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29 Steps, 1078 Hours

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.