What is the dissertation for?

Simply put, the dissertation is a doctoral candidates’ most elaborate excursion into all the aspects of the research process. Each step is really important and refines and develops a range of research related skills: the development and refinement of a research question that identifies and investigates a knowledge gap in the related literature; the choice of an appropriate research methodology that allows the investigation of that question; the preparation of the raw data for whatever kind of analysis is required by the chosen methodology; the immersion in the data analysis process, checking, rechecking, interpreting, reanalyzing; writing and rewriting the text to clearly tell the emerging story of your particular data and so on.

Some considerations:
How exhaustive is your literature review? In the area of educational technology, for example, it is often tricky to find everything relevant. Much of this kind of research can be found in health care related journals, higher education journals, business and training, educational and psychological research journals as well as more obvious sources relating explicitly to technology. Additionally, many questions being considered in understanding learning within particular technological contexts have been explored earlier in face to face educational settings. Questions about curriculum, teacher knowledge and beliefs, epistemological questions and so on.

The best preparation for conceiving and writing a thesis is reading other doctoral dissertations and reading research articles in the area. Note the theoretic frameworks and methods they employ and the way the conclusions are framed. How general can you make your conclusions given the kind of method you used (ie. a case study); what claims can you make about your conclusions?

Resources for writing
How to keep yourself writing your thesis and books about writing style and other relevant issues: http://www.learnerassociates.net/dissthes/amazon.htm

Preparing yourself mentally Writing a thesis is different from doing other research studies. For most people it is a very intense, personal and dramatic experience with extreme highs and lows. One of the things that makes the dissertation often distinct from master’s or bachelor’s theses is that it is not merely a series of procedures or steps through a clearly laid out process. Rather it is an often circular and emergent process that often leaves people feeling panicky and incompetent–they believe that they should know where they are going. In fact learning to tolerate uncertainty is an important life skill–and you need to be patient with yourself and let yourself adapt to a more emergent experience than you might be comfortable with. You may notice faculty smiling indulgently when you first come up with a timetable for completing your thesis–it is not a comment on you, but a recognition of the emergent and somewhat unpredictable nature of thought.

So why is the disssertation so different? I think because it is an original piece of work–your committee can only help you so far–it is a piece of work that will define you as an independent researcher. As such is an identity-changing experience. You go deeper into those ideas than you may have ever gone before. Depth leads to confusion, to questions, to rethinking–that is normal and inevitable, but I don’t think anyone mentions this in the descriptions of graduate school!!

so remember:
–be kind to yourself
–expect to be confused and doubtful and know that incomprehension is part of the path to understanding!!
–WRITE: every day if you can–use a weblog for example!!
–make timelines, but don’t become paralysed if you can’t meet them.
–if you can’t write one part of your thesis, write an easier part–so if you are stuck on the lit review, start writing up the methods, then you can come back to the lit review after a break.

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