Fireside Chat: Dissertation Expectations

Everyone has expectations – your professors, your committee members, even the Graduate School.  Expectations about your dissertation.

The most important lessons are the following.

  • You are not in Grad School to get tenure.
  • You do not have to win the Nobel Peace Prize for your dissertation.
  • That Big idea you have will last you a life time so, just do a small piece of it for your dissertation and graduate.

You were selected and admitted into the program because faculty and the Grad School saw promise and potential in you. You do have outstanding qualities.

Graduate School.  The Grad school has its own expectations of you.

  • To exhibit and practice only the highest and ethical research standards.
  • To create new original and independent knowledge.

In the process of doing your dissertation, you will enhance your critical thinking skills, be able to critique and transfer knowledge.  The one thing that is different today is that the “Ruler Lady” is no longer employed to measure your margins, so your dissertation can be bound.

Today everything is electronic, and the format can be quite different.  For example, in some disciplines 3 publishable papers or a more creative format may be used in place of the old standard format. A standard format may consist of an introduction, literature review, methodology, results and discussion, conclusion and implications for further work.

Advisors.You may be wondering about the expectations of your advisors.  They want you to be independent, take responsibility, ask questions, and transition from novice to peer and be able to take the lead. It’s also important that you be respectful of their time.  Your dissertation is not the only one they are supervising.

Questions you should ask.

  • What should the dissertation look like? Are there chapters? If so, how many? It is a collection of papers that you co-author with your major professor?
  • Who owns the data you are collecting – you? The funding agency? The Industry sponsors? What implications does that have for you to publish your work?
  • Will your prospectus/proposal for the dissertation be agree upon by all committee members? By the funding source?

These are important questions to explore with your major professor and confirm by looking at other examples of recently “published – on-line” dissertations in your program.

Management of Your Dissertation. Your expectations for the management of the dissertation should be clear.

  • How will the drafts be handled?
  • Will the entire document be handled by your advisor before it goes to the rest of the committee? Will it go chapter by chapter?
  • What is the amount of lead time you need to give the reader(s) to review and give you feedback?

It’s unrealistic to expect that if you turn the material in today, that it will be read in two days.  You need to ask what the appropriate protocol is for your program. Keep in mind, the committee and/or your chair have other responsibilities besides your dissertation.

The Chair. It’s important that you as the student have regular meetings with your chair.  Be sure to be prepared.  Come to each meeting with an agenda and leave with clear action items.

Questions you should explore with your chair include:

  • How will meetings be scheduled in advanced?
  • How often will I meet with the whole committee to provide progress updates and receive feedback?
  • What can I expect at those meetings?
  • Will I be meeting one-on-one with committee members? If so, how often and for what purpose?

You want to be very careful as to who you select for your chair.  Sometimes, that decision is made for you by the funding source (your chair).  If that’s not the case, do your due diligence and ask your peer mentors for advice.  Be sure to check out the chair’s completion rate and the median time-to-degree to finish for their students. The same can be said for committee members. You may want to read Fireside Chats: A Mentor Saved the Day; Preparing the Way.

Resources. There are resources to assist you. You do not have to blaze the trail by yourself.  Most Graduate Schools have workshops that can be a great value to you. But, you need to make the effort and get to them.  You probably have found numerous on-line resources on “How to write a dissertation.”

Most importantly, get a support system-group in place now! People who can encourage you as you go through the process. People who understand what you are going through. People who can celebrate with you at the finish line – graduation.

You may want to hire a professional editor. Especially if English is not your first language.  I always used an editor as I prepared my grants and manuscripts for publication.

There are writing and thesis institutes where you can spend a focused week on writing.  Attend workshops on writing.   Take advantage of every available learning opportunity even if you have to sneak out of the lab.  They will be valuable to you as you proceed through the process.

Imagine.  Finally, before you begin, Imagine.  Imagine yourself at the end defending a successful dissertation. Finished!  Just defended your work. You are now preparing for graduation and the celebration that follows.  Feel what that feel like.

Now, remember that feeling and go there every time you hit a brick wall, face a hurdle or challenge.  Keep on going. Go over, under, around, and through the challenges to your goal. That feeling and how you saw yourself as graduating…that will assist your spirits and help you to stay on task.

I always tell my students, “Never in the middle ask why am I here? Remember you goal and what it’s going to feel like when you finish.”  You will get there!

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My experience as the chief academic officer and administrator charged with providing vision and leadership in planning, guiding, and coordinating all aspects of graduate education from admission through graduation at two major research universities provides the foundation for our fireside chats.

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