You have just left your dissertation defense and, for the second straight time, your committee has rejected your dissertation. As you’re walking silently down the hall, contemplating at least another year of school, you think about all the successes you’ve had in your academic life, in undergrad & grad school, and in practically everything you’ve ever done throughout your academic life. For your doctorate degree, you’ve completed all your courses and passed all your required exams, but you seem to come up short for your dissertation time and again. You may start blaming your committee and their nitpicking comments and remarks. It seems that during every dissertation defense they find something new to for you to change or add. You may start blaming yourself and questioning your intelligence, all but eliminating any confidence in yourself. Regardless, at this point, you are so discouraged that you are thinking about throwing away your dissertation and labeling yourself with that dreadful phrase “All-but-Dissertation.” However, you should understand that it is not uncommon for doctoral students to defend their thesis or dissertation a few times before they finally succeed. But is this necessary? Why do some doctoral students go through numerous defenses and thousands of dollars in extra tuition to finally get it right? Mostly, this is due to some very common yet fatal mistakes that the student did not address early on.
Dissertation Mistake #1 – Choosing a Broad Research Topic
- The topic you choose is the entire foundation of your study. Get your topic right by narrowing it down and make things vastly easier on yourself!
Many new doctoral students begin their first year super-motivated and want to tackle big issues related to their area of study, the kinds of issues they are used to reading in academic journals and books. But these students have to understand that the professional researchers they read usually come from universities that set aside considerable budgets and provide the researcher with large cooperative teams, advanced researcher equipment, and a bunch of other resources a doctoral student can only dream of.
In spite of this, the newly-arriving doctoral students choose to write their dissertation on very broad research issues and, as they get farther along into the dissertation, they realize that they’ve bitten off much more than they can chew. The result? They frequently end up starting from scratch choosing a narrower topic or, what’s worse, continue writing their dissertation and end up with a very incomplete and sub-par work, forcing them to spend at least another year working on their dissertation after failing to defend.
Being caught in a topic too broad when you are well into your dissertation is a bad place to be. Avoid getting yourself in this position. The topic you choose is the entire foundation of your study. Get your topic right by narrowing it down and make things vastly easier on yourself. So, work on narrowing your research topic a bit and, more importantly, get the help of a research expert like your advisor or a dissertation professional when you are in the process of deciding your topic and preparing your proposal.
Dissertation Mistake #2 – Straying From Your Purpose
- You should ask yourself what your readers need to know so they can follow your argument. Based on the answer, provide only enough background information to fulfill this need
Doctoral students tend to get into their thesis in the beginning of their paper but, all too often, they start straying away from the main subject as they move further along into their dissertation. There is a tendency for many doctoral students to get into discussions about issues not directly linked to their thesis. They may do this to show off their expertise in a particular subject area or simply because they are not following a detailed outline of their dissertation.
The lesson is to always create a detailed outline of your dissertation before you begin writing. You must also never get sidetracked. No matter how much you know about a given subject, and no matter how interesting you think it is, don’t get into a long and detailed discussion about it especially if it’s not directly related to your study. Furthermore, before you begin writing, make sure you create a detailed outline and follow this outline. For more information on forming an outline as well as seeing an example, refer to pages 3 – 5 of the following blog article: “Keys to Writing your Dissertation Quickly and Effectively.”
In addition to creating an outline, you should focus each and every one of your chapters on one purpose. Each of your chapters should be clear about its purpose from the start and you should make sure that its role does not intersect with other chapters. Also, you should apply something called the “Need to Know” criterion which is an important principle in helping you decide how much detail you should give to a particular subject area. You should ask yourself what your readers need to know so they can follow your argument. Based on the answer, provide only enough background information to fulfill this need (Dunleavy, 2003, p. 270 – 271).
Dissertation Mistake #3 – Not Keeping in Touch with Committee Members
- Among the most common yet disastrous mistakes that doctoral students can make is not keeping in touch with the members of their committee throughout the draft process.
For whatever reason, students think that the committee members should not be bothered before the defense (with the exception of their supervisor of course). This is a faulty assumption. Your committee contains the people who determine the fate of your dissertation. Take advantage of this by learning what they look for before being surprised during the defense. You should do this by providing the members of your committee with copies of your initial draft for them to review. Don’t hesitate. The first time your committee members set eyes on your dissertation should never be during your defense.
Many committees require a first draft of a dissertation before the defense, but other committees do not. Therefore, during their defense, a great number of doctoral students stare at their committee in wonder and disbelief. Don’t let this happen to you. Before your defense, provide initial drafts to your committee whether it is required or not. This will allow you to get precious feedback about the weak areas of your study, therefore letting you address them in a timely fashion. Furthermore, you will prevent yourself from being surprised when defending your thesis.
Dissertation Mistake #4 – Not Seeking Help When You Need It
- Planning, writing, and drafting a dissertation or thesis is a very complex and intimidating task.
You will undoubtedly reach parts of your dissertation that will completely lose you. It is a dreadful mistake to start procrastinating on the difficult parts of your study, but more importantly, it can be fatal to your dissertation if you fail to get expert help. Of course, most students refer to their adviser for help, but how many times has your adviser simply been too busy to give you a timely reply? Moreover, how many of these replies contain an in-depth and thorough analysis of your dissertation, providing you the feedback so critical to your success? Too many students complain about their adviser not having time to help them, or worse, they get inadequate feedback leaving students clueless regarding many parts of their study.
Do not get frustrated and lost your motivation. Do not start complaining to your colleagues. Do not get angry or allow your emotions to affect your work. Instead, go find help for your dissertation! There are extremely experienced and professional dissertation consultants who live and breathe the thesis and dissertation process. If you’re not sure, simply ask for an initial consultation free of charge. State your concerns and discuss them with an expert consultant specialized in your area of expertise. See what they have to offer and how they can help. This way, you’ll have more options for getting the help you need.
In the end, the most crucial mistake students can make is not seeking help when they need it. Avoid this and, whether it’s from your adviser, dissertation consultant, or highly-practiced colleague with dissertation experience, seek help before you waste an entire year and thousands of dollars in extra tuition costs.
Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write, and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.