How to write a dissertation that your advisor will approve

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Let’s be honest: the most important reader of your dissertation is your advisor.

You as author might be motivated by an urgent desire to solve a research problem that threatens to destroy human life as we know it, and sure, you’d love to solve said problem in such a way that impresses the senior scholars in your field. But when it comes right down to it, if your primary goal is to complete your doctorate, what really matters at this point is that you write a dissertation that your advisor will allow you to submit to committee, defend publicly, and file away in the university database bearing his or her stamp of approval. (Most people, in the U.S. at least, pass the defense if they can get that far.) Getting your dissertation past the gatekeeper is perhaps the greatest challenge of your doctoral journey because it requires a peculiar mix of subject matter expertise, dogged persistence, and clairvoyance. The goal of this post is to reduce the amount of mind-reading that you have to do to write a passing dissertation.

Why are dissertations so hard?

Even if you have chosen a Ph.D. advisor who is great rather than terrible, even if you have succeeded in not unduly annoying him or her, even if you are determined not to be ABD forever and have sought out the once-esoteric dissertation advice that is now available freely online--you might still find it tough to create a dissertation that meets your advisor’s expectations. There are at least two reasons for this difficulty. (1) The dissertation genre is governed as much by fluid conventions as by rigid rules. Advisors’ expectations vary depending on discipline, university, and individual preference--so there is no one centralized, comprehensive bible to which you can refer for instructions. (2) Advisors, overworked multi-taskers that they are, do not always have the time to articulate their expectations to advisees, much less distinguish between which expectations represent widespread conventions and which are merely the advisor’s own preferences. Obviously, plenty of wonderful advisors do exist. But no matter how helpful your advisor is, the dissertation is inevitably, like the piranha, a very tricky species. How can you write such a complex document without knowing the criteria by which your work will be judged?

The crux of the matter: Discerning your advisor’s expectations

In this post, I provide a list of questions that you can ask yourself--and that you can prepare to be asked by your advisor--as you work on your dissertation. I offer questions rather than rules because your situation is a unique constellation made up of your discipline, your university, your committee, your advisor, your subject, and yourself. These questions, which I have developed through my own doctoral studies, through wide reading, and through work with clients, fall into four categories:

  1. Questions for understanding your advisor’s expectations

  2. Questions your advisor may ask about the fundamentals of your project

  3. Questions your advisor may ask about sections of your draft

  4. Questions your advisor may ask about your draft as a whole

Your advisor might not literally write these questions in the margins of your manuscript, but nevertheless at least some of these questions are likely to be in your advisor’s mind as he or she assesses your work. Of course, even though this post focuses on advisors’ expectations, your other committee members matter too--sometimes a lot. As you read these questions, keep in mind that they can also help you to discern the expectations of other important readers of your dissertation.

Questions for understanding your advisor’s expectations

Is your advisor expecting you to use a particular approach or writing style?  Some projects are largely theoretical, devoted to developing a model or method, while others are highly empirical. Some manuscripts are written in an essayistic, first-person style, while others are deliberately impersonal and formal in tone. Given the wide variation, it is wise to get your advisor’s early approval of your general approach and your writing voice, rather than to rely solely on your understanding of what is conventional in your discipline.

Which chapter or section of the dissertation does your advisor consider to be most important? Some say that the most important section is the introduction because it gives your reader the first impression of how well-done your study is and distills all of the study's foundational elements into a few pages. Others say that the literature review is most important because it shows your committee whether you know the field and have a clear contribution. Still others say that the methods section is the key because it indicates whether the study is sound according to the rules of your field. And finally, some people insist that the results and discussion sections are the most important parts of the study because these sections show what you found, what your findings mean, how your study changes the research landscape, and what new work your findings make necessary. The bottom line is, every section of your dissertation has important work to do, but readers vary in the importance they assign to individual sections. Thus, because the fate of your dissertation hinges upon the reaction of a very few readers, it behooves you to figure out which sections your advisor considers most important.

How citation-dense does your advisor want your writing to be?  Some advisors want everything, even common knowledge, to be cited. On the other hand, some advisors get annoyed by too many citations, especially by several references in a single sentence. You don’t want to end up having to go back later, once you’ve drafted 175 pages, to add or remove citations--so, get a feel for your advisor’s preferred level of citation early on. Also get a sense of how much citation your advisor wants in text and how much should be in footnotes/endnotes.

How long does your advisor expect your dissertation to be?  Some manuscripts are 140 pages including front and back matter, while others are 350 pages plus references and appendices. Usually humanities dissertations are long and science ones are short, but I’ve seen enough exceptions to know never to assume. If you feel strange flat-out asking your advisor how long your dissertation should be, poke around your university’s dissertation database and find the work of your advisor’s recent advisees. These other dissertations will give you a general idea of your advisor's preferred page length, which you can then confirm with your advisor if you choose.

Does your advisor have a specific number and order of chapters in mind?  The essential elements of the dissertation are ILMRaD: introduction, literature review, methods, results, and discussion. Many writers place these elements in that exact order in their dissertations, with one chapter for each element. Sometimes results and discussion are combined, or a separate conclusion chapter is tacked on. However, variations on this conventional structure do exist. The "three-article" dissertation has introductory and conclusion chapters, and in between, three articles (sometimes previously published, and usually more or less thematically linked) that individually follow the ILMRaD structure. In literary fields, dissertations often have an introductory chapter, a literature review chapter, several themed chapters, and a conclusion. And then, there are those dissertations with unconventional structures and experimental styles. Whatever you do, get your advisor on board early on; often an advisor will frankly tell an advisee which structure to follow. If you’re going the unconventional route, be warned: you are making an already complicated task even more complicated. Make sure that you have good reason for doing so and that your advisor approves your plan.

How involved does your advisor want to be throughout the dissertation process?  Does your advisor expect you to check in constantly and get approval for every decision along the way, or will he or she only evaluate your work once you have a full draft that has gone through professional editing? In either extreme case, you may face challenges in “managing your advisor” (if such a thing is indeed possible). If you have a hyper-involved advisor, at least you’re likely to know your advisor’s expectations every step of the way. If your advisor is uninvolved, I’d suggest using the little face-time you do have as strategically as possible. Focus on getting your advisor’s take on the essential elements of your study--those which, if you get them wrong, would lead to the most difficult and most time-consuming revisions. The following section gives you an idea of which study elements are most foundational.

Questions your advisor may ask about the fundamentals of your project

Is the topic suitable for research at a doctoral level?  Is the scope of the project sufficiently ambitious, without being overly ambitious? This is nearly impossible for a doctoral researcher to judge on his or her own. If you're like I was, you will come up with many ideas that your advisor dismisses as either too big or too small before hitting on one that is just the right size. Avoid wasting effort on an inappropriately-sized idea. But if your advisor tells you that an idea you love is the wrong size, see if you can shrink or enlarge the scope, rather than discarding the idea completely.

Does the study have a clear, sound rationale? Is the need for your project made evident by recent research?  The rationale that you provide for your study must make sense within your discipline’s body of knowledge and modes of inquiry. Depending on your discipline and the nature of your research, you may be expected to express your study’s rationale in the form of a purpose statement, statements of aims and objectives, research questions, and/or hypotheses. Whatever your discipline, the rationale for your study must be grounded in recent scholarship, research findings, and/or theoretical developments in your field. Throughout your dissertation manuscript, you must be consistent in how you express the rationale or purpose of your study. If you’re struggling to figure out what your unique angle is on your subject, consider the advice of Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman.

What frames what?  Every dissertation contains many big ideas competing for attention. Good dissertations are as focused as they are complex. You choose one big idea to frame the others (using A to develop a better B, for example, or using C to evaluate D). Make sure your advisor approves of your hierarchy of ideas.

Are the key elements of the study aligned with one another?  As your project evolves, notice how changes you make in one section may necessitate changes in another. Your study elements could come out of alignment in ways that are too numerous to list here. Two examples: Slightly re-framing the problem you are solving (your purpose or aim) might require you to add or delete literature review material and adjust your methods section. As another example, you may realize that your research philosophy is different from what you had first thought, and in changing your section on your research philosophy, you realize that you must also re-word your purpose statement and research questions to be consistent with your new research philosophy. Take the time to make these adjustments because your advisor will probably be looking closely to ensure that the elements of your study interlock perfectly.

Questions your advisor may ask about sections of your draft

Although dissertations vary in structure, they all share common elements. Each of the elements described below may constitute either an entire chapter of your dissertation or a portion of several chapters. While your advisor reviews your draft, he or she is likely to ask many or all of the following questions. (Note: Some of these questions appear on my list of topics for a writing consultation session.)

Introduction

  • Do you clearly identify the problem you wish to solve and/or the aim(s) of your research?

  • Do you clearly establish that the problem exists and that other people in your field will see it as a problem?

  • As you describe and situate the problem, do you provide enough information from secondary sources?

  • Do you define key terms, with reference to sources?

  • Do you cite and discuss relevant literature? If you have a separate literature review chapter, do you provide enough of an overview of the relevant literature to satisfy the reader until the literature review chapter?

  • Do you follow an orderly progression of ideas, using sub-headings if appropriate?

  • Do you attend to all the “work” that (as Pat Thomson describes) your Introduction needs to do?

  • Do you consider using the popular CARS model (for “creating a research space”) to explain the purpose of your study?

Literature review

  • If you devote an entire chapter to literature review, do you follow a clear, logical progression, with an introduction, signposts, and a recap? Do you build a conceptual framework for your study? (For a thorough discussion of the complicated subject of conceptual frameworks and how to create them, refer to pp. 86-91 of this text by Sage Publications, Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation.)

  • If your literature reviews are folded into other chapters, is the material situated effectively within those chapters?

  • In your dissertation as a whole, do you discuss enough literature, in enough detail, to

    • demonstrate that you understand the literature and know the major scholarly debates that are relevant to your project?

    • show why your study is needed?

  • Do you discuss the literature in a sophisticated and scholarly way? (For more on this subject, see the resources on my page Using Sources.)

    • Do you highlight relevant details about your sources while omitting irrelevant details?

    • Do you analyze, rather than merely summarize, your sources?

    • Where relevant, do you evaluate prior studies in terms of their methods, logic, and overall soundness?

    • Do you synthesize (make connections among) your sources?

    • Do you explain key concepts in terms of the scholarly debates?

    • Do you discuss the relevant theories with relative objectivity?

    • Do you discuss conflicting findings and viewpoints with a sense of fairness?

    • Do you avoid discussing literature that is obsolete or irrelevant to your study?

    • Do you use literature that is considered recent in your field of study?

    • If you use older literature, do you do so in a way that is considered useful and acceptable in your discipline?

  • If your methods and methodology are not well accepted, established, or understood, do you provide literature to support and explain your choice?

Methods

  • Do you discuss your methodology (the theory behind your approach)? Do you identify the epistemology and ontology underlying your study? Do you explain how your methodology informs your decisions about what or whom you have studied, and how you study your subject?

  • Are your methods (both your plan and your execution) sound according to the standards of your discipline? Do you follow currently accepted methodological principles?

  • If applicable to your discipline, do you describe the research methods in sufficient detail that a reader could follow your description like a recipe to reproduce your study?

  • If applicable to your discipline, do you clarify the role that you, as researcher, play in shaping the study?

  • Are your data analysis techniques sound and appropriate for your discipline, and do you apply them correctly?

  • Do you include sections on the study elements that are typically discussed in your disciple (for example, population, sample, sampling procedures, instruments, ethical considerations, researcher’s assumptions, data collection procedures, and data analysis procedures)?

Body chapters (for non-IMRaD dissertations)

  • If your dissertation does not follow IMRaD, but instead contains themed body chapters, do you have a clear purpose for each chapter?

  • Does each body chapter advance a compelling sub-claim that fits under the overarching claim of the dissertation as a whole?

  • Is each body chapter adequately forecasted in the introductory chapter?

  • Does each body chapter consist entirely of focused, persuasive argumentation on behalf of the chapter’s claim (no off-topic or irrelevant material)?

  • Is each chapter situated within the larger field of knowledge on the subject? Does each chapter have its own miniature literature review section, even if the dissertation also has a separate literature review chapter? (Check with your advisor, but usually both forms of literature review would be expected.)

  • Is the evidence sufficient and sound? Is the type of evidence appropriate to the discipline and the methods used?

  • Does the chapter uphold disciplinary conventions in terms of claim type, evidence type, rhetoric, tone, audience, etc?

  • Does the chapter “fit” with the other chapters in the study?

Results and discussion

  • Do you analyze and interpret all the data, not just that which is convenient for your study?

  • Do you account for alternative interpretations of the data?

  • Do you describe and account for the limitations of the study?

  • Are your report and discussion of the results as balanced and objective as possible?

  • Do you draw conclusions that are warranted, and avoid generalizing more widely than is justified?

Conclusion

  • Do you clearly and concisely restate the original contribution that your dissertation makes to the existing knowledge in your field?

  • Do you briefly summarize what you did and what you found, without going into too much detail?

  • Do you allude to the main idea of each chapter in the dissertation, and tie those ideas together?

  • Do you avoid introducing entirely new data and/or arguments?

  • Do you indicate the limitations of your study?

  • Do you relate your findings to others’ research?

  • Do you avoid making overclaims as well as underclaims?

  • Do you make compelling suggestions for future research that will build on your study and/or compensate for its limitations?

  • Are your suggestions for future research appropriate within your field of study? Are your suggestions sufficiently scholarly (ie. not merely practical or policy-oriented)?

Questions your advisor may ask about your draft as a whole

  • Does the overall order of ideas in your dissertation make sense? Within each chapter and section, do you present the material in a systematic and logical way? Do you use units of organization (chapters, sections, paragraphs, and sentences) purposefully?  For more resources on organization, see my page on the subject.)

  • Does the abstract provide a clear, accurate description of all your dissertation’s content in order, including the results? Have you fine-tuned your abstract to match your most current sense of your project? Is your abstract ready to be the first thing your examiner reads? Do you conform to your university’s word limit?

  • Is the entire dissertation written in your present, mature voice rather than the less-authoritative voice you had when you began the project? Do you write with the poise and confidence of a scholar in your field? In other words, have you excised or rewritten any passages that you wrote early on? (Here’s why it’s risky to retain material you wrote in the early stages of your project.)  

  • Does your writing style evince the values of your discipline (eg. for scientists, clarity, precision, and concision)?  

  • Do you provide accurate, consistent in-text citations or references that follow the style of your discipline, department, and university?

  • Is your dissertation’s title a clear encapsulation of your central idea? (Be aware of conventions in your discipline, including word limits. APA guidelines, for example, recommend limiting your title to 12 words.)

  • Is the basic formatting of your document correct (font type, font size, margin width, page numbers)--at least enough that your advisor will not find the formatting distracting? It's annoying to submit a draft for review only to have your advisor fixate on superficial aspects of the manuscript that are easy to identify and correct. Encourage your advisor to focus on substantive critique by taking care of the little things on your own.

If, after reading all these questions, you're thinking this whole dissertation thing sounds like too much work, just stop, take a deep breath, and remember: the dissertation is supposed to be difficult, messy, even “terrible.” But as I hope this list shows, if you know the right questions to ask, the project is absolutely doable. Plus, no matter how painful your advisor’s critiques may be, your relationship with your advisor is unlikely to make or break your career. Perhaps the most important point to remember about your advisor is that the moments when he or she is causing you the most grief might just be the moments when he or she is helping you the most.

I hope that this list, unwieldy as it may be, demystifies the dissertation genre and clarifies the work that lies ahead of you. You might also check out the free dissertation resources linked on my Thesis and Dissertation page, my list of 101 tips for finishing your Ph.D. quickly, and the books listed on my About page in the “Bookshelf” section.

After reading this list, what questions and considerations would you add? How have you struggled or succeeded in learning your advisor’s expectations of your work? What is perplexing you about your dissertation today? Please share in the comments below! And of course, share this link with any friend or colleague who is working to devise a dissertation that his or her advisor will approve!

Posted on August 25, 2014 .