The Dissertation: What it is and what it isn’t

Updated: Mar 23, 2019







Reaching a New Milestone


Congratulations! As a graduate student, you’ve transcended coursework, tackled your qualifying exams and collected your data. This is it, the big task of doctoral scholarship- writing the dissertation. One might think getting to this point would feel exhilarating, but for many doctoral candidates, the feeling they experience when confronting the dissertation is anything but. The fact of the matter is dissertations are mysterious things for people outside and inside academia. They are the tomes that people are always talking about, mostly to the chagrin of the dissertation writer, but hardly anyone ever sees. If a layperson is lucky enough to see said dissertation, the discipline-specific jargon can be so dense that the message of the piece can be opaque to them. Finally, very few people outside of academia know how dissertations are created. Individuals going into the process, especially students from diverse backgrounds who may be the first in their families to reach graduate school, may not have been adequately inducted into academic writing to tackle the dissertation. Not knowing how academic writing works can make the dissertation seem like an insurmountable task that only the superhuman can overcome, which it is not. It can also seem like the dissertation is the seminal work that will launch your scholarship, which it isn't. Whether you choose to go into academia or the sciences, it's just the beginning of your scholarship! So, before diving into the technical aspects of writing a dissertation, let's discuss what the process entails using metaphorical frameworks. If used correctly, these extended metaphors can break down preconceived notions and open up space for mindsets that are more conducive to finishing the dissertation.


The Dissertation as a Marathon


First and foremost, the most critical thing to do before beginning the dissertation process is to break down the preconceived notion of the dissertation as an impossible feat in order to face the task with realism and practicality. One of the best ways to conceptualize the dissertation is to view it as a type of marathon. For most runners, it takes six months to prepare for the actual marathon. Typically, runners prepare by gradually increasing their stamina, eating well, stretching their bodies, avoiding anything that could strain their body, learning proper running techniques, getting adequate rest and developing a can-do attitude in regard to running the marathon. On the day of the race, they employ all the strategies and stamina they gained through their training to run the marathon well. Finally, even though it is great to win a marathon by being first, most marathon runners are simply happy with finishing.


As a doctoral candidate, you can view yourself as running a marathon of sorts. In graduate school, it's critical to “get in shape” by revamping one's approach to writing and scholarship as a precursor to writing the dissertation. “Getting in shape" for an academic task means by breaking old habits and changing stale perceptions. In undergraduate school, many students develop bad habits and frames of mind regarding written academic work. Students may perceive writing to be difficult, scary, boring, or not relevant to their (or anyone else’s) everyday lives. Students may also have the tendency to cram all of their writing time into the night before their assignments are due. As you’ve probably learned already, those strategies aren’t helpful in graduate school, and they are downright detrimental when it’s time to write the dissertation.



The Dissertation as Transition from Understudy to Expert


Another way to look at the dissertation is as a rite of passage that marks the transition from student to master. Much like the bar/bat mitzvahs and other rites of passage, the dissertation marks individual maturation, inclusion in a particular group (in this case, your discipline) and demonstration of knowledge mastery. Viewing the dissertation as a rite of passage instead of another school assignment helps the subconscious mind perceive writing the dissertation as an opportunity for personal growth as well as the last opportunity to learn as an understudy. Once you realize the dissertation isn't just another hoop to jump through, you'll be able to reap all the positive benefits of the process.

What’s unique about the dissertation as a rite of passage is each individual makes a new mark on the group they are joining, instead of simply copying the behaviors and ideas of the previous generation. In order to make a mark on their specific discipline, successful doctoral candidates synthesize theory and previous findings to:


1. Build on and expand the understandings of previous theory/findings

2. Demonstrate a new theory you have developed based on understandings of previous theories.


In essence, the dissertation demonstrates where the emerging scholar places themselves in their respective field. It’s not a final statement. It’s more like an opening statement or first foray into what the emerging scholar will discuss in their writing throughout their career. The dissertation is also a demonstration the emerging scholar can independently manage large writing tasks, which is an indicator of future success for those who plan to enter academia.


The Dissertation as The Culmination of Smaller Tasks


After deconstructing the perception that completing the dissertation is impossible, the next perception to break down is the idea that the document is monolithic. In actuality, each dissertation is the compilation of smaller writing tasks that have been organized into chapters. Those writing tasks are comprised of rhetorical moves and markers that are specific for each section. If we can approach the dissertation as a book of smaller tasks, we can list the tasks we should undertake for each chapter. After creating a comprehensive list, we can methodically and patiently tackle each one of the tasks until we have crossed off every task on our list. Breaking down your dissertation into a list of smaller tasks for each chapter will help you build confidence and will feel rewarding because as you cross off each item, you are giving your subconscious mind a visual signal that you are making measurable progress to your ultimate goal- finishing the dissertation.


In sum, the dissertation is:

A process that takes stamina, skill and systems to complete it successfully.

A rite of passage marking the transition from understudy to mastery.

The compilation of discreet written tasks that include specific rhetorical moves.


What perceptions did you have about writing the dissertation before starting graduate school? How do you view it now? Please let us know in the comments below!


#dissertation #mindset