These are notes I used to prepare for the GW dissertation panel session I participated in 24 Jun 2015. There will probably be some overlap with the panel session in which I participated in 2016, but it is too much work for me to collate all the information into a single blog post.
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.” The Holy Grail of dissertation work is that you have a topic that you can make into a career.
Based on the example of other cohorts, members of our cohort formed a small dissertation support group. The group 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 lived in Norfolk, one person lived in Charlottesville, and two others lived in Northern Virginia/Maryland. I think we all found this practice helpful. In my case, it made me feel like I wanted to have progress to report on the calls or share what I was learning about the process that might help others. The other members of the group said they had 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 me greatly. 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 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 additional 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 did 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. Manage 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 to dinner 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 Dr. Kristina Natt ooh Dag when she 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.
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 were in Dropbox, which is constantly backed up and allowed me to work anywhere I wanted on whatever tool I had available. Apple Time Machine provides near constant backup and I did weekly manual backups.
Don't wait too long to choose the software you are going to use for data coding if you are 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 switched back and forth between Scrivener and BBEdit. I find all of Microsoft Word’s formatting distracting when I was first getting my thoughts out of my head. It is probably not a good thing that I alternated starting composing in Scrivener and BBEdit, but I was experimenting with what I thought would be best for my workflow. Scrivener has lots of writer support tools for complex projects. It 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 found 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 kept 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 could go to a topic in the card and just scroll through my notes, which I found 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 used a Livescribe pen to take notes and recordings from meetings/calls with my Chair because the information and insight came at me so fast I could not take legible notes. Later, I used the recordings to create more detailed notes and used 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 all the feedback in one place.
The programs I used 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 used paper notebooks, I left 3-4 blank pages at the beginning of the notebook as a placeholder for a table of contents that I populated as I used the notebook. The format I used is title for the event, page numbers, and date. I made use of color in the table of contents 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. They only cost a few dollars. I numbered the pages manually if they were not already numbered because I needed page numbers for the table of contents I created. In all of the cases mentioned above, I took paper and pen notes when the events or thoughts happened too quickly in the field for me to take good notes electronically. By the time I get an electronic 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.
I created checklists on index cards to help me remember interview techniques, things to say/not to say, tools to have available, etc. I mentioned the checklist and provided a link to a file that has all the text for the index cards in my Dissertation Data Collection post. I was very nervous that I was doing to forget to start the audio recorder, get a signed disclosure agreement, introduce myself, etc. during the interviews so having the checklists let me focus on other things. I can share these checklists upon request.
I wrote memos to remind myself of the rules the site had to protect participants and another detailing the data handling protocols I said I would follow.
My Chair suggested that I write an observation plan to remind myself what to look for during observations, which was a great idea.
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. I use the format suggested by David 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. I kept a master project for the dissertation organized by chapter. Later, I started creating separate projects in Evernote for phases of the work: IRB submittal, data collection, data analysis, Chapter 4, etc. I also saved all my completed action items at the bottom of the project lists since I had this nagging feeling the list of completed actions may be useful to reconstruct my plan or remember what I did.
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.
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 occurred while I am working and I collected them in Evernote so I would not forget them.
I kept track of my study hours throughout the dissertation process. 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 hours 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. You will need this later for chapter 1.
Keep a log of library reference requests. Mine had 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 could easily forget this when I received the reference and it is very hard, if not impossible, to reconstruct this thinking later.
Lessons learned from proposal defense file are in my blog post
Data collection lessons: are in my blog post on this topic. One thing that was a big lesson for me: don’t schedule all your interviews in quick succession because it robs you of the reflection time you need between interviews. You can practice your technique doing mock interviews (that you can transcribe) with others, even if you only cover biographical information and are not using your interview guides.
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?