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Writing the dissertation (thesis) III: Controlling the dissertation/thesis

I recently tweeted a thread of blog posts of mine that doctoral candidates can use to prepare for their defense (could be adapted to undergraduate or Masters) which I’ll turn into a blog post soon enough.

Now, you may ask, what about those doctoral candidates still in the throes of doing the PhD??

My advice is to always maintain control over the dissertation.

Several of my doctoral students (not my thesis advisees, but those I teach or have taught) have told me:“professor, I have no clue where to go from here. I passed my comprehensive exams and now I’m supposed to write the dissertation, but I feel at a loss”.

This is NORMAL.

One of the anti-climatic things that happened to me after I defended my PhD proposal and passed my PhD comprehensive exams (at UBC we did both when I did my doctorate) was that I was left with a question: NOW WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?. This was probably because I did not feel like I had a schedule and a plan to develop my dissertation. I was too tired from defending my PhD prospectus.

Once I had time to rest and reflect on what I was supposed to be doing, I ended up creating a plan and finishing my dissertation relatively quickly. As the years have progressed and as I’ve become more senior as a professor and researcher, I’ve developed a few techniques to help my graduate students (and a few undergraduate) tackle their dissertation and theses, and more importantly, CONTROL THEM (don’t let them control YOU!)

These three Overview Devices (the Dissertation Two Pager, DTP, the Dissertation Analytical Table, DAT and the Global Dissertation Narrative, GDN) allow me (and my thesis students) to get a “bird’s eye view” of the dissertation/thesis. These three Overview Devices are very short documents, so preparing them is a good exercise on writing concisely. A two page summary of the dissertation, a one page table with all the components of the dissertation and a three page summary of the full work undertaken in the dissertation make up for 6 pages, which should be easy enough for a PhD advisor to read and provide feedback on.

Let’s take a quick look at each one of the three Overview Devices:

For me, a DTP evolves through time. It’s not the same as when my students start their degree. Therefore I ask my students to write a DTP every semester (or quarter).

One can construct a DAT for a manuscript-based dissertation or for a book-style type of dissertation. And as I’ve recommended to my post-PhD friends, it can also help you map out a full book manuscript.

Most of the time, my students will write their GDN as they approach their defense. However, I’ve also tested using it at the beginning (sort of helping them see the end line) and it’s worked wonderfully too. But yes, I will expect that doctoral candidates (or any other thesis-based research scholars) will have a better defined GDN as they approach their defense of the thesis/dissertation.

Writing a DAT, DTP and a GDN every semester helps the thesis writer feel like they can control where their dissertation is going. For me, as a thesis advisor, it helps me see where I need to help my students with their work. And all three Overview Devices work for undergrads and Masters thesis writers too.

This post is as much for those who are trying to control their dissertation (PhD candidates, Masters and undergraduate students) as much as for their advisors. Hopefully it will be useful to you all.

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