These are thoughts I put together to prepare for a panel session at GW organized for Cohort 25 as they embark on their dissertation journey. It addresses dissertation strategy, motivation, keeping a dissertation journal, tools and techniques, field journal notebooks, general dissertation tips, and some lessons learned that are not in my other dissertation blog posts.
A dissertation is a big project. You are managing content (what you write), process (navigating all the milestones like Proposal Defense, IRB, etc.), and people (relations with your participants, the site POC, your Chair, your committee members, your support group, your loved ones, and yourself). The first two years of U.S.-based doctoral programs is largely focused on content.
Decide what your goals are for your dissertation at the outset and make sure you communicate this to your Chair. One approach is that your dissertation may be the most important research you ever do and can be used to generate multiple journal article submissions. Trying to do great work *will* involve some discouragement when you find out that what what you thought was your best work really is not. Another approach is the best dissertation is a done one. This is also known as “just get it done.”
It can be a challenge to keep yourself motivated in the dissertation process, but don't forget that the only benefit your Chair and committee derive from the process is the satisfaction of helping you. Be a good doctoral candidate by giving them timely updates, letting them know about your problems, asking for help when you are struggling, and for goodness sake follow their advice! Imagine what they feel like when you go off-line for months at a time, provide first drafts or revision months later than discussed, or ignore their advice. If you get an email from your chair with the subject: Earth to Ralph, you have some relationship work to do. A healthy dose of empathy can make a big difference in your dissertation journey.
Based on the example of other cohorts, members of our cohort formed a small dissertation support group. The group has used periodic calls and occasional face to face meetings to hold ourselves accountable for making consistent progress and stay motivated during the dissertation process. Most of the meetings are via conference calls since I live in Norfolk, one person lives in Charlottesville, and two others live in Northern Virginia/Maryland. I think we have all found this practice helpful. In my case, it makes me feel like I want to have progress to report on the calls or share what I are learning about the process that might help others. The other members of the group have found similar benefits.
I found the coding process daunting at the beginning for several reasons. One, I had never done it before so I did not know what to expect or how long it might take. Two, I was really concerned that I would start down an "incorrect" path, discover later that my process was flawed, and have to start all over again, taking precious time. Both my Chair and the research methodologist (RM) on the committee helped. My Chair wanted to review my preliminary codebook (codes and definitions) before I really started coding. She pointed out that my first attempt created definitions that were too vague. My RM pointed out that I was using the code in the definition of the code (bad practice) and was embedding memos to myself about the code or what I thought I might find in the definition, which was awkward and confusing for review. I also got codebook feedback from one of two peers that had done coding in their dissertations, which was very helpful. All of these reviews helped build me confidence for the subsequent coding process. Probably the single most helpful advice I got was from the RM to "immerse myself" in the data (participant transcripts). I spent a few days reading over the transcripts that I thought were the richest source of data to see what the data was "telling" me. This was a great idea and gave me the confidence that I knew the data well enough to feel more confident about the coding process.
Like the monthly support group calls, it is really important to cultivate a support group of friends, colleagues, and relatives that will help cheer you on. Otherwise, the dissertation process can feel very isolating and lonely. Keep your support group, which should include your significant other, involved in your progress, accomplishments, plans, and disappointments. I would do this via Facebook, LinkedIn, email updates, and conversation.
I found that I had to manage my intellectual and creative energy for data analysis and theme generation differently than I had for my literature review. My literature review was primarily understanding other people's opinions and research, synthesizing it, and providing critiques. I could put in many hours a day doing this and still be productive. For generating themes from the data, which is basically when you say what you think it means, I could not work as many hours and still be productive. I also found it helpful to revisit the theories I had highlighted in the literature review and draw diagrams illustrating them and what learners had to say to see how I could connect them, how they matched, and how they differed in possibly surprising ways. I found this exciting and taxing at the same time so I could not do it for more than three hours at a stretch before taking a break and relaxing my thinking muscles. Data analysis was the most creative and fun part of the dissertation process for me. anage your energy for the more creative aspects of what you do (like themes).
Celebrate small successes in the dissertation process because the big steps, like finishing a chapter or successfully defending your proposal are widely separated. For example, I took my wife and family members out for accomplishments such as being able to go "track changes" in the literature review chapter, successful proposal defense, successful IRB screening, completing data collection, and Chair approval of themes for writing chapter 4.
This is something I learned from a successful doctoral candidate that came to speak to our class. She kept her paper journal in a notebook that she kept with her all the time and even had it by her bed so she could record great ideas that came to her in the middle of the night. I kept mine in Evernote. The ideas about how I was experiencing the dissertation journey I just left in Evernote, but I transferred the ideas about other things related to research, future projects, or "Dissertation Thinking" to analytic memos that I edited further in a text editor. I found the reflection afforded by the dissertation journal very helpful. I also made the journal accessible to my wife if she wanted to read it. I don't think she availed herself of this opportunity so I kept her informed of the same ideas in face to face conversations.
I practiced a lot of meditation and prayer during my dissertation journey. It helped me get my thinking straight about why I was doing it, what I thought God's plan was for me, how I could help that plan by working harder, but also take time to value the love and support of the people around me. I don't know if the dissertation process would be very satisfying if it did not have a strong connection with my values, my loved ones, and why I think I was put on this earth. The dissertation journal was a key part of that.
Tools and Techniques
It should be obvious that you need to be backing up anything you do on the computer regularly. You have to decide what “regularly” means for you. In my case, all my data files are in Dropbox, which is constantly backed up and allows me to work anywhere I want on whatever tool I have available. Apple Time Machine provides near constant backup and I do weekly manual backups.
Don't wait too long to choose the software you are going to use for data coding (if doing qualitative research). I made this the focus of my time after I submitted my proposal for IRB review. Qualitative data analysis software is often called Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS). I found a wealth of information available from the CAQDAS Networking Project - University of Surrey - Guildford
The CAQDAS (Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software) networking project provides practical support, training and information in the use of a range of software programs designed to assist qualitative data analysis. Platforms for debate concerning the methodological and epistemological issues arising from the use of such software packages. The site had brief overviews of all the major CAQDAS. I chose MAXQDA and I was particularly pleased with the technical support they provide. It was speedy and helpful on both occasions I used it.
I only used a few electronic tools while writing my dissertation. For initial drafts, I switch back and forth between Scrivener and BBEdit. I find all of Microsoft Word’s formatting distracting when I am first getting my thoughts out of my head. It is probably not a good thing that I alternate starting composing in Scrivener and BBEdit, but I am still experimenting with what is best for my workflow. Scrivener has lots of writer support tools for complex projects, has settings that are supposed to help with focus, and does not let the formatting options get in the way. BBEdit is just a text editor, which puts nothing between me and the text and I find its very simple interface less distracting sometimes than even Scrivener. The thing I really like about both BBEdit and Scrivener is that I have never lost text with either of these tools because they make that largely transparent. BBEdit is great for capturing quick ideas without having to bother with file names or locations.
I keep my list of references in Zotero, which has many features I like, but I keep my reference notes in Evernote because I really value its rich text features (highlights and text colors) and search functionality. I put all the reference notes in a single Evernote card organized by topic. What I really like about this is I can go to a topic in the card and just scroll through my notes, which I find really helpful for getting an overview of the references associated with a particular topic. I don’t know of any other way to collect the reference notes that would support this.
I have other notes on electronic tools for scholarship in my Advice and Suggestions for First-Year GWU ELP Cohorts blog post.
I use a Livescribe pen to take notes and recordings from meetings/calls with my Chair because the information and insight comes at me so fast I cannot take legible notes. Later, I use the recordings to create more detailed notes and use those notes to create action plans. I put the actions in two places: my project lists and in a separate file/record of feedback so I have it all the feedback in one place.
The programs I use all the time: Evernote, Zotero, BBEdit, Google Scholar (tuned to GW libraries), Apple Notes, pdfPen, Prizmo, and Livescribe pen.
Field Journal Notebooks
Even though I prefer to work with electronic tools to the maximum extent practicable, I used paper notebooks for feedback sessions with my Chair, committee members, and mentors. When I use paper notebooks, I leave 3-4 blank pages at the beginning of the notebook as a placeholder for a table of contents that I populate as I go. The format I use is title for the event, page numbers, and date. I make use of color sometimes for special attention.
I tried to keep my field notes, interview notes, and research observations in a separate notebook from my feedback sessions, but I was not always successful at keeping the content separated. I left my interview notes in the notebooks, but I quickly transferred the notes from feedback sessions, analytic memos and observation notes to text documents. I did this because electronic files are more searchable and easier to back up than paper notebooks. The notebooks I used were not fancy. I just used the standard, bound composition notebooks that are available in drug stores and supermarkets and only cost a few dollars. I number the pages manually if they are not already numbered because I need page numbers for the table of contents I create. In all of the cases mentioned above, I take paper and pen notes because the events or thoughts happen too quickly in the field for me to take good notes electronically. By the time I get my device out and get to the app I want, the thought often disappears so I find paper is still the best way to capture quick thoughts.
General Dissertation Tips
Keep old revisions of your work, which I often do in the same file with a section at the bottom of the document I call “Not Used" or create new files based on the date. I am always afraid that I will throw away something I want to use later. Many times, these “not used” ideas come in handy for chapter summaries.
Write action plans for each section/phase of the dissertation (IRB submittal, data collection, data analysis, Chapter 4, etc.). David Allen calls these Projects. I started with a master project for the dissertation organized by chapter, but later converted to projects for each section, which I think is more workable. For the format of next actions, I use the format suggested by Allen in “Getting Things Done”: write the action like you were telling someone else to do it so you don’t have to spend any time thinking about what you really meant to do when you read the action later. Within these project notes, I had sections for Questions, Notes (to myself, good for capture ideas quickly that you turn into actions later), Next Actions, On Hold for Now (something like Allen's Someday/Maybe list), Future Work (after the dissertation), Waiting For, Parking Lot, and Completed Actions (after completing an action, I did not delete the text, I just moved it to this section). I save all my completed action items at the bottom of the project lists since I have this nagging feeling the list of completed actions may be useful to reconstruct my plan or remember what I did or provide help to others. Keep these projects up to date as you go. I have found this form of organization to be wonderful for keeping my anxiety level lower. I capture every stray thought when it comes to me and everything I have to do is captured, both of which help you focus your cognitive energy on actually doing things instead of thinking and worrying about them.
Keep scratch paper near your computer or keep windows open in an app like BBEdit’s scratchpad or Apple’s Notes to capture ideas quickly. Reducing the friction between having the idea and getting it out of your brain is very important so it does not keep distracting you (David Allen tip). Transfer these ideas to your Project plans as soon as possible, but at least every other day or at night before you stop working.
Work on your bibliographic search technique and get tutoring from librarians. When I got tutoring on bibliographic search, I took notes so I could refer to them later and create my own checklists. I created a blog post on developing an Effective Bibliographic Search Strategy that is based on an excellent article, Bibliographic Search Training for EBMgt Education (Goodman et al., 2014).
I kept a running list of things I want to convey to my chair in the emails that will accompany revisions or other files I send. These thoughts or question occur while I am working and I collect them in Evernote so I don’t forget them.
I kept track of my study hours. A big part of the dissertation is just putting the time in and seeing the hours accumulate (or not) is a way to hold yourself accountable. I also found that I could accomplish 8 or more hours in a day unless I put in 5-6 before noon.
Never leave your work/computer without a plan for what to do next so you can pick right up where you left off when you come back. This is a great time saver.
Keep track of what search terms you use, possibly in a log.
Keep a log of library reference requests. Mine has the date of the request, the full citation, and the reason why I requested the reference. The reason why I requested the reference is very important because I easily forget this when I receive the reference and it is very hard, if not impossible, to reconstruct this thinking later.
Data Analysis Lessons
I did not use language in my themes that is integrated with the learning theories of my study. I did not ask “what does this mean?” often enough.
Questions I should have asked myself as I was generating themes:
Don't settle for findings or themes that are “blah." They need to be exciting and worth shouting about.
• What did I really learn?
• What is different about the topic of my study or RQ that I want to shout about?
• For each theme, ask "what's new about this?" (or "So what?")
• Is each theme distinct and does it clearly represent an idea that is different from the others?
• What does the thing I am singling out "do” to or for people? How does it affect them? It does what?