Fireside Chat: Advice from Faculty About the Dissertation

How do grad students learn about how to write a dissertation?  I thought about my own experience as a first-generation grad student.  There must be a better way to assist grad students.

I found a way. And in this chat I will share the experience of others who successfully completed the process and some who were going through the process. But first let me tell you how I found a way.

I happened to be visiting an experienced Graduate Dean seeking informal mentoring when I was invited to attend a special workshop. This workshop was a Dissertation Workshop for graduate students. I thought, what a novel idea. How can I do something like this for our grad students. And, so I did.

Using that workshop as a model, I expanded the idea to include master’s as well as doctoral level students. The first Thesis and Dissertation workshop was held on my campus in October 2000.  It was a great success.  We had a full house. Faculty from diverse disciplines were invited to serve on a panel and give their best advice to the attendees. They ranged from having just finished their dissertation (newly appointed Assistant Professors) to well established faculty (Professors).

The students asked lots of questions.  One student captured the experience of attending the workshop as follows.  “This is the first thing like this that we have had as graduate students.  It makes me feel like I am part of a community of scholars.”

The Faculty shared great wisdom and I have the luxury of having saved my notes and am able to share their insight with you here. Much if not all of what they said holds true today and my hope is that you will find one nugget that will be of value to you.  You may want to read the fireside chat on Dissertation Expectations.

Preparing the Way. Faculty had much to say about how important it is for you to get started right away. Do not let the first semester slip by without you taking action. They recommended that you:

  • Attend dissertation proposal meetings and defenses in your program right away.
  • Select a topic you like, and feel is important.Sometimes that topic will be selected for you by the funding agency, if not, you will want to be passionate about your topic.
  • Explore several possible dissertation questions.
  • Consider multiple designs and don’t prematurely foreclose on your topic.

One faculty talked about how important it was to prepare. He said the following. “If you don’t prepare the way – set the stage – you’ll end up like I do on Saturdays.  I spend the day going back and forth to Lowes rather than making a planning check-list and making only one trip.”

Advisors. Selecting your faculty advisor is a major commitment. You may want to read the Fireside Chat A Mentor Saved the Day and do better than I did.  Sometimes you may not have a choice in that your funding is tied to a faculty advisor. Be mindful. Everything is rosy during the honeymoon or early phase and it can get difficult during the middle of the process. You don’t want to divorce your major professor as I did (that’s for another fireside chat) or have them divorce you.

  • Choose an advisor with great care.
  • Expect some bumps in the road in working with your advisor.
  • Consider the advisor’s work load and promptness in reading and providing feedback.

This faculty member says it like it is. “At times during the dissertation process, you won’t like your advisor.  I pride myself on not hating anyone, but I hated my advisor at times. Now that I’ve graduated, I don’t hate him.”

Committees.  Think about committee membership in several ways.

  • How academically helpful will they be?
  • What is the social/political make-up of the committee?
  • What scientific paradigms do they represent?
  • How liberal or conservative are they scientifically/methodologically?

Never forget that there is a standard unspoken protocol. It is this. “Committee members usually defer to the dissertation advisor. That is the way the system works.”

Process.You will find that you are excited to begin. Your family will keep asking you, “When will you be finished? What is it you are working on?”  The dissertation process is different from anything you have done in the past. As one professor stated, “The ‘bells’ that have rung in your past will probably not ring for you when you do a dissertation. You are largely on your own.”

  • Be proactive, not simply reactive during the process.
  • Remember that the dissertation process is a tutorial one – you and your advisor.
  • Map out the entire dissertation and then break it down into smaller subparts and tasks.
  • Set short term goals relative to the dissertations subparts and hold yourself accountable.
  • Identify technical and emotional social support assets.
  • Get by with some help from your friends.

One doctoral student in attendance summed up her experience and how your mindset makes a difference.

“As a doctoral student at the dissertation stage, I’ve discovered two attitudes among students. 1) This is what I have to do, and 2) This is what I chose to do because I have a passion for it.  What a difference it makes to have the second attitude!”

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drmgrasso

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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