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Dissertation Writing: The Art of Crafting the Dissertation or Doc Study

Part I: Curiosity

By: Dr. Cheryl Lentz

When students begin the process of crafting their dissertation (5 chapter model) or Doc Study (3 chapter model), often the process is met with serious contemplation, and the exploration of personal or professional curiosity that forms the foundation for research, and perhaps just a wee bit of fear of the unknown.  Unless one has written a Master’s Thesis, the doctoral process is unique and foreign to many who have chosen this quest.

How does one begin? For my students, I suggest they use an outcome based approach where they start with the end in mind and work backwards.  What this means is that after completion of the dissertation, one will be considered an expert in this area.  Therefore, one must choose one’s area of research focus carefully and deliberately, with a thought toward one’s personal and professional aspirations and goals.  A scholar typically only completes a dissertation once, serving the foundation of the rest of their career.

Often, I ask my students why they began the doctoral process.  What did they hope to gain by completion of this degree?  The answers can range from simply wanting the doctor. title, to increased opportunities, monies, expansion of one’s career, and much more.  When one can look at what is hoped to be achieved by this quest, then the choice of a research topic becomes far more relevant and ideally—interesting and perhaps an area for which one has a passion.  The goal is to look at the big picture of what is meant by return on investment or ROI.

The process of the dissertation can take many years to complete, often on average from 3 to 7 years for most programs.  To sustain one’s interest in research, a topic must be chosen carefully with an eye to one’s interest as well.  If the topic one has chosen isn’t something of infinite interest and personal curiosity, motivation can wane very quickly as soon as the obstacles may present themselves.

I often ask my students if they can see themselves working for many years on their chosen topic and field of study.  If they get excited about this prospect, then I know we have hit upon their area of passion and interest.  If they are only hoping to check-the-proverbial-box so to speak, the journey can be far more tedious and arduous than expected.  If one is going to spend several years in pursuit of research, I would recommend highly that fun, curiosity, and enjoyment are part of the process.

Since few students have much knowledge about the doctoral process when they begin, time is well spent in contemplation and careful consideration of their chosen topic and understanding of the doctoral process itself.  If one takes a strategic approach, this exploration of topics is encouraged during the class completion part of the journey where the student can consider various topics and areas that appeal to their sense of curiosity and career as part of their weekly class assignments—to continue to build on their ideas as they move through their curriculum.  Ideally, a student will use these classes to develop their ideas and framework further to have a head start on the dissertation proposal.  Do keep in mind however, that no research can begin without having approval from the Institutional Review Board or IRB.  Be sure to follow one’s university protocols, as research cannot begin without this approval—often taking many months to obtain.

Often, what happens is that students will change their minds many times over as part of the doctoral journey until they finally settle on their research question of what they want to know about a particular field.  What question has not yet been asked?  What is needed to be known regarding some dilemma that exists?  Will they build on research that has already been completed to extend further?  Will they instead propose entirely new research?  Regardless of where a student is on the continuum, the goal is for the student to embrace new ideas to expand the growth of the body of knowledge within their field of study.