Dissertations are Scholarly
The Cambridge Dictionary
defines a dissertation as a "long piece of writing on a particular subject".
That definition is deceptively simple, as most writers of dissertations soon
learn. Ultimately, the "long" comes to refer to the process rather
than the document itself, and in far too many cases, the "piece of writing"
never gets completed.
Many doctoral candidates find that they
have finished course work and comps, and are suddenly thrust into an entirely
new arena, one for which the experience of writing papers or a master's
thesis has not provided sufficient preparation.
Many of the clients who come to us at
lost in confusion over what a dissertation actually is. I usually
suggest to them that if they cannot define a dissertation, or describe
one, or visualize a completed document, there is no way they can even begin
the process of writing one.
Simply put, dissertations are scholarly documents. It is generally lengthy (although we have all
heard the stories of doctoral candidates in math and science who present
one, perfect equation and are awarded their degree). The trend is
currently toward somewhat shorter documents, and it is unusual these days
for a dissertation to exceed 300 pages. It is (or should be) focused
on a very narrow topic. Because it is a scholarly document, it contains
extensive references to the works of experts in the field, in the form
of citations to journal articles, monographs and books. A dissertation
commonly contains an empirical component, reflecting some independent study
or data gathering (use of a questionnaire, interviews, standardized instrument)
on the part of the author, although in certain fields (literature and philosophy,
for example), no study is required. In any case, each dissertation
has some research design involved. An empirical study may be qualitative,
quantitative or descriptive, and there are many variations of each of these
designs. Dissertations may be strictly historical and be based primarily
on an extensive review of the literature. There are as many variations
of the dissertation form as advisors and dissertation writers can invent.
But the bottom
line, and one that is all too easily forgotten, is that the dissertation
is a scholarly document. It is not a paper, and it is not
a journal article, and it is not a book, although it shares some characteristics
with each of these documents. It is not a collection of abstracts;
it is not an annotated bibliography; it is not an overview of a topic;
it is not a discussion of the writer's personal viewpoint.
FACE="arial" size="3"> Most dissertations
follow the classic five chapter format: Introduction (with all of the traditional
subheadings); Review of Literature; Methodology; Findings; Summery/Conclusions/Implications.
There are frequently Appendices (copies of instruments, permission letters,
for example). There is always a References list. A dissertation
may be written in any one of a number of formats, but currently the APA
format is most popular. Some universities provide style sheets which
augment the APA format with specific features. The MLA format is
still favored in some fields, such as literature.
You will find the process of writing yours
less daunting if you become familiar with the requirements of your advisor
and university before you begin.
Here are some
1. Ask your advisor for copies of
dissertations which s/he has approved recently. Having a sample to
follow will make your job much easier!
2. Check to see what format is favored
(APA, MLA?). Buy a copy of the style manual.
3. Determine if your university or
program has written guidelines which supplement the basic format.
4. Ask your advisor about his/her
expectations of length. Don't be put off by "whatever it takes"
as an answer. You may think a 100 page document is sufficient; your
advisor may think that 250 is closer to the mark.
5. Think long and hard about the
definition of "dissertation". A scholarly document must be
researched and written at doctoral level. It must contain a significant
contribution to your field. It must use appropriate source materials,
6. Read, read, read dissertations
which have been done recently in your field. Get the "feel" of the
document. Understand how it is structured. Learn to recognize the
flow from introduction through conclusion. Once
you are comfortable with the form, content, scope and limitations of the
dissertation document, you are ready to begin the process of writing your
by Diane Kennedy
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