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Destination Dissertation A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation (my reading notes)

The second book I absolutely did not like at all was “Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation“. As I indicated in my reading notes of Ogden’s “Complete Your Dissertation or Thesis in Two Semesters or Less“, I acquired this book because Dr. Kimberly Wiley, someone whose advice I fully trust, suggested that other academic mothers had suggested four books, all of which I’ve read and written about (here’s my blog post on Bolker, my post on Davis, Parker and Straub, and my post on Ogden).

I should add that I was really, really looking forward to reading Destination Dissertation because (a) other people had recommended it and (b) I’m addicted to travelling (even though I totally see the downsides of academic travel). This book appeared to be a fun read, and since I’ve been reading a ton of books on the PhD journey to help my own doctoral students, I thought I’d buy it and read it. Well, best laid plans…

Don’t get me wrong: Foss and Waters are delightful writers. The book is fun (if long and heavy!). Destination Dissertation is a freaking 474 pages. If you are a slow reader, or have to do something else with your life, just say no.

Here’s where I started to get upset at Foss and Waters’ volume. Again, the Ogden trope that you can get this done as though it were just as simple as spending 12,000 hours in a project.

Losing a reader is easy when you make grandiose claims before page 23. You need 1,078 hours in an easy 29 steps to finish your dissertation?! Wow. I wish somebody had told me before I spent N years of my life thinking, reading, doing fieldwork, researching, analyzing data. If you remove the absurd claims about how little time it takes to finish a doctoral dissertation and the rather impossible timelines, these books are actually quite useful.

So, let me list what I did actually learn from Foss and Waters’ book.

I do not think assigning time constraints to doing dissertation proposals and data collection actually works.

But again, once you get past the ridiculous timelines, there are a lot of fun bits to read in this long tome.

Verdict: A fun read, and I can get over the absurdly ridiculous timeline (where no, you can’t go to conferences, travel, do fieldwork, get sick, have children, if you want to complete your dissertation within Foss and Waters’ rigid schedule). But I would like at least *some* acknowledgment that students may get derailed and concrete strategies for those who fall off the wagon. As with Hunt Ogden’s book, I suggest that as you read Foss & Waters, skip time allocations, read plethora of usefully presented examples, and do have fun.

And as I said, there ARE people for whom it worked. See examples below.

As with everything I write about (and this is why I never say I am doing a book review, but simply typing my reading notes), Your Mileage May Vary.

Posted in academia, graduate school, research, writing.

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Complete Your Dissertation or Thesis in Two Semesters or Less (my reading notes)

I recently ran a poll on Twitter about whether I should write about books I did NOT like, and the majority ruled that it was important to know which ones and why not in order to make better decisions. This was a split decision, since 48% approximately suggested that I should NOT write about these volumes that I did not believe would be useful. I decided to type my reading notes for one specific reason: I may not have liked these volumes, but certainly, other people did. And if that’s the case, then it’s worth highlighting that what didn’t work for me, DID WORK for other people. Therefore, there’s value in these books.

The first one of (two so far) books I did not really like was Evelyn Hunt Ogden’s “Complete Your Doctoral Dissertation or Thesis in Two Semesters or Less“. Strangely enough, both books I didn’t like are by Rowman & Littlefield, a publishing house that I actually really, really like. This is just plain coincidence.

Anyhow, there are plenty of good tips in Ogden’s book, and in my Twitter thread, I shared them, but my main annoyance is that writing a doctoral dissertation in such short period of time is basically impossible and almost unattainable. Good goal to strive for, but not realistic. The tweet below shows exactly WHY I hated this book.

This timeline is, as I said in my tweet, entirely unrealistic. Even if EVERYTHING went your way, there is no way you can get this done within this unrealistic timeline. BUT, scheduling pipe dreams aside, the underlying premise is good: you should plan to achieve the best, but prepare for the worst (Ogden suggests the earlier approach, I suggest that you should combine with the latter one).

There are plenty of reasons why this approach could fail.

I can see the logic in Ogden’s premises, but the “perfectness” and “ideal world” conditions grated me. What if an advisor gets sick? What if the doctoral candidate gets sick? What if nobody in the committee responds? In theory, this process “let’s go all in” should work. My experience writing my own and supervising doctoral dissertations tells me that this is an unrealistic approach.

You need time to read, process and digest your thinking. A doctorate may be the only moment in your career when you get to do this, and be EXPECTED to read, and take time to think.

Lots of good pieces of advice IF you realize before reading the book that this is an unreasonable timeline for PhDs. his could potentially work for an undergraduate or even (pushing it) a Masters thesis. But a PhD needs way more buffers built in. his book has no room for contingency plans and the author assumes perfect working conditions. I wish this approach would work but hell no.

As I concluded, my assessment is that this book offers an unrealistic timeline, BUT is equipped with several good gems of advice. My concern is the inherent assumption that everything is going to go according to plan in a perfect world where the PhD candidate has control over everything, everyone including his/her own health and well being.

As I said on Twitter, there people for whom these books worked (see tweet below by Dr. Wiley). But she is absolutely clear about how she made them work: by extracting whatever gems of wisdom

I found Dr. Wiley’s approach extraordinarily helpful in determining whether to write about Ogden’s book – individually, all feel somewhat unreasonable, but put together, they demistify the process. Worth considering.

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Qualitative research is empirical research – stop equating “empirical” with quantitative

While I do multi-methods research, and I wrote three theses using quantitative methods, I have found that many of the research questions I explore are best answered with qualitative methodologies. I don’t know what it is, but every few months, I need to reassert the importance of methods where qualitative data is analyzed. But recently, I’ve had to remind people that qualitative research IS empirical.

While there are many ways of approaching this epistemological debate, and I actually don’t have the time to do so because I have papers to write, and research to do, I think the easiest way to examine this qualitative versus quantitative debate is using Russ Barnard’s piece: “Qualitative Data, Quantitative Analysis“.

There are qualitative data that are analyzed using qualitative methods, quantitative data analyzed with quantitative methods, and two other combos in-between.

Mahoney and Goertz (2006), in their “A Tale of Two Cultures: Contrasting Quantitative and Qualitative Research” piece, published in Political Analysis, make the argument that what we see is a cultural divide between qualitative and quantitative research traditions. As Meg Guliford’s tweet above shows, solid quantitative researchers are very appreciative of how difficult it is to undertake qualitative research well.

I don’t think qualitative methods are uniquely positioned to answer truths or deliver generalizations. But they can provide insight into patterns, behaviours, contexts, relationships. But the crux of the matter, and what prompted me to write this blog post, is the fact that both qualitative and quantitative methods have an empirical basis. As Tilda Gaskell aptly explains in her 2000 piece “The process of empirical research: a learning experience?“:

“Empirical research methods derive from the application of observation and experience to a research question rather than being grounded in theory alone” (Gaskell 2000, p. 349).

I think the problem here is that there’s a generalized perception that only quantitative methods are empirical. I see this misnaming in tweets from economists and political scientists and it makes my blood boil. I also hear scholars talk about “empirical studies” that are solely quantitative. But it’s not hard to make this distinction. A simple Google Scholar search on the phrase “what is empirical analysis” yields purely quantitative studies, and most of them economics-focused.

On a side note, and a more philosophical and epistemological note, I quite enjoyed Lowenberg’s 1940 disquisition on “What Is Empirical?” in the Journal of Philosophy, makes for a good read.

Posted in academia, research methods.

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Interview Research in Political Science (Layna Mosley, Ed) – my reading notes

I am editor for the Americas of a major qualitative methods journal (International Journal of Qualitative Methods), I am a self-identified ethnographer, and I teach courses on the topic. Therefore, knowing good books that I can recommend to my students is very important to me. Dr. Layna Mosley (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) assembled a fantastic edited volume that responds to my frequent query: “which texts should my students use to learn how to conduct interviews?”. While written by political scientists and aimed at students of political science/international relations/public policy/public administration, this volume is an extraordinary contribution to social science methods’ teaching. Interview Research in Political Science reads like a Who’s Who in the field.

As I said on Twitter, overall “Interview Research in Political Science” is an amazing volume, so we owe a big “thank you” to Layna for putting this together. Great for teaching and as a volume to be consulted frequently. My only complaint (and forgive the self-promotion) is that interviews with marginalized populations were not addressed in the volume. But my recently published paper with Dr. Kate Parizeau (University of Guelph) can be used to remedy this absence.

Posted in academia, research, research methods, teaching.

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How to write the conclusion of a paper

My full process for writing a paperWhenever I read conclusions of papers, both in my students’ papers as well as in journal articles and book chapters, I find that writers are so tired of writing and doing the research that they end up exhausted. As I often say, they have “run out of gas”. Conclusions read hasty and rushed. I decided to write a blog post on best practices to craft the conclusion section of a scholarly paper, not using one of mine, but looking at papers that I thought had a really solid concluding section.

When I read papers (both my students and those I peer-review), I notice that most people write a one-paragraph conclusion. I find those rather boring, and worrisome. This happens to me too, as I often run out of gas while writing and all I want is to get the damn paper out. When I write conclusions, I am also very clear about the limitations of my study, potential improvements and “future research” issues. I kept this practice from my doctoral dissertation writing. As I did in my blog post on how to write an abstract, and on the one on how to write the introduction of a research paper, I also asked for advice from #AcademicTwitter on this topic. I’ve included their advice too.

My first piece of advice is (as I outlined in this post on how to write a first paper draft real quick in 8 simple steps), is to write bits and pieces of the conclusion as you write the main body of the paper.

My full process for writing a paperMoreover, I extract ONE insight from each section of the paper regardless of whether it is a book chapter or a journal article. I find that grabbing a topic sentence from the Discussions/Analysis sections and expanding on that particular insight in the conclusion helps me summarize the entire paper itself. I use that insight as a “topic sentence” to create a paragraph that explains the contributions of my findings to our overall understanding.

To me, conclusion sections are supposed to help the writer “finish off”, “bring everything together” they are supposed to re-center the paper’s discussions and explain how what we’ve found actually connects with the overall literature and the field. The first sentence of my conclusions’ sections usually reads as a global summary of the paper’s goals: “in this paper, I discussed polycentricity as a theoretical framework through which we can see multilevel water governance.”

As for concluding sections of entire book manuscripts, I’ll use my PhD thesis as an example. When I wrote the conclusion to my doctoral dissertation, I grabbed the conclusion of each chapter and I distilled ONE insight from that chapter to create the introduction to the concluding chapter. Then I created sections per dissertation chapter and summarized what I learned. I have seen this done with other books too.

The previous example is from a paper by Dr. Jordi Diez Mendez, a good friend of mine who is a professor at University of Guelph. The following one is from Nate Millington.

I usually maintain a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump on “stuff I like and I’m interested in but I don’t have the time to actually study”. Millington’s paper belongs to that CSED.

Authors usually show different rhetorical moves in their conclusions, but most commonly they link what they say in the Introduction and Abstract to their Conclusion (which is why I recommend the Abstract-Introduction-Conclusion content extraction method for quick/speed/skim reading).

The paper below shows classic rhetorical moves connecting Abstract and Introduction to Conclusion sections.

Hopefully, armed with the examples I’ve outlined in this post, readers of my blog may be better positioned to write the conclusion section of their papers.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide (my reading notes)

I had known of the excellent work of Dr. Leanne C. Powner for a very long time. We are both political scientists, and since I write so much about academic writing, and I have taught research methods, it was just a matter of time until I got to read Leanne’s excellent book, published by Sage Publishers: Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide. It’s a book that is highly recommended, and I am happy to vouch for it too.

As I commented on Twitter, I am distracted and therefore I bought two copies: one through and one at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) in Chicago, last year. And yes, I know I should know better, so sue me.

Leanne does something very few authors do: she talks about the ins and outs of the research process in both traditions (qualitative and quantitative). This is very hard to do. Something important for both qualitative and quantitative scholars that Leanne does in her book is distinguishing how different methods, data sources and analytical techniques apply to various research designs and paradigmatic and methodological choices. This advice is pure gold.

Chapter 9 (writing up your results), 10 (peer reviewing work) and 11 (posters, papers, presentations, conferencing) are excellent, but I wish Leanne had done a companion workbook that focused solely on those components. I haven’t taught Research Methods in a while (as a stand-alone class, I mean – I teach my RAs and students how to do research all the time). But it seems to me as though this book should be taught over a two-semester class rather than in one semester. Or maybe teach the book over one semester and devote the next to writing.

At any rate, an excellent book that deserves all the accolades that it gets on a regular basis.

Posted in academia.

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Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (my reading notes)

A few weeks ago, University of Toronto Press sent me a complimentary copy of “Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD“, a book written by Dr. Loleen Berdahl and Dr. Jonathan Malloy. It’s the first time I have gotten a complimentary copy of a book of this type and while UTP did not ask me to review it, I figured that it would be good for those who follow me on Twitter to get a sense of what the book offered.

I stand by what I said on the above shown tweet: I don’t think anybody who wants to work in academia should do a doctoral degree right now. The market is atrocious and we don’t anticipate that it will improve any time soon. But since there are thousands of PhD students worldwide, and I DO want them to succeed, I will continue to write about how to do a doctoral degree as much as I can.

There are a number of things that make “Work Your Career” worth checking out. It’s an honestly written book, and it does offer lots of good suggestions. It also speaks to challenges doctoral supervisors face. And as always with books like these, there are important gaps. Berdahl and Malloy cover grant proposals (which many books don’t), but they skim over the thesis writing process (which is what many books DO cover, and one of the places where most students get stuck). As I said, I like this book as a backbone/workbook to work from. his book is an excellent and refreshing addition to my collection of books on how to help doctoral students.

I am glad they do offer suggestions to faculty who supervise doctoral dissertation, but if I may be so bold as to say, I think Berdahl and Malloy should have scolded supervisors more! At any rate, a good read, which I am sure will help my own doctoral students.

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to Write a Thesis (Umberto Eco) – my reading notes

I sometimes eschew book recommendations even though I have an intuition that these may actually work for my purposes. A number of scholars had recommended to me that I should check Umberto Eco’s How to Write A Thesis whose 2015 reprint was published by The MIT Press, particularly since I’ve been reading a lot of books on how to do a doctoral dissertation (mostly for my own students, but also to help others globally). As I mention in my tweet below, I’ve never been a fan of Eco’s, so I was a bit skeptical. I take my skepticism back.

After reading Umberto Eco’s book, I think I agree: yes, PhD students should his book How to Write a Thesis. Aimed at Italian students and the Italian model of a PhD, his adaptation and translation into English is super useful. I imagine it would be useful to Spanish speakers too (the Spanish version of course). I will be recommending it to my own doctoral students.

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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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Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (my reading notes)

This book, Howard Becker’s “Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article” is an excellent volume and should be read, though as I warned in my thread, must be read primarily by those who are Becker’s peers: doctoral students’ advisers. Because of the memoir style that Becker uses (a la Stephen King’s On Writing), those who will be best positioned to understand where he is coming from are those who have conducted the same activities as he has: supervising doctoral students. I do not believe this book is targeted for those who are still undertaking their doctorate.

#AcWri on the plane

Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists is a memoir-style book (a la Stephen King’s “On Writing”, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4), but the way Becker delivers his insights is entirely for DOCTORAL STUDENTS’ ADVISORS. He shares how HE supervised/s students, and issues they face/d. Becker’s book is NOT written for doctoral students, in my opinion. And therefore the title is misleading (”How to Start and Finish your Thesis, Book or Article”). In my view, students need to read “The Clockwork Muse” by Erubavel, or “Authoring a PhD” by Dunleavy, or Bolker’s “Writing your Dissertation in 15 Minutes“.

Posted in academia.

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