Ten Keys to Writing a Bad Dissertation

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					Does anyone set out to write a bad dissertation? It hardly seems
possible. Most of us probably begin our doctoral programs convinced that
the ideas we put forth in our dissertations will change the face of our
disciplines forever! But after years spent reading hundreds of doctoral
dissertations--first as a grad student, then as a professor, and now as a
professional dissertation editor and coach--I can't help but observe:
There are a lot of bad dissertations out there!
Really great dissertations are pretty rare. They require unique insight,
groundbreaking research, rigorous logic, and a touch of artistry. So I'm
not sure I could promise to tell you exactly how to make your
dissertation great. But I've discovered that there are some common
threads that run through most of the lousy dissertations I've read. So I
thought I could share with you some of what I've learned by reading bad
doctoral dissertations. That way, if you'd like to write a bad
dissertation of your own, you'd know how to go about doing it. Or better
yet, if you'd like to write a good dissertation of your own, you'd have
some idea of common pitfalls.
Here are ten common mistakes you should avoid if you want your
dissertation to be worthwhile.
1. Surround yourself with like-minded people.
We all like to be right. And what better way to convince yourself you're
right than by being surrounded by people who agree with you? When
choosing a doctoral program, it's natural to gravitate toward schools,
departments, and faculty who share our views--conservative or liberal,
this methodology or that one, a particular school of thought or
perspective or approach. The good news is that, if you manage to surround
yourself with people who think just like you do, you'll encounter little
resistance as you write. The bad news is that, when you've finished
writing, your research will be much less likely to stand up to serious
challenge, since you've not had to grapple with opposing points of view
along the way. In short, serious challenge has a way of forging strong
arguments, and the lack of it has a way of making thought go soft. Do
yourself a favor: Seek out an environment that will provide challenge
while you're writing, and you'll find that your dissertation is far
better prepared for the challenges it will face when UMI makes it
available to the whole world that exists beyond your university.
2. Choose a topic that is only of interest to you.
It's a common joke that "No one knows as much as a freshman." In other
words, part of the process of learning is learning how much we still need
to learn! When we set out to write our dissertations, we're like freshmen
starting out in school--we don't yet know how much we don't know, because
we've not yet had the chance to explore fully what others have done. At
this early stage of the dissertation project, it's possible to convince
ourselves that a topic is fascinating when, in fact, that topic has
become passe because of the treatment it has already received; it's also
possible to get occupied with questions that are divorced from the real
concerns in the field at present. Two of the best sources for ensuring
that your dissertation topic is relevant and worthwhile are recent
dissertations and current periodicals. Immerse yourself in these
resources at the beginning of your project. Even if you just read the
titles, you'll be more likely to situate your work in the context of what
other scholars are doing right now.
3. Keep the scope of your study broad and the terms vague.
Doctoral-level work requires examination of a topic at great depth. And
in this kind of research, the number one enemy of depth is breadth. An
essential key to writing a good dissertation is to have a clear and
precise focus for your work. Other interesting ideas will emerge along
the way; resist them--for now. When you've finished your dissertation,
you can return to those other ideas for the articles and books you'll
write in the next stage of your career.
4. Don't constrain your creativity with an outline.
For years, teachers have been telling you to outline your papers before
you write. And for years you've probably been ignoring them. But here you
are, starting your doctorate--obviously, it was advice you didn't need!
Dissertation writing is different. You're going to write hundreds of
pages over a period that may take years; it will be easy to get lost
along the way, especially as your ideas evolve. Planning ahead is the
only way to ensure that your dissertation will be focused, well-
structured, and clearly argued; it's also the only way to ensure that it
will ever end! A careful, detailed outline is indispensable. You may
amend it as you progress with your research, but don't omit it or abandon
it. As a dissertation writer, the outline is your yellow brick road!
5. Confine your bibliography to sources that support your point of view.
Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of a dissertation is not to
prove a pre-determined point; it is to study a worthwhile question. After
all, if the answer can be determined before the research is even done,
then what's the value of the work? In the end, a dissertation that
disproves your initial hypothesis is just as valuable to the academic
community as one that proves you right. What is not valuable at all is a
dissertation that's half-baked because it has only considered some of the
available evidence, arguments, and points of view. Don't stack the deck
in your favor; read everything relevant to your topic, from every point
of view. In the process, your ideas will mature. The end result will be a
dissertation that has far greater depth--and credibility.
6. Presume that if it's not in English or on the Internet, it mustn't be
Believe it or not, there's a reason for those language requirements that
doctoral programs impose on us. It's not just that smart people speak
more than one language! The point is to open the door to valuable
literature that is available--but not in English. Relying on English
alone means that some literature (and ideas) will be completely
unavailable to you, and other literature will be available only through
the interpretation of a translator. It really is worth the effort to
learn to read the languages in which your most important sources are
written. Without them, your research is incomplete.
And read books . . . and articles! As lucky as we are to have access to
so many sources available on the Internet, we can't forget that there's
something print sources have that entirely Web-based sources do not:
gatekeepers. For a book or an article to appear in print, someone
(typically a group of scholars in the field) has determined that it was
worthwhile. They may not necessarily have agreed with its point of view,
but they found that it met the standards of sound methodology, rational
argumentation, and timeliness. On the Internet, anyone may publish
anything at any time--making the quality of Web sources dangerously
uneven. Internet research is here to stay, and that's a good thing. But
there's no substitute for books and articles written by reputable
scholars in your field. Be sure that Web-based sources do not constitute
the bulk of your bibliography, or you could find that you've left the
mainstream without even realizing it and stepped away from some of the
most important resources available to you.
7. Let your assertions stand by force, not by proof.
Spend enough hours listening to cable news and you may start to get the
impression that the goal of debate is to win, and the way to win is to
outshout the other side! Being a geek by nature, I sometimes like to play
little academic games when I watch T.V., and one of them is "count the
fallacies" in the arguments that T.V. pundits make: ad hominem arguments,
red herrings, non-sequiturs--they sometimes make for entertaining T.V.,
but they never result in a solid argument. If your dissertation is going
to withstand serious critique and make a contribution to your field,
every assertion must be justified and every argument must be fallacy-
8. Turn in your first draft.
The revision process is about polishing your work. Weak arguments get
strengthened, fuzzy ideas get clarified, redundancies get eliminated,
language gets tightened. If you're like most doctorandi, you're always
rushing toward the next deadline. When running out of time, the easiest
thing to cut out is the revision process. Resist that temptation.
9. Don't bother with input from others.
You've probably had only a course or two in statistics; why not let a
professional statistician help you with the statistical portions of your
work? You may not be confident of your APA formatting (or whatever style
sheet you're using); why not let a professional editor proof your text?
What about just having someone in your department give you feedback on
the cogency of your arguments? There's nothing like a fresh set of eyes
to catch the things that you're too close to see anymore. Staying well
within the bounds of academic integrity, don't be afraid to reach out for
help with the aspects of your work in which you're not an expert, so that
the expertise you do have is presented as effectively as it can be.
10. Prove your point at all cost.
What's wrong with being wrong? The process of determining that fact will
be a valuable contribution to your field. Academic work is a process of
discovery, and sometimes that means discovering that our initial
hypotheses were wrong. The honest presentation of the sound methodology
leading you to that conclusion will be worthwhile reading for your
colleagues. Any effort to get around the facts will show bias--the single
greatest threat to a worthwhile dissertation. In academia, there's no
failure where there's genuine learning. By contrast, there's nothing but
failure when points are "proven" by doctored results, ignored evidence,
faked methodologies supplied after the research has actually been done,
and forced arguments designed to cover up the truth and arrive at a
preferred conclusion. You can start your project with this confidence: If
you carry out your research with integrity, follow a solid methodology,
consider all relevant points of view, and report honestly what you find,
then whatever conclusion you reach will be worthwhile. And if you don't,
it won't.
Wishing you success in your research and writing,
Albert L., Ph.D.

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