comes in all shapes in sizes. The amount of input each committee members provides varies from one situation to the next. What is important to remember is that the committee chair is the individual that you are most accountable to. They are the person that can make your life pleasant or miserable. So, make sure the person you select is an expert and accessible. If you are unable to have both, aim for accessibility. You can have someone who is accessible but not an expert; those relationships will need you to be more alert, but can work. If you select a chair that is an expert, but not accessible, they will be of little value.

That being said, remember, the other members of your committee are secondary. This doesn’t mean their views or advice don’t count are not to be considered. Rather that it is the chairs job to manage their expectations.

Is departmental turmoil real?

In short, yes! Every department has political issues, some more than others. When assembling your dissertation committee find out who works well with who and use that information to your advantage. This may mean making some sacrifices (e.g. two experts on your committee instead of three).

Can faculty use their students to do their “dirty work”?

In theory the dissertation is a project that an individual selects and works on. However, in reality it is way more complex. In some instances, individuals may find themselves in a compromising situation–spending more time on their advisers work than on their own. Fear of damaging the advisor-advisee relationship may lead some to leave it unchecked. Others naively believe their advisers has their best interest in mind and voluntarily devout all efforts to their advisers work. Then there are those that are totally oblivious to this before it is too late.

If you end up in this situation (or anything similar) you do have options. One option is to use the work you’ve been doing with this person to serve your purposes. This works best if you are at least remotely interested in what you are working on.  Alternatively, find a way to inform your adviser that you want to allocate your time so you can spend more time on your professional interests.

How ethical is it to change your committee?

Ethical, yes! Easy to do, no! In fact it can be very difficult to execute. Like any relationship it is something that needs to be approached with extreme care. Some pointers, if you feel you want to switch committees.

  • Act right away: Start by finding another faculty member on campus that is willing to take you in.
  • Break up: Upon securing a new advisor find a legitimate way to end the advisor-advisee relationship with the current one. “I don’t like you and you don’t like me” will not be enough. One way to do this maybe to say “My interests have changed …..” In some instances you may really have to change your interest to get out of a failing student-adviser relationship

If dissertation is based on research, what can you do while you collect data?

You can’t separate data collection from dissertation writing. But there are chapters you can work on in the meantime.

“I can’t write, what should I do?”

When you get stuck stop and go read some more. That being said one of the biggest sins graduate students commit is that they keep reading and reading and reading! A piece of advice I received from Marisa Duarte about writing (mentioned in my post called A PhD Student’s Simple Guide to Taking the General Exam) was that if you are typing on the computer and get stuck, save your file and pick up a pen and pad and begin writing by hand. This process helps slow your thinking down and gives you time to develop you thoughts.

Your Journey into Expertise

Well there you have it. The dissertation process and things related to it have been demystified, at least partially. Are their questions that you wanted answered that were not addressed here? Write any additional questions you may have in the comments section below and I will do my best to find someone to answer them.

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