So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 4

Again, I recommend starting with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series before reading this post. This is my forth and final post in this series (unless someone contacts me and asks me to add information on another component of the dissertation process that didn’t occur to me).

Today I am going to write about the defense: The pinnacle of your dissertation project. Once you have defended, there are no more drafts, no more revisions, no more late nights in front of the computer pondering why you ever chose to go to graduate school in the first place. Your proposal defense and dissertation defense are the two most important presentations you will prepare in your doctoral career.  This can be incredibly anxiety-provoking (because if it weren’t stress-inducing enough to interfere with your sleep, graduate students would not do it). Remember, your committee members should not let you schedule your defense unless she or he honestly believes you will pass with flying colors. Your program will most likely not allow you to book a room or formally announce your defense without the go-ahead of your chair, so try to keep calm. You are ready. You can do this.

In my program, the only people allowed to attend a proposal defense are the committee members and those personally invited by the student presenting. I chose to invite only my partner, who was under strict instructions to provide silent moral support. A classmate of mine asked a couple of other friends and me to attend her proposal because she felt more comfortable speaking before a larger group. For the dissertation defense, however, an announcement is posted to the entire university, and you technically are not allowed to turn away anyone who wants to observe your presentation. They can ask questions and provide feedback, but they cannot do or say anything to override your committee’s decision about your completed project. The night before my defense, I had a nightmare that the entire university community showed up for my defense – professors, students, my former employer – and my adviser’s only response was “I guess you will need to find a bigger classroom.” Fortunately, it turned out that no one other than I was preoccupied with my presentation, and only my committee and invited guests showed up.


The key to surviving either defense is to remain calm and have a solid support network there for you. Your committee will most likely tell you that passing is contingent on at least a few minor revisions. (Remember their job is to be thorough, so they have to give you SOME feedback, no matter how minimal.) This project is your baby, and you know more about it than anyone else. Make sure that your presentation covers all the main points of your project, and bear in mind that your committee members have already read your dissertation at least once, so your presentation is less about telling them what you did and more reminding them what they read, with a summary presented for any guests. Your chair should have some advice about specific templates or information that you should be sure to include. You can also ask program graduates or students who have already defended to send you copies of their presentations.

Following your presentation, anyone present may ask you questions about your project. Again, it should not be anything you do not already know – this has been the center of your life for the past one to three years, after all! If you are feeling overly nervous, you can always ask your support network to throw you a couple of easy questions to make you look smart. When I defended my final dissertation, my friends brought along signs to cheer me along, similar to those you see at sporting events. It made me smile and lowered my stress level immensely.

defense defense2

Get it? D-fence? Defense? I found it hilarious.

Just like with your motivation routine, the things that will reduce your defense stress will be unique to you. You need to determine what that is and use it to your advantage. Don’t forget, you would not be here if you couldn’t do this. Good luck!

So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 3

If you are just discovering my blog now, I highly recommending part 1 and part 2 of this series before continuing.

Unlike the first two posts in this series, this post will include a large amount of information I acquired second-hand. Because I chose to write a training manual rather than conducting an empirical study, I cannot speak to my own experience about the intricacies of a dissertation involving data collection. During my first year, though, I did do an empirical study for class, and so I will draw my wisdom from that experience. I do highly recommend finding someone in your program who did an empirical study for their dissertation to provide insights into your project. In fact, I would suggest finding someone in your program who has completed a similar dissertation regardless of your project so that you can be sure to meet your program’s specific requirements as closely as possible.

The most important component I have found of a project involving data collection is to make sure that you have permission to move forward. This is not the time for asking forgiveness rather than permission. There is a rumor in my program of a woman who began her study prior to receiving her official Human Subjects Committee approval, and she ended up not being allowed to complete her project. No dissertation = no degree, and they still expect you to pay back your loans even if you don’t finish.

The second most important part of any dissertation is communication with your adviser. You can follow every procedure to the letter, but if your chair feels that it is not the project that he or she signed up for, they can tell you to make changes. Significant changes. Even if it is your nineteenth draft and all you want to do is graduate. Discuss with your chair in excruciating detail what you plan to do and how you plan to do it, and make sure that they are in agreement. That is what the prospectus is usually for – it is basically a contract where you outline what you will do and your chair agrees to work on it with you. Unfortunately, though, often times chairs agree to a prospectus with contingencies, and if you do not get those contingencies spelled out you might be in for a hassle later on.

As a side bar to this, also make sure that your chair and other committee members are people who will have the same goals in mind for your project. This did not happen to me, but I have heard horror stories from other programs of faculty butting heads on certain details, with each refusing to pass the student without things being done his or her own particular way. When my chair agreed to work on my project, I blatantly asked her who she would be alright with as second and third readers, and then I chose the rest of my committee from that list.

Anyway, if your project involves human subjects of any kind, or archived data from a past experiment using human subjects, you will need approval from your institution’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB basically gets to decide whether or not what you are doing is ethical, from the wording on your consent forms to the actual procedures used in your study. For my study, a classmate and I were using archival data that had been collected by the university in previous years. Our IRB had an issue that, when the initial data collection had taken place, participants did not give consent for their information to be used in our study (because neither of us was attending graduate school at that time, and neither of us had any idea that we would want to do this study in the future). We were fortunate that the researchers of the initial study had the foresight to predict that someone else might benefit from their data and had clearly spelled out in their consent forms that the University had the right to re-use the data for future research while protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of the information.

Basically, be prepared for the IRB to ask you to revise your proposal. Their job is to be scrupulous, so even if you send them a flawless proposal, it is their job to find something wrong with it, even if that something seems insignificant to you. This also means that you need to be prepared to submit early. At my university, the IRB meets once per month, and so if they send you revisions and ask you to re-submit, you have to wait another month for the changes to be approved before you can even begin.

When constructing your timeline, also keep in mind the availability of the subjects you want to use. At my university, there is a tendency for graduate students to collect dissertation data during the spring semester, and statistically fewer students volunteer than in the fall. As such, every spring we end up with projects that lack sufficient volunteers. If you know this about your university, make a plan to collect data in the fall, or to be open to spreading it out over two semesters.

And remember: Relax, and take deep breaths. Your dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint. Good luck! You would not be here if you weren’t smart enough to handle this.

So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 2

You have chosen your topic. You have acquired a chair. You have attempted – with probably a varying amount of success – to turn off that competitive voice that constantly measures up your topic against that of everyone you talk to. Now comes the difficult part – actually writing the thing. Like I said in the last post, it is unbelievably daunting to start a task that you know you will not finish in this sitting, or this school year even. Here I share my insights into what helped me stay motivated and get those words on paper (or on screen, to be technically correct).

I did 90% of the work for my dissertation while living 2000 miles away from the love of my life, so instead of being upset, I chose to channel those feelings into my proposal. It was much easier said than done. The first step was to create a schedule for myself. Now, generally I am very good at meeting deadlines, but with a dissertation, there are few set deadlines that you have to keep unless you and your chair come up with something, and even then those dates tend to be fluid. For me, it was easier to set aside times to work rather than simply saying “I will write X number of pages by Y date.” I knew I could easily get discouraged if I accidentally picked a time frame that ended up being impossible to stick to, and as any over-achieving doctoral candidate will tell you, this is sadly easy to do. Since I had adequate time before my school’s deadlines (all I needed was to successfully propose by September 15th of whatever year I wanted to apply for internship, and this was the start of my second year), I had the option to work this way. Find what works best for you, and just remember to be flexible with yourself if you suddenly realize you’ve given yourself a 100-page deadline in the middle of finals.

My personal proposal schedule consisted of dedicating 10 hours every other Saturday to researching/writing my manuscript. I tend to work well getting into a zone and accomplishing a lot in one sitting, so this worked well for me. If I broke my work time down into one or two hour increments, I would spend most of my time reminding myself where I left off, which would only serve to frustrate me.

My dissertation ritual would start on Friday afternoon. I would make sure that my apartment contained adequate food – both substantial and guilty pleasure junk foods – to last me through the marathon of Saturday. (I subscribe to the theory that will power is like a muscle in that it can only handle so much “weight” at a time, and so while I am using my will power to continue writing rather than checking my email and social networking sites, I do not ask it to monitor what goes into my mouth. If your will power can multitask, then you are more talented than I am.) Then it’s an early bed time, which is not atypical for me on the weekends, as I was born at approximately age 50.

Saturday morning I would get an early start, eat a large breakfast, and consume a 5 hour energy. Part two of my ritual was complete. Next, I created my work space. Everything I could possibly need for the day was within reach – laptop charged and plugged in, highlighters, pens, notebooks, stacks of articles, chips. Time to motivate with one to three views of this video: 40 Inspirational Speeches In 2 Minutes was a gift from my friend Adam one day when I was having trouble bringing myself to finish a paper, and it has never steered me wrong. I would probably lead an army into battle after watching this video if someone handed me a sword and yelled.

Time to create an upbeat atmosphere to perpetuate the hyped-up, motivated vibe created by the video. I put on my favorite Pandora dance station, which usually led to a 10 to 30 minute dance party, followed by an intense writing montage. The rest of the day consisted of alternating power-writing sessions and brief dance parties. Hey, you have to know what works for you, and this system kept me pumped!

Some weeks, no matter how hard I tried, my apartment became one giant distraction, so I moved the operation over to Panera or Starbucks (minus the dance parties – unfortunately I am not at a point in my self-actualization where I can “dance like no one is watching” unless no one is, in fact, watching), and that seemed to get me back on track. The point is, you need to find a system or ritual that works for you, and be flexible if your needs change. And I highly recommend that video, whether you are writing a dissertation, taking a test, or about to take a long drive. No matter what is going on with your life, 40 Inspirational Speeches will definitely get you pumped.

So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 1

Last week I promised to launch a series on surviving the dissertation process. Over the next few weeks I will share the story of my dissertation: what worked for me, what did not, and how I got through the process in one piece. I would love feedback from others who have been through the process if they feel comfortable sharing what benefited them.

Dissertation: it is the project that never seems to end. It is the most daunting task of your program. It is the source of countless hours of research, writing, re-writing, head-banging-against-walls, cursing, and crying. Where do you even start on a project of this magnitude? It is unbelievably unsettling to start a project that will take one to three years to complete, if you are lucky.

At the end of my first year, my partner moved 2000 miles away. My job in the academic counseling and tutoring center ended for the summer, since there is no one to counsel or tutor when there are no undergraduate students on campus. I was fortunate to have entered graduate school with an idea of what I wanted to do, and so I spent the summer reading more than 100 articles about sexual violence on college campuses. Using templates I found online, I wrote my prospectus and began my literature review prior to the start of my dissertation seminar course. My adviser had already expressed an interest in my project, so she agreed to be my chair. My history with academic counseling provided me with a toolbox of time management skills, and I channeled my long-distance relationship frustration into productivity.

Later in this series I will talk about creating a work space that is conducive to productivity, keeping self-imposed deadlines, and staying motivated. For now, I will be discussing how I chose my dissertation and how I kept my sanity throughout the process.

My dissertation consisted of a literature review about the psychology of survivors of sexual violence, sexual violence on college campuses, and best practices for crisis intervention and response to first disclosure experiences and a manualized training for student employees of Residential Life on college campuses for how to respond to residents reporting sexual assault. I found that, although many such trainings exist, colleges prefer to use less effective manuals that are proven to be less effective in reducing rape myth acceptance and increasing crisis intervention skills, because these trainings tend to be more cost-effective to implement. My goal was to create a resource that I could make available for free that actually accomplished these goals.

Why a manual? I have always known that statistics are not my friend. There already exists a huge research base about survivors of sexual violence, and I knew that I wanted to create something that could be used directly to help survivors in their recovery. I felt that a manual would be the most effective way for me to do this. I also liked the idea of being able to make my own schedule. With data collection, you have to work around a dozen other calendars. You have to reserve the space, recruit the participants, gain Human Subjects approval, and (most likely) make time when the computer lab is open to perform statistical analyses. Yes, I spent countless hours writing my manual. No, I do not believe I took an easy way out by not having to collect data. But if you have to spend 1000 hours on a project, it does relieve stress slightly to know that those hours can occur whenever you want them to. Good luck finding participants who will work with you at 2 AM when you can’t sleep – my manual was always ready for me. It isn’t the right choice for everyone, but it was the right choice for me.

That brings me to my second point: taking care of yourself during this project. You have to remember that it is your dissertation and no one else’s. Each of your classmates is writing their own dissertation, and each project is unique and incomparable to any other project. Graduate school is competitive, so our default setting is to constantly compare everything we do to everything everyone else is doing. My school is 1300 miles away from my family, I have no children, and like I said, while I was writing the bulk of my proposal, my partner was living 2000 miles away, so it was easy to designate the weekends as “dissertation time,” and my proposal was completed by the start of my third year. Under different circumstances it would not have happened.

Also, because I chose to write a manual, my proposal encompassed about 90% of the work required for my final project. I had to compile a very detailed outline of what the manual would be, and so I defended my proposal in the same year that I proposed. Had I needed to collect data, my proposal would have taken less time, and my final dissertation would have taken much longer.

As difficult as it is, try to drown out your classmates’ dissertation work, since it is not relevant to your project. You end up wasting precious energy that could be used on your own dissertation worrying about what everyone else is doing, and to what end? Just like only you know what is right for you, only they know what is right for them. Maybe you are a parent, or maybe you are fortunate enough to be able to spend every weekend with your family. Maybe you are having trouble finding a project about which you feel passionate enough to invest the 1000 hours it takes to create a dissertation. It is better to start later than to spend all that time on a project that makes you miserable.

So you’ve decided to write a dissertation. What project speaks to you? What contribution to the field will be the culmination of your graduate work? Just remember, this journey is yours alone. Don’t let yourself be distracted by journeys unrelated to yours.