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The Dissertation ‘Two Pager’: A strategy to sustain a “big picture” view of a doctoral thesis

When I was in graduate school, I took several courses with Professor Anthony (Tony) Dorcey, Professor Emeritus with the School of Community and Regional Planning at The University of British Columbia. Perhaps unbeknownst to everyone but only those closest to me, my first interest was in water planning and governance using multistakeholder processes. Professor Dorcey was an expert precisely in this field, and he taught me a method that I have adapted for my own doctoral students, the Dissertation Two Pager (DTP).

Literature Road Mapping

The way Tony Dorcey taught me to write a DTP was basically to summarize my dissertation in a narrative form within the constraints of a 2 pager. I couldn’t find a link on his website to draw upon, and I only found one version of a similar document here, by Lynne Roberts. Anyways, a two pager is a document whose maximum length is precisely 2 pages, single-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman. Tony asked that his students maintained a DTP throughout their studies, and I now do the same with my own doctoral trainees. I have obviously adapted Tony’s approach to my own, particularly because not everyone can write the narrative from scratch, and I ask my students specific questions that help them guide how they think about their research problem.

As I mentioned on Twitter, DTPs evolve through time. I wouldn’t expect a first year doctoral student to know exactly what they want to answer. But I still ask them to write a DTP. I would characterize four types of DTP:

  1. A pre-comprehensive exams’ DTP. In this case, the student is still doing coursework and hasn’t written his/her doctoral exams. At this point, I would expect DTPs to be still draft forms of research questions, methods and expected outcomes.
  2. A post-comprehensive exams’, pre-proposal defense DTP. At this stage, I would expect the student to know his/her/their field well enough that he would have a very clear outline of what he/she/they plan to do and within what time frame. I would expect that my students would use their DTP to formulate their proposal.
  3. A post-proposal defense, fieldwork-focused DTP. At this stage, I would expect that the trainee would be incorporating results from what he/she/they have found in their research. It’s likely that by this point, one or more of their papers would be submitted to a journal.
  4. A pre-doctoral defense DTP. At this stage, I would expect the student to have dominated every single element of his doctoral research, and therefore his/her/their DTP would be an extended version of their thesis’ abstract.

A DTP for Stages 1 and 2 would include, in my view, the following elements (I pay particular emphasis on the gap in the literature and how the dissertation contributes):

For a DTP at Stage 3 and 4, I would expect them to be able to answer all the items I mentioned in this blog post.

As I mentioned on Twitter, my students’ DTP change every semester, and they notice the difference. I wrote my doctoral dissertation as a book, but I’ve mentored students to write 3 papers’ theses. That’s why I find the DTP such a useful tool: you can synthesize all three (or four) papers, show The Throughline (main argument), or you can summarize all chapters in the thesis, and still be able to show The Throughline. I also insist that my students write their DTP in a positive, assertive voice. “In this dissertation, I show how A, B and C variables impact Y phenomenon. Using a combination of text-as-data, social network analysis and ethnographic fieldwork strategies, I demonstrate Z“.

This last item is perhaps the one that is the most overlooked when I read doctoral dissertations for external examination. Students are hesitant about what they found. By the time you’re done with your PhD thesis, YOU are the expert. You should write as such. Hopefully my adaptation and version of the Dissertation Two Pager technique will help many students keep seeing the forest while focused on the trees.

Posted in academia, research, research methods, writing.

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