We recently conducted a scholars' retreat at a university in Texas, and although all of the participants had excellent skills and were very bright students, many of them had research questions that were causing them problems in completing their dissertations. We thought we'd use today's blog to do a quick refresher of what you undoubtedly learned in graduate school about research questions.�� As you know, developing a good research question is key to getting your dissertation done efficiently and to making an original contribution to your discipline.
What are you aiming for as you create a question for your dissertation? You want it to meet six criteria.
The first criterion for a good research question is that it clearly identifies the theoretical construct you are studying. For example, if you are interested in figuring out the processes by which parents transmit their political perspectives to their children, the theoretical construct you are studying is "transmission of political perspectives." If you are interested in how television networks attract and retain viewers through branding, your theoretical concept is "branding." Notice that the theoretical construct is the phenomenon, event, or experience you want to learn more about.
A second criterion that a research question should meet is that it should contain some suggestion of recognizability of the theoretical construct. This means that the research question articulates the theoretical construct in a specific enough way so that you'll know it when you see it when you are coding for it in your data. In other words, it supplies a clear unit of analysis that allows you to tell the difference between that construct and other constructs relatively easily. To accomplish recognizability, word the construct in a way that is concrete and specific.
Perhaps an example will help clarify this idea of recognizability. Celeste started her dissertation planning with a theoretical construct of "the experience of nontraditional women in college." While certainly a construct that would be important to explore, it is too large because Celeste would have a difficult time recognizing the construct when she sees it in her data. It involves a potentially large number of different constructs, including women's experiences of raising children while going to school, degree of support from family members, responses of other students, educational accomplishments, emotions the women experience, and on and on and on. There is virtually nothing having to do with nontraditional women college students that would not count as part of the construct of "the experience of nontraditional women in college."
A more specific theoretical construct for Celeste would be "nontraditional women's experiences of discrimination in the classroom" or "nontraditional women's use of support services on campus." The recognizability here is that the theoretical construct is focused on one aspect of nontraditional women's experiences and allows Celeste to discriminate between it and other constructs that are a part of nontraditional women's experiences in college. As you formulate your research question, then, think about how you will code data with that question, looking for examples of the theoretical construct you are considering featuring in your research question. Will you be able to locate it and distinguish it easily from other constructs that appear in your data?
There's another criterion you want your research question to meet, and that is transcendence of data. Except in a few instances, your research question should not include mention of the specific data you are using to investigate your question. Many different kinds of data can be used to answer your research question, so don't confine your question to the one type of data you plan to study. You want your question to be more abstract than those specific data.
For example, if you want to study resistance strategies used by marginalized groups to challenge institutions, you can use as your data a social movement, works of art by politically motivated artists, the songs sung by union organizers, or the strategies used by Mexican immigrants to improve their status in the United States, to name a few. You want your study to contribute to a significant theoretical conversation in your field, and it can do that more easily if your question is not tied to one particular kind of data. A research question on the topic of resistance that transcends the data, then, might be, "What is the nature of the resistance strategies used by subordinate groups in their efforts to challenge hegemonic institutions?"
Let's look at an example where the criterion of transcendence of data was violated in a research question. Larry initially proposed as part of his research question a theoretical construct of "accounting practices used in children's theatres in Detroit." Here, his theoretical construct is the same as his data���he is conflating the construct in the research question with the data he will use to answer the question. As a result, Larry's story has limited interest to other readers. Larry certainly could collect data for his study concerning accounting practices in children's theatre groups in Detroit, but the construct he wants to understand in his study is larger than that���perhaps something like "accounting practices in nonprofit arts organizations."
There are a few kinds of dissertation where the criterion of transcendence of data in the research question does not apply. These are dissertations in which researchers want to find out about a particular phenomenon, so the research is specifically about that phenomenon. For example, someone who is interested in the strategies used by Alcoholics Anonymous to attract members would want to include Alcoholics Anonymous in the research question. In this case, the researcher sees something unique and significant about that particular organization, in contrast to other treatment approaches, and sets out to understand it specifically.
There are some fields, too, where the data are typically included in the research question in dissertations. History is one. Dissertations in this field are about a particular place and time, and their purpose is to explore that place and time. Thus, those particulars are included in the theoretical construct of the research question. For example, a research question for a history dissertation might be, "How was a counter-culture identity sustained in Humboldt County, California, in the 1980s and 1990s?" The discipline of English is another one where research questions may include mention of data. Scholars in English are often interested in a writer or group of writers or a particular type of literature, and those would be included in the research question. An example is: "How do troll images function in the narratives of Scandinavian writers between 1960 and 1990?"
Your research question also should meet the criterion of identifying your study's contribution to an understanding of the theoretical construct. Your research question should name what happens to the theoretical construct in your study���what you are doing with it in your study or what interests you about it. This contribution should be developed from the theoretical conversations in your discipline and should reflect a specialized knowledge of your discipline. For example, the new contribution you might be making is to begin to suggest the communication processes by which political beliefs are transmitted within families. You know that such beliefs (the theoretical construct) get transmitted. Your new contribution will be to explain some of the processes by which the transmission happens. Meeting this criterion in your research question forecasts the contributions to the discipline you'll discuss in your conclusion.
A fifth criterion your research question should meet is capacity to surprise. You should not already know the answer to the research question you're asking. You want to be surprised by what you find out. If you already know the answer to your question, you don't need to do the study. Moreover, if you know the answer, you aren't really doing research. Instead, you are selecting and coding data to report on and advocate for a position you already hold. Zaila, for example, had selected as her data immigrant narratives, and her research question was, "How do traumatic events produce long-term negative effects on individuals?" She was already assuming that immigration inevitably traumatizes individuals and that there are no possibilities other than to experience immigration negatively. She was not likely to be surprised by her findings because her question articulated what she was expecting to discover. If she continued in this direction, she certainly could have found examples of negative effects, but her contribution to her discipline (and her future ability to publish) would have been greatly diminished.
A final criterion for judging a research question is robustness, the capacity to generate complex results. Your question should have the capacity to produce multiple insights about various aspects of the theoretical construct you are exploring. It should not be a question to which the answer is "yes" or "no" because such an answer is not a complex result. Research questions that typically produce robust findings often begin with:
What is the nature of
What are the functions of
What are the mechanisms by which
How do . . . perceive
What factors affect
What strategies are used
How do . . . respond
��How do . . . affect
What are the effects of
What is the relationship between
How are . . . defined
How do . . . differ
Under what conditions do
You undoubtedly have seen dissertations or journal articles in which there is more than one research question. Should you have more than one question in your study? Maybe, but we discourage it, and here's why: In some cases, studies contain more than one question because researchers have not thought carefully enough about what they want to find out. As a result, they take a scattershot approach and try to get close to the question they want to answer by asking about many things. A better approach is to aim for one research question and to think carefully about what it is. Refine it sufficiently so that it really gets at the key thing you want to find out.
Another reason studies sometimes include many research questions is because students confuse research questions with the questions they will use as prompts for coding their data. The many research questions are really just guides for coding data. In her study about online chat rooms and whether they have the capacity for deep culture, Frankie had such a list of research questions:
- What artifacts do chat rooms use as the basis for developing culture?
- What norms characterize chat rooms?
- What processes are used to socialize new members into chat rooms?
- What mechanisms are used in chat rooms to repair breaches of organizational norms?
These questions are not separate research questions as much as they are questions that Frankie will use to guide her analysis of her data. They are methodological guidelines that will help her know what to look for as she codes her data. Remember that a research question is what the dissertation is about���it produces the title of the dissertation. None of these questions is major enough to assume that role in Frankie's study, so they aren't really her research questions.
There are some cases when more than one research question is warranted. When a study has more than one research question, it tends to be when basic information about a theoretical construct does not exist, and you need to know basic information before you can investigate a process that characterizes the construct. Frankie, for example, knew from the literature she had read that online interaction is not supposed to have the capacity to develop a deep culture the way that organizations typically do, but she had been observing and participating in a chat room that she thought had such a culture. One question she wanted to ask, then, was, "Can chat rooms develop deep culture?" She did not know whether or not chat rooms can have this kind of culture, and she wanted to find out. The answer to this question alone, though, does not meet the criterion of robustness for a research question because it would produce an answer of "yes, chat rooms can have deep culture" or "no, they can't." That finding is not complex enough for a dissertation.
Frankie needed another question in addition to the question about whether chat rooms can develop deep culture���something that would produce more complex findings. Frankie also wanted to find out how participants in chat rooms create deep culture if, in fact, they do. So she had a second research question for her study: "What mechanisms do participants in chat rooms use to create deep culture?" Because she needed to validate that these kinds of interactions have a viable culture before she could ask how this culture is created, her study has two research questions.
Ah, yes, this is all coming back to you, right?�� Just don't forget, then, to spend time making sure your research question is a good one before you get too far along in your study.��
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You're at the point in your graduate career where you need to pick your dissertation topic, and you might feel a bit overwhelmed because there are so many possible topics available. But, of course, you begin to narrow the options almost immediately because of your preferences and resources. You have taken many courses for your graduate degree, and some of them were more interesting to you than others. Some theories appeal to you because they explain things in ways that make sense to you, and you like working with some kinds of methods more than others. You also chose to develop expertise in particular areas in your comprehensive exams. All of these experiences helped prepare you to choose your dissertation topic, and they are resources on which to draw as you make that decision.
But how do you bring all of your resources to bear to actually choose a topic and then create a plan for your dissertation? This is where a conceptual conversation comes in. This is a conversation you have with someone to work out a pre-proposal for your dissertation. It's a discussion designed to help you conceptualize your project by funneling your knowledge and preferences efficiently and effectively into a dissertation topic and pre-proposal. The conceptual conversation happens before you write your proposal because the decisions you make in this conversation become the key components first of your dissertation pre-proposal and then your proposal. A conceptual conversation gives you a specific time period--usually no more than a week--to make all of the key decisions about your dissertation. Writing your proposal on the basis of these decisions then becomes a very efficient process.
Conversations involve more than one person, so who is your partner in this conversation? Preferably, your advisor. Your advisor will assume the role of your tour guide during the dissertation process, and, ideally, she would be involved in creating the pre-proposal for your study. Sometimes, though, your advisor is not your best conversational partner for any number of reasons. Maybe your advisor is unwilling to take the time required for this kind of conversation, not realizing that spending the time with you now will cut down on the amount of advising she has to do later. Maybe you don't know your advisor well and don't feel you can ask her to have this kind of conversation with you. Or you simply might not feel comfortable with your advisor as your conversational partner.
If you can't have your advisor as your conversational partner, you'll have to find someone else to assume this role for you. Maybe another faculty member with whom you have a good relationship is willing to have this kind of conversation with you--perhaps someone in another department if not your own. Maybe a fellow graduate student will be your partner for a conceptual conversation. If someone in your academic circle is not available, a spouse or partner or other friend will work. Sometimes, in fact, someone who doesn't know a lot about research or your field of study can be a particularly good choice as a partner in a conceptual conversation. These people are often good at asking the naive or "silly" questions during the conversation that can help you design a good study.
After you've identified someone you believe would be a good person with whom to have a conceptual conversation, you probably will have to explain what this kind of conversation is and give him an idea of what happens during it. Here are the key points to include in your invitation to your partner: You need a block of uninterrupted time for the conversation--something in the neighborhood of two to three hours. If you don't get your pre-proposal figured out in this amount of time, you and your conversational partner will want to schedule another session. If possible, this second session should take place within a few days of the first one so you can maintain the momentum you've developed and you remember where you are in the process. Also key is to hold this meeting someplace where you won't be interrupted--in your home or at a coffee shop, for example, rather than in your office if other people are likely to be stopping by to chat. You want uninterrupted time to focus just on creating your dissertation pre-proposal.
What should each of you bring to the conceptual conversation? You want to bring your interests (those resources you have been developing throughout your coursework), your enthusiasm, a tablet to write on, something to write with, and perhaps a tape recorder. Recording the conversation is sometimes useful in helping you identify key ideas later. And your partner? Ask her to bring a commitment to spend a significant amount of time with you, excitement about what she will figure out with you, a tablet to write on, and something to write with. A pot of tea or coffee wouldn't hurt, either.
Now is the time for the conversation to begin. So what exactly goes on in it? What do the two of you do to produce the pre-proposal for your dissertation? Your partner begins by asking you questions designed to help you identify some key pieces or elements you want to include in your dissertation. Here are some of the questions your partner might want to ask:
What are your major interests in your discipline?
What personal experiences have you had that were particularly significant or meaningful for you that are relevant to your discipline?
What coursework did you take that you found most exciting?
What theories and concepts are most interesting to you?
Are there some ideas you have studied that you are curious about and want to explore more?
What bodies of literature have you encountered that intrigue you?
Are there some theories you want to avoid?
With what kinds of data do you enjoy working?
Do you have ideas for specific data, texts, or artifacts you would like to study?
Are there resources to which you have access that could provide participants or data for your study? Does your job offer any of these resources? How about your volunteer activities? Is there someone you know who could give you access to these kinds of resources? Is there an archive, organization, or upcoming event in your community that is ripe for analysis?
What kinds of methods do you like to use when you do research?
What are your career goals when you finish your degree?
As you answer the questions, your partner should encourage you to continue talking by asking exploratory, open-ended, follow-up questions. These questions are not intended to intimidate or bully you in particular directions or show you what you don't know. Their purpose is to get you to articulate the key pieces you want in your dissertation. The point is less to provide a precise and correct answer to a question and more to use the questions to stimulate your thinking.
Your partner should be doing other things in this conversation besides asking questions. You want him to listen closely and carefully. Encourage your partner to take notes as completely as possible so that you have a record of your ideas in the order in which they came to you. He is taking the notes so that you are free to think and talk. You can also record this conversation so that neither one of you has to take detailed notes. We often find, however, that note taking is one more technique for making connections among ideas that you are articulating. Regardless of how you are documenting the session, your partner should note in some way the ideas that seem most important to you to include in your study. He should not be telling you what he is noting as he does it because his goal is to keep you talking. But you want him, in effect, to do a meta-analysis of your talk, transcending the details of it to try to see the larger picture that is emerging for you and that will form the basis for your dissertation. If he has ideas about possibilities for your dissertation that incorporate some of the ideas you are talking about, he'll want to note those, too, so he can share them with you later in the conversation.
The two of you don't want to be doing any evaluating or sorting of ideas at this stage of the conversation. None of the ideas that you or your partner articulate should be dismissed. Even the ideas that seem the silliest and the most irrelevant should be written down. Silly ideas can lead you to new places and to significant new ideas.
When you begin to repeat yourself frequently, with no new additions--when you can't think of anything else you want to add--that's an indication that all of the pieces that you know at this moment that you want to have in your dissertation have come out. Repetition without any new pieces means you are ready to formalize those key pieces. Now is the time for you and your partner to use the information produced in your conceptual conversation to identify the key pieces that you want to be part of your dissertation study.
What are key pieces? They are elements that will be used to form the pre-proposal for your dissertation--they have to do with the key components of a study:
A research question to guide your study
Some data you will analyze
A method of data collection
A method of data analysis
The areas of your literature review
One piece you might identify for your dissertation is that you are interested in discovering something about a particular concept or phenomenon. For example, you might know that you want to figure out something about how gender affects social movements. Another piece might be that you want to work with a certain set of data--perhaps an archive of land-ownership records that exists in your community or popular artifacts such as the Harry Potter books. Maybe you have access to a particular group of individuals such as clergy wives and want to make use of that group as participants. Perhaps you really like a particular theory such as chaos theory and want to be sure you get to work with it in your dissertation. These are all the kinds of pieces that turn into key components of your dissertation. The point here is to identify the key pieces of which you are certain--those things you know you really want in your dissertation. You'll fill in the missing pieces later as you create your dissertation pre-proposal.
What you want to be able to do at this moment is to answer "yes" to this question when your conversational partner asks it: "Are these key pieces you want in your dissertation?" All of the key components of your study probably won't have been identified yet, but your partner's statement of the key elements you know so far will look something like this: "From what I understand, you want to use grounded theory as the method of analysis in your dissertation, you want to analyze the conversation among participants in your online classes for your data, and you are interested in dealing somehow with Paolo Freire's ideas. Are these key pieces you want in your dissertation?" Another example is: "You want to do something with organizations that only exist online, you are interested in Anthony Giddens's idea of structuration and want to use it somehow, and you don't want to use statistical methods to analyze your data. Are these key pieces you want in your dissertation?"
If you can't answer "yes" to your partner's articulation of the key pieces of your dissertation, what you need to do is to articulate what is missing from the key pieces that your conversational partner proposed. What was not included in the key pieces your partner articulated? What was included that you don't want to be there? Together, sculpt and whittle at the key pieces to get them closer to your interests.
With the help of your conversational partner, you've identified some of the key pieces you want your dissertation to include, articulated them, and written them down. You have made the first decision about where you want to go on the trip that is your dissertation. You're well on your way to planning your itinerary, and the next step is to build on these key pieces to create your pre-proposal by filling in the missing pieces.
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We're big fans of making the dissertation into a series of small, concrete steps. That way, the dissertation seems doable, and you always know exactly what you have to do on it. One good place to do this is in conceptualizing the basic processes of the dissertation. There are 29 of them. Already, the dissertation seems more manageable, doesn't it?
Many people believe that the 29 steps required to complete a dissertation have to take a long time. Typical estimates range from one to five years following your exams, with two to three years the most common. We strongly disagree. We believe most students can complete dissertations within nine months or less, even while they are working in half-time positions. Yes, you heard correctly. Nine months from start to finish, including everything, starting with figuring out your topic all the way through defending.
We don't pretend that everyone can complete a dissertation in nine months. Your particular project may require that you take more time to do some of the 29 steps. But remember: You get to make choices about the kind of project you do for your dissertation. If you make choices that add steps or that add to the length of any of these steps, you are extending the time it takes to cover the route.
Obviously, to complete your dissertation in nine months, you have to spend the hours doing the actual work of the dissertation--you have to spend time sitting down and writing. You can't be doing work that doesn't contribute to the dissertation like cleaning the house or reading e-mail. Our timetable will work only if you are making good use of the hours you put in.
So here's our suggested timetable for the dissertation journey: We've put it in hours because that makes the processes ones you can do when you have even an hour here and there. Put in the hours, and you'll get a dissertation.
- Step 1. Engaging in a conceptual conversation: This is a conversation where you (and, ideally, your advisor) map out the pre-proposal for your dissertation in an extended conversation. Time: 10 hours
- Step 2. Creating the dissertation pre-proposal: In this step, you make the key decisions about your dissertation: Research question, categories of your literature review, data, methods of collecting and analyzing your data, significance, and the chapters of your dissertation. Time: 5 hours
- Step 3: Approval of the pre-proposal by your advisor: Here's where you talk through your pre-proposal with your advisor, modifying it as necessary. This conversation should end with agreement between you and your advisor on the elements of your pre-proposal. Time: 2 hours
- Step 4. Collecting the literature: You collect the literature relevant to your project. Time: 40 hours
- Step 5. Coding the literature: Review and code your literature. Time: 60 hour
- Step 6. Writing the literature review: Create a conceptual or organizational schema for the literature review and write the review. Time: 40 hours
- Step 7. Writing the proposal: Write the proposal using as a guide your pre-proposal. Time: 30 hours
- Step 8. Review of the proposal by your advisor: Your advisor reads and suggests revisions to your proposal. Time: 40 hours (of course, you will be doing other work to move your dissertation forward during this time)
- Step 9. Revising the proposal: Revise your proposal in line with your advisor's suggestions. The revisions should not be major because the proposal follows the pre-proposal approved by your advisor earlier. Time: 10 hours
- Step 10. Defending the proposal: If your department requires a defense of your proposal, defend it before your advisor and the other members of your committee. Time: 120 hours or 3 weeks (this isn't all time on task but allows time for committee members to read the proposal)
- Step 11. Obtaining human subjects approval: Obtaining the approval to collect your data from your university's human subjects review committee. Time: Add hours if this step is required for your study
- Step 12. Collecting the data: Collect your data. Time: 150 hours
- Step 13. Transforming the data to codable form: Transcribe your interviews, run your statistics, or do whatever is required to get your data in a form you can analyze. Time: Add between 40 and 120 hours if this step is required for your study
- Step 14. Coding the data: Code your data based on your research question. Time: 40 hours
- Step 15. Developing a schema to explain the data: Develop an explanatory schema that explains in an insightful and coherent way your data. Time: 10 hours
- Step 16. Writing a sample analysis: Write a sample section of your analysis--perhaps five pages--so that your advisor can look at it and tell you if there are any problems with your approach. You want to know before you've written up a whole chapter or chapters in that same way. Time: 5 hours
- Step 17. Review by your advisor of the sample analysis: Your advisor reviews and provides feedback on your sample analysis. Time: 2 hours
- Step 18. Writing the findings chapter or chapters: Write your findings or analysis chapter(s) featuring your explanatory schema. Time: 40 hours per chapter (if three chapters, for example, 120 hours)
- Step 19. Writing the final chapter: Write the conclusion chapter of your dissertation. Time: 20 hours
- Step 20. Transforming the proposal into a chapter or chapters and preparing the front matter: Revise your proposal to turn it into your first chapter or your first three chapters, depending on the format you are using for your dissertation. Also prepare your abstract, table of contents, acknowledgments, and lists of figures and tables. Time: 5 hours
- Step 21. Editing the chapters: Edit all of your chapters for substance and form. Time: 80 hours
- Step 22. Review of the dissertation by your advisor: Your advisor reads the dissertation and makes suggestions for revision. Time: 80 hours (of course, you are doing other work during this time, such as formatting the manuscript)
- Step 23. Revising the dissertation: Following your advisor's suggestions, revise the dissertation. Time: 40 hours
- Step 24. Approval of the dissertation by the graduate school: At many universities, the format of your final draft is reviewed by someone in the graduate school. Time: 40 hours (this process varies greatly from university to university, so check what is involved at yours--you may not need this much time)
- Step 25. Making final formatting revisions: Make any formatting changes required by the graduate school. Time: 5 hours
- Step 26. Review of the dissertation by your committee members: After your advisor has approved your dissertation, distribute the dissertation to the other members of your committee and give them two weeks to read it. Time: 80 hours
- Step 27. Defending the dissertation: If an oral defense is required at your university, defend the dissertation. Time: 2 hours
- Step 28. Revising the dissertation: Complete any revisions your committee members want you to make. Time: 40 hours
- Step 29. Submitting the dissertation: Submit the dissertation either electronically or in hard copy, whichever is required by your graduate school. Time: 2 hours
Total hours required is 1078. If you are working 40 hours a week on your dissertation, that translates into 27 weeks or 6 1/2 months. Let's frame this another way: The average person watches about 20 hours of television a week. At a minimum, you could finish your dissertation in one year if you write when everyone else you know is watching TV.
Our timetable doesn't include the time for human subjects approval or putting your data into codable form, so add time if you'll need to do either of those. These are the cases when your dissertation is likely to take closer to nine rather than six months. Yes, despite what we said at the beginning of this chapter, we actually think most people can finish in a little over six months, but we thought telling you that earlier might have been hard for you to believe. But now we're ready to acknowledge what we really think: A high-quality dissertation can be done in six to seven months. In fact, we know it can because we've seen many students do exactly that.
After reviewing the 29 steps, you might be thinking to yourself that the dissertation process we've outlined is too simple and that we have trivialized what should be a complex, sophisticated intellectual endeavor. But we've seen the steps succeed time and again precisely because they aren't complex. We encourage you to save your complex thinking for your data analysis and to give the steps a try.
You also might be thinking that if we only knew the unique circumstances that you are experiencing, we'd have to adjust our timeframe of 1078 hours. That might be, but we doubt it. We're asking you to suspend your assumptions about your unique difficulties temporarily. We're pretty confident about how well the steps work, but you won't have the opportunity to experience success with them if you don't give them a try.
This entry is adapted from Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters, published by Roman & Littlefield.�� It appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact Roman & Littlefield for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.
We were delighted when Jeff asked us to contribute a blog. One of our favorite things is helping writers feel better about their writing so that they can be more efficient and joyful writers. We're hoping this blog will allow us to do that on an even larger scale than we've done before.
Let us begin by telling you something about ourselves. Sonja is a full professor in the Communication Department at the University of Colorado at Denver; studies contemporary rhetorical theory, feminist perspectives on communication, and visual rhetoric; and is the author of 10 books and almost 50 articles. When she's not helping others with their writing or writing herself, she sews, grows dahlias and all sorts of other flowers and vegetables, and is enamored of just about anything Greek. William is an assistant professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown; is interested in language theory, linguistics, and writing; and has coauthored or edited 3 books and 10 articles. When William isn't helping people edit, write, or theorize a new project, he practices Chan meditation and is trying to learn to play the guitar.
Together, we have worked to help graduate students and faculty produce dissertations, articles, and books since 1999. During this time, we coauthored Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation and have offered weeklong scholars' retreats in Denver, Colorado, as well as on-site retreats of various lengths at Western Michigan University, Marquette University, University of New Mexico, Augustana College, California State University--San Bernardino, New Mexico State University, and Texas A&M University. We have also offered recurring workshops for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and teleconferences for the Text and Academic Authors Association.
During these years of working with more than a thousand academic writers, we have seen, again and again, patterns of thinking that actively hinder a writer's progress. We have discovered that many writers think writing itself needs to be something to be suffered through rather than something that is a rewarding part of their daily lives. In fact, writers often report that trying to write their dissertations is like being audited by the IRS, going to the dentist, or trying to speak a Martian language. Of course, the idea that writing--particularly dissertation writing--is something that must be suffered through is not an unusual idea. Dissertation-help books, academic advisors, as well as family and friends, often portray writing a dissertation as something to be survived. Most of the dissertation books that we have seen adopt either explicit or implicit metaphors that assume the process of writing a dissertation is one of painful, protracted suffering and struggle.
Over the course of working with writers to "unblock" them, we have found that patterns of thinking that focus on the writing process as a struggle keep writers from making significant progress. For example, when a writer thinks her writing project is going to be a long, difficult, open-ended process that may not really lead her anywhere, it is not at all surprising that she will use her genius to finds ways to not write. There are always meetings that need attending, classes that need teaching, more books to be read, or rooms to be cleaned; no wonder there is never any time to write.
We created our own dissertation-writing guide to address this very issue. In our book, Destination Dissertation, we present writing a dissertation as a fun and exciting trip of limited duration to a new place. When writers reframe the dissertation-writing process as a trip where writers go to a new place, make and document observations, and then return home and share those observations with others, they position themselves to complete a high-quality dissertation efficiently.
Continuing the idea of reframing that we began in Destination Dissertation, we intend to use this blog to offer methods and strategies for reconceptualizing academic writing in general and dissertation writing in particular. Our posts--when not guided by responses to your comments and concerns--will offer suggestions about such topics as:
- What is the purpose of your dissertation for you, your advisor, the school, and prospective employers?
- Why don't people finish?
- Can you really write a dissertation in six months?
- Buying time
- Feeling like a fraud
- Writing support groups: They may not be as supportive as they seem
- The economics of a shorter dissertation process
- What to do when you've had a bad writing day
- Naming your dissertation can keep you on schedule
- Becoming a complete scholar by dropping incomplete-scholar roles
- How long should a chapter be?
- Alternatives to the five-chapter, single-topic dissertation
- Turning a dissertation into an article
- Turning a dissertation into a book
Are you ready to make your dissertation or article into a trip? If so, climb aboard!