Sometimes it takes 7 years to get back to square one…
Jesse was a bright and ambitious student in a Biochemistry PhD program. She was always ready to learn new techniques, and she diversified her skill set by working in the animal facility, cell culture room, and also in a mass spectrometry lab.
Her supervisor picked up on Jesse’s talents, and he frequently assigned younger students to shadow her, and he also volunteered her to work with collaborators on joint projects.
As the years went on, Jesse was spread thin between her own PhD thesis project, mentoring, and collaborations. Jesse tried to reduce her load by asking her advisor to take her off collaborations. However, several projects were in advanced stages already and Jesse’s expertise was indispensable to the completion of the projects.
Jesse spent a good portion of her days mentoring younger students and walking across campus to her collaborators’ labs, and her PhD thesis writing was not coming together.
Over the course of 7 years Jesse had collected a lot of data, but most of the projects were dead-end or too small for a publication. As a 7th year student, Jesse had only one publication, and she was only 2nd author on it. Nevertheless, Jesse scheduled what she hoped to be her final committee meeting.
Her presentation was a “hodgepodge” of all the different projects she worked on. The projects were related, but there wasn’t a cohesive story that pulled all her data together.
After 7 years of working 60-80 hour weeks, mentoring younger students, and being a key person on collaborations, Jesse’s committee denied her proposal for a PhD thesis defense. “I am back to square one” – she declared walking out of her committee meeting, feeling more defeated than ever before in her lifetime. Should she quit, after devoting 25% of her life to her doctoral program?
Fortunately, Jesse’s story has a happy ending, but she had to take a different approach than what she had been used to. Given her diverse skill set, companies started to approach her with employment opportunities but she could not start interviewing until she had a defense date scheduled.
Motivated by the companies that were trying to hire her, Jesse became laser-focused on how to write a PhD thesis. She had several heated meetings with her supervisor to get off collaborations that were not supporting her thesis, and she also asked for clarification on what she had to do in order to be allowed to defend.
Over the next few months, Jesse collected enough data to complete and defend her PhD thesis, which allowed her to interview for jobs and get an offer.
What is the lesson from Jesse’s story? She thought she was doing all the right things for seven years (working long hours and pleasing her supervisor, collaborators and group members), yet her committee did not approve her PhD thesis, until she started doing things differently.
Without realizing it, Jesse (like many other graduate students) was practically following portions of a recipe to write a PhD thesis that a committee would NOT approve. Perhaps you will recognize some of these patterns in your own workflow.
Recipe to write a PhD thesis your committee will NOT approve
1. Do what you think your advisor and PhD thesis committee wants you to do, and avoid conflict at all cost
Miscommunication is the #1 reason for unpleasant surprises at committee meetings. Many students think they know what they need to do to graduate. They put a lot of work into collecting and analyzing data without communicating frequently enough with their supervisor to see whether they are on the right track.
The frequency of meetings with your supervisor depends on his or her management style (hands-off vs. hands-on). In either event you need to make sure that you have sufficient communication (in person, phone, email) that you know with 100% certainty that you are on the right track.
Fear is a major reasons that students don’t approach their PhD supervisors frequently enough. “What if my supervisor thinks less of me because I made mistakes, or I don’t know what I should do next?”
Conflict can be scary, and some students will go out of their way to avoid confrontations with their supervisors. This was Jesse’s strategy for 7 years, but once companies started reaching out to her, she became more assertive in setting boundaries for her role in collaborations and the requirements for her graduation.
Anti-dote: Always know what your supervisor’s and committee’s expectations are for you to write a PhD thesis. In some cases, getting clarification will involve disagreements and heated discussions. (Good practice for working with others in your career).
As research evolves, expectations will change over time, but you always need to know what you are supposed to be working on now.
What if the expectations of your supervisor are not clear? Read more to learn a simple 3-step method to help you get the mentoring you need to put you PhD thesis back on track.
2. Assume that all the hard work that you do will turn into a PhD thesis eventually
Jesse collected lots of data, but she was missing the most important ingredient of a finished thesis: a central question or hypothesis. With her time scattered among collaborations and mentoring other students, Jesse lost focus. Her projects were related, but not closely enough for a comprehensive doctoral thesis.
The way she turned her “hodgepodge” into a PhD thesis, was that she picked one question (for which she had already collected a significant amount of data), and she set up a research plan to answer that question in sufficient detail for a doctoral thesis.
Jesse’s story is extreme in the sense that even in her 7th year she did not have a clear thesis question. However, many students in their 5th years don’t know the exact question that their thesis is asking.
Anti-dote: Define clearly the question that your PhD thesis will answer. Once you have a question, you can set up a long-term research plan, with well-defined milestones and deadlines. Students are hesitant to this approach because the thesis question sometimes changes as more data is collected.
Check this post on how to manage a large research project.
What’s the point of a plan if it keeps changing? Given the uncertain nature of research, your initial plan will most certainly change. However, you always need to have a plan to start with, and milestones to measure your progress.
You might need to develop this plan on your own, but be sure to get your supervisor’s and committee’s approval, so you can turn your hours at work into tangible progress on your PhD thesis writing.
More hours at work do not automatically translate into a finished thesis. Here is how I became more productive in graduate school by reducing my work hours.
3. Do research that you think is interesting
This is related to #1 and #2, but it is so common that it deserves a category of its own. Going off in a research direction that you think is interesting (while neglecting your actual thesis topic) is a type of “shiny object syndrome.” Perhaps you come across a paper, or a new technique, and you want to try it on your own.
As an independent researcher, you don’t always need to consult with your supervisor before you try something new. The problem occurs when this new “side-project” starts to become a significant time-sink.
Students pour in a lot of their resources without checking whether it complements their PhD thesis research.
Anti-dote: If you come across a novel idea that you think could complement your thesis, run it by your advisor before spending a significant amount of time (or money) on it. You might need to do literature research or collect preliminary data before presenting your idea to your supervisor.
Don’t assume that just because you think this research is interesting, your advisor will too. (Perhaps he/she has tried it in the past and chose not to pursue it for a good reason).
4. “Hope” that experiments or studies to turn out the way you want them to
There are few things more disempowering than “crossing your fingers” for your results to turn out a certain way. When you “hope” that you will finally get the results that you need to graduate, you are sending a subconscious message to yourself that someone else has power of your thesis. There are two problems with this approach.
The first problem is that you are stripping you of your self-confidence to be able to write a PhD thesis. The second one is that you cannot dictate how your results turn out – your data is what it is. In fact, sometimes unexpected results are more interesting and can lead to new research directions.
In order for your committee to approve your PhD thesis, your research needs to be “solid” with reproducible results.
If you doubt your own methods and data, your committee will probably pick up on your lack of self-confidence and ask you to repeat your studies until your data is more robust.
Anti-dote: Think about possible outcomes in advance. How will each outcome effect the interpretation of your results? Many successful graduate students also have several backup plans in case they reach a dead-end, either in the direction of their research or in the development of their methods.
Having a Plan A, B, and C, will give you a peace of mind, so you no longer need to stress and “hope” for a certain outcomes. You probably know by this point that “hoping” and “crossing fingers” are not effective tools to help you finish your thesis.
Here are 7 other habits that keep you lingering in graduate school, and simple tips for breaking them so you can finally complete your degree.
5. Jump into conclusions or the next phase of research before rigorous data analysis
Did you ever make preliminary conclusions by eye-balling your results?
Unfortunately many students jump into conclusions too soon, go off in a certain direction, and then realize that they are back to square one.
I learned this lesson the hard way in graduate school when I had to determine whether certain conditions improved the survival of cell in my culture system. The plots in Excel suggested that one experimental setup was superior to the other.
When we did rigorous statistical analysis on the data, there was no significant difference between the two conditions. This was great news as the setup that I suspected was more effective, cost 10 times more than the other system!
Anti-dote: In order to have confidence in your data so you can move to the next phase, examine your results from different angles. For example, try plotting it in different ways and do rigorous statistical analysis to determine if any of your results are significant.
6. Cram as much data as possible into your PhD thesis to show how much work you have done
I will never forget a certain job talk by a candidate for a faculty position.
The applicant had just finished his PhD thesis and his 45 minute job talk had 149 slides. Half of the audience walked out after 20 minutes, because it was impossible to follow him. The problem was not only that he went through his slides at the speed of light, but his talk did not have a central question or hypothesis.
Your thesis needs to be a cohesive story beginning with a question or hypothesis and ending with conclusions that supported by data.
Don’t try to cram in unrelated data just to show how much work you did. An incoherent presentation will probably frustrate your thesis committee. Many students joke that when they look at their thesis it seems like only 1-2 years of work not 4 or 5.
Due to the nature of research, there is a good chance that a significant portion of your data will not make it into the final phase of your thesis, and you need to make peace with that.
Anti-dote: Make an outline of your thesis, including bullet points for the data or arguments you will make in each section. This outline (or skeleton) will change over time, but it will help to guide you in what data you need to collect or what information to include in each chapter.
As you go through your research and are unsure about the relevance of some of your data sets, check with your supervisor before your committee meeting to avoid surprises and heated debates.
7. Cherry pick or massage your data to fit your story
- Cherry picking: means that you are choosing to emphasize only the data that supports your story, while ignoring findings that contradict your proposed conclusions.
- Data massaging: can refer an a spectrum of questionable analysis methods, ranging from elimination of obvious outliers to “tightening” up your data set by excluding all points outside certain error bars. (Some consider fabrication a type of data massaging, but I will not go into that as the consequences of such misconduct are much more serious than just having to schedule yet another committee meeting).
Outliers can be extremely frustrating if you have spent months or years designing your study. In some cases outliers can be excluded for good reasons, such as animal or human volunteer had a certain underlying condition that interfered with your study.
In other cases, there is no good explanation of the outliers, which can be even more irritating, because you have no scientific reason for excluding them and they can have a negative impact on your statistical analysis.
Both cherry picking and massaging data are questionable scientific practices.
If your committee finds out that you were trying to “hide” your original data set, they might even take you off the project or suspend you from the program. Cherry-picking or massaging can lead to serious (even legal) consequences in certain areas of research, particularly those involving human volunteers.
Anti-dote: Most data sets will not be perfect, and an outlier does not invalidate your results. If there is an outlier, make a note of it. The take-home message is that you need to be completely transparent on what data you collected and how you analyzed it. If you chose to eliminate an outlier, you need to be clear why you did it.
Your supervisor’s experience can be particular helpful here, as he/she might be able to suggest scientifically valid reasons to exclude certain points.
Also keep in mind that in most experimental sciences, data is not expected to be 100% reproducible. A 20% variation between sets is considered reproducible in many fields. Of course, you need to check with your advisor on how much variability is acceptable in your specific field.
Do you want to know what to do with not-so-exciting data and results? Check this post on how to document your scientific mistakes.
8. Rewrite the same paragraphs over and over until they are perfect
Perfectionism is one of the most common causes of writer’s block. Some students are worried that their writing is not good enough, or they may be too afraid to put any thoughts on papers. The result is write a PhD thesis with only bits and pieces and there isn’t enough material for their committee to approve their thesis.
Anti-dote: Get everything on paper: your data, your ideas, your references, and your proposed data interpretation. You cannot pull a thesis together while all of this information is in your head.
Rewriting the same paragraphs until they are perfect will not bring you much closer to a finished thesis.
Instead, focus on putting a story together, even if you don’t have all the pieces of your puzzle in place.
During the active writing phase, put your attention on the content: what questions you are asking, the validity of your methods, the quality of your data, and any gaps in your story that you might need to fill before handing in your thesis.
To write a PhD thesis seems intimidating (which could be a reason that some students re-edit the same paragraphs repeatedly). Keep in mind that the more you write, the easier it will be to keep writing.
Make writing a daily practice until you have a complete story.
Leave the editing (word choice/style/formatting) until the very end. Some universities have writing centers that offer editing services, or you can also hire someone to do a copy editing polish on your thesis if you are concerned about your writing style.
Are you experiencing writer’s block? Click here for 12 strategies that will help you become a more effective writer, so you can complete your theses and manuscripts by their deadlines.
9. Use secondary references without checking primary references
When you come across a paper by a Smith et al, who cites data from Johnson et al., do you cite Smith or Johnson when you refer to this data?
It is tempting to just cite Smith et al., to save yourself the trouble of having to look up Johnson et al. However, citing secondary references (in this case Smith et al.) is a questionable practice because you are trusting someone else to interpret the original data set, which was published by Johnson et al.
It is also not enough to just cite both Smith and Johnson, without looking up Johnson, because some papers give incorrect citations. The journal name, page number, or year of publication might have been typed incorrectly in their bibliography, and if you just copy it verbatim, you will be held responsible for an invalid citation.
Anti-dote: If you refer to an original data set, you need to look at the data set yourself. Always cite the primary paper, but only after you have confirmed that the conclusions made by the secondary paper are valid.
You can also cite the secondary paper if you want to refer to their interpretation of the data, or any follow-up experiments that they have done.
10. “Lift” off information from other papers
When you review 50-100 papers for a literature review, it is tough to keep all your references straight. As you begin writing, the text in your literature review might sound very close to some of the papers you read.
Your sentences and word choice might be so close that your advisor might question whether you “lifted” off some paragraphs, or worse, he or she may accuse you of plagiarism (one of the worst offenses in an academic environment).
Whether it was intentional or not, if your paper is too close to someone else’s, it will reflect very poorly on your performance and could ruin your reputation for years.
Anti-dote: Keep all the information from your references organized electronically. Since most of your references will be in electronic format such as pdf’s, you can highlight or box the information within the pdf itself.
You can group your references by category in different folders. This way, whenever you come across a new reference you can highlight the necessary information in the pdf, and then save it right away in the appropriate folder.
This practice will ensure that when it is time to write your literature review, you can pull up the corresponding files right away and see what information you want to use. You can then paraphrase this information appropriately (and include the references) so that you avoid any chances of being accused of “lifting” off or plagiarism.
Check this post if you want to improve your literature review in just 4 hours.
Where is Jesse today?
Jesse is the director of a group in a biotech company.
While the 7 years she spent in graduate school were frustrating and stretched her to her limits, the lessons she learned helped her to advance her career quickly.
Jesse’s first job after graduation was in a small company, which downsized soon after she was hired. Just a few months after being hired, Jesse was working three people’s jobs – for no extra pay. By then Jesse was married, and she was no longer willing to put in unreasonable hours.
In order to reduce her workload, Jesse had several meetings with her supervisor. By applying the same communication skills that helped her to resolve conflicts with her PhD advisor, Jesse was able to reach an agreement with her new boss so she could have better work-life balance.
Her increased in self-confidence also motivated her to seek out new opportunities at different companies where the work environment was a better fit for her.
Jesse received several job offers in the next few years before she accepted her current position as a high level manager. The lessons that she learned as a PhD student have also helped her to mentor junior scientists in her group properly, so they could become more productive and support her company’s mission.
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How to Write Your Best Dissertation: Step-by-Step Guide
When you get to the point of writing a dissertation, you're clearly near the end of an important stage of your educational journey. The point of this paper is to showcase your skills and capacity to conduct research in your chosen discipline, and present the results through an original piece of content that will provide value for the academic and scientific community.
Before we get any further, let's clarify one main thing: what is a dissertation?
This term is usually used to present the final result of independent work and research for an undergraduate program. A thesis, on the other hand, is crafted for the completion of a Master's degree.
Dissertation - the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree.
However, the term dissertation is also used for the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about an undergraduate or PhD dissertation; the form of the assignment is very similar, although the PhD project is much more serious.
This guide will be useful both for undergraduate and PhD students, who are working on their dissertation projects, as well as for students developing theses for MA programs.
It's not easy to write the best dissertation.
Most candidates usually start with great enthusiasm, but this intimidating project can throw them to despair. The process of planning, research, and writing will be the longest and most complex challenge you've ever committed to. The end result will be very rewarding, but you might go through several obstacles to get to that point. These are some of the most common problems students have when writing their dissertations:
- Procrastination. They think there is plenty of time to work on the project, and they keep delaying the starting point. This is a big problem, since these students usually find themselves in frantic stress when the deadline approaches. Check out article ”7 Signs You Might Need Academic Writing Help” and find the best solution
- Lack of research skills. Students who don't have enough experience with academic writing think they just need to collect few relevant resources and extract relevant quotes from them. That's far from the truth. You need to analyze those materials thoroughly and discuss them in the paper.
- Lack of writing skills. The dissertation paper should follow the strict rules of academic writing. You should write in proper form, style, and language; and you should make sure to implement the correct citation guidelines.
Although the challenge seems overwhelming, the important thing is to start from the beginning and complete each stage step by step. We have a guide that will show you the right direction.
Step 1: Write a winning dissertation proposal
We already explained what a dissertation paper is, but what is a dissertation proposal?
As the term itself suggests, this is a proposal for the final dissertation project, which should persuade the committee members that you're going to commit to a valuable, interesting, and complex questions. This is a shorter paper than the final dissertation, but it's equally as important because this is the point when you'll think of a significant question and you'll set up a plan for assembling information and writing the paper. Even if the proposal is not mandatory in your university, you should still write it and discuss the points with your mentor.
These are the main points to pay attention to when wondering how to write a dissertation proposal:
Choose the theme, question, and title
- What problem is your dissertation going to tackle?
- Why is it a problem for the research, academic, and scientific community you'll belong to?
- Why is it important for you to find a solution?
- How are you going to search for the answers?
Do you want to find out more about choosing your dissertation topic? Check out our article.
“How to Come up with a Topic for Your Dissertation”
All these questions are important for making the final commitment. Make sure to brainstorm and choose a theme that will be valuable, unique, and reasonable. You don't want to end up with a too complex question that would trick you in a dead end. The question you choose should lead you to a testable hypothesis that you can prove with strong arguments.
Discuss few alternatives of the dissertation title with your mentor before you start writing the proposal.
Structure of the dissertation proposal
If you want to make the proposal convincing, its format has to be clean and easy to follow. Here are the points you should include in the proposal:
- Dissertation title
- Objectives - Aim for up to three objectives. If you're too extensive at this point, it will seem like your plan doesn't have a focus, so you'll need to narrow it down.
- Literature - Ask your mentor if you're expected to list some specific references in this section. If that's not the case, you'll at least need to mention the areas of study, schools of thought, and other sources of information you're going to use during the research stage.
- Research - This is the main section, where you'll elaborate the ideas of your research question. You will clearly outline the area of research.
- Methodology - The dissertation project can be non-empirical (if the resources come from previously published projects) or empirical (if you collect data through questionnaires or other methods). In this section, you need to explain the methods of collecting data.
- Potential outcomes - Where do you think you'll end up after all the research and analyzing? Explain the outcome you expect to come down to.
- Timeframe - Create a schedule that explains how you will manage all stages of dissertation writing within a specific timeframe.
- List of references - Ask your mentor if you're supposed to include this part, and he'll provide you with the instructions.
Step 2: Conduct an effective research
The dissertation research stage is going to determine the overall development of your project. It has to be methodical and effective, since you don't want to waste your time reading and analyzing irrelevant resources. Here are a few tips that will help you go through it:
- Make a timeline for the research stage
- Find the right places to look for sources
- Organize your resources
It's important to find enough resources to fully understand the phenomenon you're focused on, but you'll need to stop researching at one point or another.
Many students fall into a trap: they think they have to read everything that was ever written regarding the dissertation question they are about to elaborate. How much time do you plan to spend in the research stage? Make a timeline and stay committed to it.
The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.
The Internet is a good starting place during the research stage. However, you have to realize that not everything you read on the Internet is absolutely true. Double-check the information you find and make sure it comes from a trustworthy resource. Use Google Scholar to locate reliable academic sources. Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can take you to some great publication if you check out the list of references on the pages of your interest.
Librarians are really helpful at this point of the project development. Don't avoid the actual library and ask the librarian to provide you with some interesting publications.
You have to take notes; otherwise you'll end up seriously confused and you won't know where you located a certain important argument that you plan to use. Use Evernote, Penzu, or another online tool to write down notes about your impressions, as well as the sources you plan to reference.
The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.
Step 3: Write a mind-blowing dissertation
Now, you're left with the most important stage of the dissertation writing process: composing the actual project, which will be the final product of all your efforts.
It's surprising to see that many students have some level of confidence during the previous two stages of the process, but they crack when they realize they don't really know how to write a dissertation. Remember: you already did a great job up to this point, so you have to proceed. Everything is easier when you have a plan.
- Make an outline
- Literature Review
- Manage your time
- Write the first draft
You already have the dissertation proposal, which is a preliminary outline for the actual dissertation. However, you still need a more detailed outline for the large project. Did the research stage lead you in an unexpected direction? Make sure to include the new points in your outline.
This is a basic outline that will make it easier for you to write the dissertation:
The first chapter should include a background of the problem, and a statement of the issue. Then, you'll clarify the purpose of the study, as well as the research question. Next, you'll need to provide clear definitions of the terms related to the project. You will also expose your assumptions and expectations of the final results.
In this chapter of the dissertation, you will review the research process and the most important acknowledgements you've come down to.
This part of the dissertation is focused on the way you located the resources and the methods of implementation of the results. If you're writing a qualitative dissertation, you will expose the research questions, setting, participants, data collection, and data analysis processes. If, on the other hand, you're writing a quantitative dissertation, you will focus this chapter on the research questions and hypotheses, information about the population and sample, instrumentation, collection of data, and analysis of data.
This is the most important stage in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity. At this point, you'll restate the research questions and you will discuss the results you found, explaining the direction they led you to. In other words, you'll answer those questions.
In the final chapter of the dissertation, you will summarize the study and you'll briefly report the results. Don't forget that you have to explain how your findings make a difference in the academic community and how they are implied in practice.
At the end of this chapter, include a "Recommendations for future research" section, where you'll propose future research that will clarify the issue further. Explain why you suggest this research and what form it should take.
Use the recommended citation style for your field of study, and make sure to include all sources you used during the research and writing stages.
You'll need another timeline, but this one will be focused on the writing process. Plan how to complete your dissertation chapter by chapter. When you have attainable goals, it will be easier for you to write the project without getting overwhelmed by its length and complexity.
There is no life-changing advice to give at this point. You just need to stay away from distractions, stick to your timeline, follow the outline, and complete the first draft. You already have what it takes; now you're ready to do the real work.
Findings stage is the most important in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity.
Step 4: Edit and Proofread the Dissertation like a Pro
Now that you've completed the first draft of the paper, you can relax. Don't even think about dissertation editing as soon as you finish writing the last sentence. You need to take some time away from the project, so make sure to leave space of at least few days between the writing and editing stage. When you come back to it, you'll be able to notice most of its flaws.
- Start editing
There is a substantial difference between editing and proofreading: editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper. You need to deal with the essence first, since it would be silly to proofread the dissertation to perfection and then start getting rid of unnecessary parts and adding more details.
Pay attention to the logical connection between each argument. Are there any gaps in information? Fill them in with more details you collected through the research stage. Maybe you got carried away with the explanations at some point? Make sure to reduce the volume of those parts and clarify them as much as possible. The point is not in quantity; it's in quality and clarity.
Finally, it's time to do the final few readings and catch all spelling, grammar, and style errors you made. Read word by word, sentence by sentence, and consult a dictionary or thesaurus if you have any doubts.
If you notice that you're struggling through the stages of editing and proofreading, you should know you're not the only one with such problem. You are too attached to this project and it's difficult for you to see the flaws in it. That's why it's recommended for students to use an editing service that will bring their projects to perfection. This is a smart investment that will save you from embarrassment after all that effort and stress you went through.
Editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper.
Step 5: Get feedback
Before you can submit the dissertation project to the committee, you need to get some feedback.
Start with a friend or colleague who has knowledge in this discipline. You need to trust this person, since the dissertation is your unique intellectual property. Ask about their opinions and suggestions for improvement.
Then, discuss the project with your mentor. He/she will point out any possible weak points, and you'll get instructions on how to finalize the process before getting ready for the presentation.
The dissertation writing process is a great challenge, which not all students are capable to cope with. You need to keep in mind that you've come this far in your studies, so there is no other way to go but forward. Tackle the project stage by stage, and you'll soon complete the most important paper in your whole educational journey.
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