These are expanded from the notes I prepared for Cohort 26 about the dissertation journey.
My Dissertation Journey
Summary: My last class before starting dissertation work full time was August 2014. I had a “solid” RQ by May. My proposal defense was in December 2014. I received GW IRB clearance early January 2015. My data collection started at the end of January after receiving additional IRB clearance from the site. I completed data collection early March 2015. I completed chapter 4 by late June. I completed chapter 5 in early October and sent it to the committee for review shortly thereafter. I defended in December. My diploma reflected degree completion in January 2015. I participated in GW graduation events May 2015.
Best advice for completing the dissertation
Get support. A dissertation is a long and sometimes lonely journey. Get and use a support network to help you stay on target and motivated. I adopted the advice from previous cohort members I met at Airlie to have regular phone calls with members of my cohort to relate progress, get moral support, and hold myself (and them) accountable for progress. It really helped to talk with others going through the same thing as I was.
Put the hours in. At a certain level, completing any project is a function of the hours you devote to it. For me, keeping a log of the hours I put in every day helped me see the progress I was making and motivated me to keep daily and weekly study hours goals.
Topic. Pick a topic you love that helps you stay focused and motivated when you get up at 6am to start writing or have to process difficult feedback from others. On the other hand, pick a topic you and your advisor know you can do so you can get it down without making it a lifetime project. In some respects, the best dissertation is a done one.
Project Management Plan. Keep an up to date project management plan so you know where you are and can explain it to others. Mine was nothing fancy, just some block diagram sketches and text files that I kept up to date. I had weekly and longer range plans. My milestones are listed in the blog post “Ralph Soule Dissertation Milestones.”
Stay upbeat. Try not to let yourself get discouraged when things are not going well or feedback stings. You are still learning. You can see this better if you keep a journal of your experiences.
Dissertation Journal. Consider keeping a dissertation journal. I learned about this from Dr. Kristina Natt och Dag, one of Dr Storberg-Walker's doctoral students. She briefed our cohort about this during a final summer at the request of Dr. Storberg-Walker. I did and it helped me be more reflective about the entire dissertation process. I found it helped me verbalize many things I was having trouble articulating about stress, pressure, help I was getting, and things I struggled with. It helped me learn about myself as the answers to my RQs were emerging. In my case. reflecting means “wondering, probing, analyzing, synthesizing, connecting—‘ to ponder carefully and persistently [the] meaning [of an experience]” (Daudelin 1996, p. 41).
Control. Recognize that there are parts of the process you don't control and have their own pace: feedback, data analysis, obtaining participants. Just accepting this reality is part of the process. Focus your energies on what you can control. Other than reminders or help with pace from your Chair, you are the one driving the process. That can be a it scary, but liberating as well.
Tools. Experiment with tools and resources. Use what works to keep making progress. At various times, I used Evernote, BBEdit (a text editor for the Mac), Scrivener, Word (of course), paper notebooks, and Penultimate.
Experiences during each phase of the dissertation process
Topic Area - Ideally, your topic should be an intersection of what interests you and at least one of the ELP pillars. I am interested in all sorts of cognitive psychology Issues, but the ELP degree is not in cognitive science.
Selection of Chair - For me, there were two important issues with Chair selection. First, I wanted someone I knew, respected, and could help me get better at writing and translating my ideas into scholarly research. Second, I wanted someone that knew a lot about my topic areas (Adult Learning and Expertise). You might want to talk to people that have completed their dissertation working with a prospective Chair to see what they thought of the experience. I did not do this before choosing my Chair because I knew the person's work style and focus after having them as a professor for several classes. I did talk to someone she had advised while I was going through the process, which was a great help in developing perspective.
Research Question (RQ) - be very pragmatic and center your question on something you can actually do in a reasonable timeframe. My first question was not researchable because there was no site that I knew doing what I wanted to study. I had an idea that perhaps I could teach some organization to do what I wanted to study, but my Chair quickly disabused me of this fantasy. We worked together to quickly generate a bunch of questions before choosing the one I used. It was not the one I "thought" I wanted at first, but I wanted to earn the doctoral degree much more strongly than I wanted to stick with my original RQ.
Literature Review - The LR is where you really mesh writing styles with your Chair. I had some struggles with this because my writing was not nearly as good as I thought it was. I had spent a working career writing short memos and white papers for senior leaders, not hundreds of pages on complex academic topics. My Chair was amazingly patient with me and the hammering I received (well-deserved) made me a much better writer. I am sure I have much more improving to do, however, but that only comes with practice and reviewing papers for scholarly journals.
Proposal Defense - I have an entire blog post on this topic, “Dissertation Proposal Defense Preparation.” The proposal defense is an important milestone for two reasons. First, it is the gateway to submitting your research application to the university's Institutional a Review Board. Second, it is one of the first milestones that you do not control. This is not good or bad, it is just part of the process. You don't control membership of your committee. Getting members on your committee is a recruitment/negotiation process. Aligning calendars and opportunities to actually read your LR are similar. In my case, my Chair was with me every step of th way and in the lead most of the time so I was very well supported.
Institutional a Review Board (IRB) Application - I believe it is most productive to think of this as getting a license to do your research. It is a complicated process that I won't describe here, but be very thorough and meticulous about completing the required actions. Unlike a driver's license that bestows general permission to operate a wide range of vehicles, the IRB "license" is excruciatingly particular: you are authorized to drive a red Toyota minivan (not a sedan) with a particular set of features (manual or automatic transmission, not both), with specific passengers in particular seats along a predefined path *and nothing else*. I thought I understood this, but after my Chair identified all the general, contradictory, and inconsistent terminology I used in chapter 3, I revised my assessment of my understanding of IRB authorization. There are several ways to get flexibility in data collection, but they are subtle and your Chair will guide you through this.
Data Collection - I have a blog post on this topic, “Dissertation Data Collection Lessons.” My biggest challenge at the beginning of data collection was that my interviewing skills were not adequate. This is not surprising in retrospect since I had never done interviews before. After I did three interviews that generate nearly useless data, I stopped for a week when I could scarcely afford it to watch and listen to professional interviewers like Dianne Sawyer, Steve Dubner, and Charlie Rose. I practiced interviewing friends that knew a little about my research as if they were study participants. I critiqued interviews my Chair had not seen. I made quick reference cards with reminders of what not to say that I could glance at during interviews. I put my hand over my mouth during interviews to hide facial expressions. I made lists of checklists unrelated to my interview technique problems to remind myself what equipment I needed to start interviews, what forms needed to be signed, and standard explanations of my terms and RQ so I could say it the same way every time. I can provide all these checklists upon request. Even though I recorded interviews and had them transcribed, I took notes in a field journal during the interview that I could use to remind me of follow up questions so I did not need to interrupt participants unless I needed them to explain terms they were using. I asked participants to explain all terms that I thought would not be familiar to others so it was in the transcript. At the end of every day of interviews, I reviewed my field journal notes for things I was learning and wanted to follow up with other participants. I tried to look as closely for things people were not saying as I did at what they did say. I also looked for differences between what different participants said.
Data Analysis - This was fun and scary at the same time. I have an entire blog post on this titled, “Reflections on My Dissertation Journey Through Chapter 4: Findings”
Did not do in sections with Chair review so I ended up throwing out much of my first draft
Since there are two process descriptions in my chapter 5, I spent s lot of time drawing and redrawing diagrams and playing around with ideas to get something that made sense to me and others. This was a much difference creative process that chapter 2, but I still found it enjoyable because it was all up to me.
Integrating work/family/dissertation - This is going to be different for everyone. I don't think of this as balancing as much as "integrating" competing demands for attention. I did not have small children at home like I did when I worked on my Masters degrees. I logged the hours I put in to show progress and motivate myself to work harder and longer. I gave my wife, ℅-workers, and extended pit crew regular updates about my progress. I learned how to manage the most productive parts of my day for particular kinds of work. I had a good task management system (all manual) to keep up with what I had to do. I took the lead I've to celebrate all "small wins" and milestones with my family. I integrated my fitness activities, modified depending on how much time I thought I could spare, into my work schedule, but I kept up a regular diet, exercise, and nutritional regimen throughout the dissertation process. It helped me stay positive despite the stress I put on myself and gave me the energy I needed to put the hours in. As trivial as it might sound, I stopped responding quickly to emails that did not require it and stopped providing all customer feedback solicited via email. Th se are just two examples of how focused I was on completing my dissertation.
Key Points About the Dissertation Process
- Have a project management plan and keep it up to date
- Be very organized (see my blog post on this topic)
- Enlist help from friends and family, find ways they can be involved (shielding you from distractions, reviewing, listening, sounding boards)
- Celebrate small victories (chapter completions, defenses, IRB)
- Get better at saying "No" to nonessential things. Enlist the aid of your spouse for this.
- Frequently self-assess your performance and progress to adjust what could work better. For example:
1. Are you regularly reviewing your action items?
2. Are you giving your Chair frequent updates?
3. Are you setting deadlines for making progress?
4. Are you getting enough sleep and exercise?
5. Do you have a process for staying current on the literature related to your study? Google Scholar citation alerts are very helpful.
6. Are you meeting your hours goals for the week? If not, what needs to change? Can you ask your spouse for help?
How to write (and keep on writing)
Figure out when you are most productive and stay there (for me it was early in the morning, recognize it make take 1-2 hours before you really get in a writing groove and plan your studies around it)
Put the hours in
Don't accept "writer's block" as an excuse, write something, anything, even if it is about what is causing you problems, talk about them with your support group.
Working with your Chair and Committee
- Follow their direction, they are trying to help you
- Don't argue over every suggested change, pick your battles carefully
- If you are confused or disagree with their comments, explain why or be clear why you don't understand what they are telling you to do
- Stay in touch and follow up quickly from their feedback (I used action plans)
- I recorded feedback sessions with my chair because I could not process them sufficiently in real time.
How to keep 'cohort community' going strong after classes end
Start a dissertation support group or get a mentor to hold yourself accountable for making progress (I did both)
Tell people how you are doing and about your progress (hard if you are struggling), if you are struggling, ask for help from a few cohort members or all
Attend other defenses, celebrate with others
How writing chapter 4 was different from chapter 5
Chapter 4 is just about the data and how you interpret it, no literature
Chapter 5 is about what you think your interpretations from chapter 4 mean in light of the literature you reviewed
I struggled a lot with chapter 5