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WRITING FROM TO B A A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies Keith Hjortshoj 1Contents The Mystery of Graduate Writing 4 1. A Rhetoric of Transition for the 2. End of Schooling 7 Rhetorical Differences Between 3. Student and Professional Writing 11 Focus and Frame of Reference 17 4. The Essential Structure of Research- 5. Based Writing 22 Time Management and the Writing 6. Process 29 Advice for Non-Native Speakers 7. of English 39 Conclusions 41 8. Some References for Dissertation Writers 44 3The Mystery of Graduate Writing Imagine that you are observing production in a widget factory and that your view toward the end of the process is obstructed. As a result, you witness only partial assembly and then, somewhat mi- raculously, a string of finished products. Given the complexity of their design, you become curious: What occurred in between? In the pro- duction of PhDs, this blind spot is the dissertation process. Because it is decentralized and largely privatized, the process remains hidden to most graduate students, leaving them unprepared to negotiate the multifaceted challenges of the dissertation stage. Karen Cardozo, “Demystifying the Dissertation” he Admission to Candidacy Exam, or frustrating even for the most experienced and “A Exam,” is one of the few common productive scholars. For the great majority T requirements among Cornell’s diverse of PhD candidates, producing a document PhD programs. According to the Cornell of such length over months or years is also Guide to Graduate Study, passing the A an unfamiliar task, requiring new methods, Exam means that you are “ready to present motivations, standards, and uses of time. In a dissertation.” Before you can present a all fields, increasing competition for jobs dissertation, of course, you have to produce and postdoctoral fellowships favors PhD one, and doing so is your main job description candidates who not only complete their as a PhD candidate in transit between the A dissertations efficiently but also complete Exam and the B Exam. Passing the B Exam research proposals and articles, conference and filing an approved copy of the dissertation papers, and other professional writing. In are the last common requirements for the these final years of doctoral study, progress PhD. is almost synonymous with getting things Producing a dissertation is therefore the written. main subject of this guide for those of you The typical challenges involved in this en route between the A and B Exams. process should not be mysterious. Everyone Because the dissertation is a complex who has a PhD, including your advisors written document that all successful PhD and other members of your departments, candidates must complete, writing is has successfully completed a dissertation. critically important in this last phase of At large research universities, hundreds of doctoral work. For reasons explained in doctoral candidates are currently working following sections, the process of completing on these projects. Our libraries contain a dissertation is normally difficult. Writing thousands of dissertations, approved, bound, projects on a comparable scale, such as and catalogued for circulation. More than book manuscripts, remain challenging and any other form of writing, the dissertation A Guid A Guide t e to Com o Completing the pleting the Disser Disserttation Phase of Doc ation Phase of Docttor oral S al Studies tudies 4 4From one level to the next, writing projects represents an essential, nearly universal tend to become more difficult and time- credential and shared experience among consuming, not easier. scholars. At ascending levels of higher education, It seems very odd, therefore, that as you the diverse forms and functions of writing embark on this heavily traveled path to the seem increasingly to defy generalization. This PhD, many of you will feel that you are is one reason that “graduate writing” seems entering uncharted territory with unknown mysterious. Advanced studies among the pitfalls, mires, and false turns. If these are disciplines do not produce good writers in normal difficulties, why do PhD candidates general; they produce highly specialized tend to view them as personal struggles, good writers who have become familiar with peculiar to their own circumstances, research distinct forms of explanation and argument, projects, or dispositions? In this kind of presented in diverse styles and terminologies. academic writing, why does experience seem If we asked successful writers in physics to produce amnesia and uncertainty rather than common knowledge? Why is help with or chemical engineering to produce a writing so rarely available at this level of professional article in literary studies, most academic work? of them would become weak or hopelessly To illuminate the most common blocked writers in that alien academic form. challenges of completing dissertations, we Scholars in the humanities would be equally begin with some general answers to those incompetent at producing scientific research questions. Later sections of this guide will articles. give more detailed explanations and practical Specialization also helps to explain the advice. scarcity of writing assistance for graduate A popular myth encourages us to believe students, especially at advanced levels of that by the early years of college, good doctoral programs. Beginning in the late 19th century, college writing instruction writers establish basic skills and strategies developed in response to perceived that remain a stable, sufficient platform for weaknesses in the writing skills of college writing throughout their lives and careers. freshmen, often attributed to “preparation If this were true, writing would become deficits” in secondary education. Writing increasingly easy, without further instruction courses and programs still focus primarily on or fundamental changes in our writing the first year of college and rapidly diminish strategies. at higher levels, nearly vanishing at the But all experienced writers, including beginning of graduate studies. Although the most productive scholars, know that the development of writing ability is a lifelong graduate advisors sometimes tell struggling process. Successful approaches that students advisees that they should “take a writing develop in high school no longer work in course,” those designed for undergraduates college. Forms of essays or lab reports that rarely address the needs of graduate students, received good grades in freshman courses especially in advanced studies outside the no longer meet expectations in advanced humanities. Because writing instruction undergraduate or graduate courses. Methods retains some of its original association with used to complete papers for graduate courses the remediation of “basic skills” in general no longer work for producing dissertations, education, acknowledging difficulty with research articles, or books. The most writing at higher levels appears to be an successful writers are those who adapt most admission of weakness. quickly and flexibly to changing conditions. When combined with factors of 5specialization, this association of writing process of dissertation research and writing, difficulties with deficits in basic skills common difficulties in this process must may also explain why studies of common account for a large proportion of the obstacles problems in graduate education rarely that individuals encounter. To the extent mention struggles with “writing” as distinct that doctoral candidates in specific fields causes of attrition or delay in doctoral seem to be heading off in different directions, programs. For example, the 2008 Council in separate little boats into uncharted and of Graduate Schools report on its elaborate potentially troubled waters, these patterns of “PhD Completion Project” makes no explicit difficulty across disciplines remain invisible. reference to writing problems as matters of concern. Instead, categories of potential “interventions” to improve completion rates and times include selection/matching (meaning admissions), mentoring and advising, financial support and structure, program environments, research experiences, and curricular and administrative processes and procedures. Other studies of doctoral programs have mentioned factors such as family responsibilities, time management, relative isolation, confidence, and adjustment to the culture of a research university, also without direct reference to writing problems per se. To the extent that these problems arise in the process of completing dissertations, they seem inseparable from the unique circumstances of individual doctoral students in diverse programs, where the products of writing vary as well. Beyond the A Exam at Cornell, the complex processes of completing diverse forms of dissertations therefore appear to be entangled with peculiar features of your own doctoral programs, research projects, special committees, and individual circumstances. These diverse entanglements largely explain why doctoral candidates tend to view normal, widespread writing difficulties as individual, “personal” struggles. Within the narrow contexts of specialized fields and subfields, where your own departments and advisors determine all of the specific expectations you must meet, the challenges of completing a PhD appear to represent unique configurations. Because attrition and delay in PhD programs often occur in the A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 6A Rhetoric of Transition for the End of Schooling o explain the ways in which you are in small proportion of former undergraduates. the same boat, despite differences among High percentages of attrition at each stage Tyour research programs and experiences, partly explain the disconnections and we need to establish much broader views of necessary adjustments between levels. Very writing difficulty and the development of few undergraduates (about 2 out of 100), for writing ability. For this purpose, imagine example, will actually need to develop the a trajectory of academic accomplishment specialized skills and motivations necessary that begins at high school graduation, long to complete dissertation research and writing. before your current position, and extends far When we view this trajectory in the beyond it, to the ranks of senior scholars in opposite direction, however, those of you who your fields. How do individuals move from have reached the dissertation stage represent a the beginning of this trajectory to the end? more homogeneous population of individuals We can observe, first of all, that most do not. who have survived these challenges and share About 69 percent of American high school unusual skills, motivations, and experiences. graduates go on to college, but 25 percent of With negligible exceptions, all university these entering students drop out by the end professors are former PhD candidates. All of their first year, and only 50 percent of them PhD candidates are former undergraduates graduate. Only 5 percent of college graduates and high school graduates who adapted enter PhD programs. Nationally and across successfully to the next level. If this path disciplines, about 50 percent of doctoral to the PhD were straight and smooth, a lot students complete PhD requirements: 2.5 more of you would remain on it. percent of all college graduates. When we But this path is not straight and smooth, follow the trajectory of higher education in and those who believe that it is or should this direction, “defection” is the norm, and be tend to get lost. A basic premise of this those of you who have reached the stage of guide is that writing and other dimensions doctoral candidacy represent an extremely of academic work become most difficult 7and disorienting at turning points—periods research methods, conceptual frameworks, of transition—when we write in unfamiliar and criteria for significance or validity. contexts or forms, to meet new sets of But these variations obscure the general expectations. significance of the A Exam as a major To demystify and facilitate dissertation turning point in the lives and careers of writing, therefore, we should identify the doctoral students. “Admission to Candidacy” features of the transition that you must now for the PhD marks the end of schooling after negotiate, as doctoral candidates. What, 18 years or more of classroom instruction. exactly, are you in transition from and to? Though still registered as a graduate Designating someone who has graduated student, you are finally done with school. but remains a student in some respects, Among specialized fields and subfields the term “graduate student” indicates the of research, the following period of transitional nature of this period in your metamorphosis produces a great variety of development. Being a good graduate student academic creatures. At the end, however, you means that you are effectively becoming are all supposed to emerge, dissertations in something else: a process of transformation hand, as blossoming scholars, the vestiges of from the status of a student to that of a your student identities left behind you like professional research specialist, a scholar, shed skins. and in many cases a teacher. In a doctoral If we think of the A Exam as a turning program, this long period of transition point away from schooling and toward real typically continues for five years or more, scholarship, many of the writing and learning with changing implications as you complete strategies developed for schooling will graduate course requirements, become a become unreliable for the development of doctoral candidate following the A Exam, scholarship. The end of schooling also marks and pursue dissertation research and writing. the end of what composition specialists The skills and motivations that led you into call “school writing”: almost all the written your PhD program therefore differ from the work you have produced for teachers and ones that will lead you out. classes throughout your formal education. In your first two or three years of You are now obliged to produce writing that graduate school, the “school” part probably resembles professional scholarship in your seemed most appropriate, because you were fields. To understand the changes this task taking classes with assignments, deadlines, requires, we should identify the underlying exams, and grades that institutionally factors that distinguish school writing from regulated your schedules and motivations. professional writing—factors that remain Departmental graduate requirements largely consistent across wide variations among defined your use of time: to go to class or to specialized fields. complete readings, papers, problem sets, and These factors can be best described as other scheduled course assignments. The rhetorical variations. The term “rhetoric” has two or three years preceding the A Exam at diverse meanings, but in this guide the term Cornell represent academic preparations for will refer both to the features of written dissertation research and real scholarship. texts (their forms, levels of complexity, Among Cornell departments, A Exams styles, and so on) and to the circumstances have diverse forms and functions. Beyond in which they are written (including their them you will disperse further into offices, audiences, purposes, perceived standards, library stacks, labs, and field sites to pursue and other contextual factors). We can think diverse objects of investigation with differing of the rhetorical features of a writing task as A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 8answers to a series of questions: of student writing, used to demonstrate acquired knowledge, or as a form of • What are you writing? professional writing, used to produce and • Why you are writing it? convey knowledge. Because dissertations • For whom? represent your potential for professional • With what voice and authority as the scholarship, they should resemble forms author, in relation to this audience? of professional writing in your fields, with Answers to these questions raise some corresponding writing methods, styles, other relevant questions about methods, motivations, and other rhetorical factors. time frames, and standards. In other words, Finished dissertations in many programs when you understand the nature of a writing will resemble academic book manuscripts. task, how can you get it done effectively and In other cases, in the sciences or social efficiently, in the broader contexts of your sciences, a dissertation may resemble an lives, in ways that meet standards for finished expanded version of a research article or writing of this kind? Without considering manuscripts for two or more related research articles, in formats required for submission these rhetorical changes, you will tend to to journals. You can reasonably expect that, drift into dissertation work with an approach with some further revision, your dissertations to writing and a sense of yourself as a writer will become submitted manuscripts for based on past experience. New difficulties publication. you encounter can then seem to represent Thinking of your dissertations as forms unique circumstances or insurmountable of professional writing—as working drafts limits of your ability rather than common, of books or articles—generally corresponds identifiable problems you can solve by with the expectations of graduate advisors deliberately altering your writing strategies. and departments. Most graduate advisors The normal difficulties of dissertation look back at their own dissertations as writing often result from the rhetorical necessary stepping-stones or working drafts ambiguities of your transitional status, as for later, more refined books and articles. As a a former student who is still becoming a rule, standards for dissertations are somewhat certified member of your academic profession. lower than those for publications, even at We can reduce this ambiguity by considering the submission stage, and the audience and the roles and strategies you must leave behind focus for a book-length dissertation are and the ones you are moving toward. Trying usually narrower than those for a scholarly to write as a graduate student, between these book in the same field. Remember that positions, tends to underscore the ambiguity, your committee members will almost and we often prefer familiar strategies to the certainly recommend revisions both before potential hazards of the unknown. and after your B Exam, just as editors and The clearest reference points and models reviewers will require changes to submitted for your work should lie ahead. Greater manuscripts. In most cases, therefore, you awareness of approaches you used as student can think of your dissertation as a finished, writers will show you, like rear view mirrors, promising draft of a book manuscript or set what you should have left behind. of research articles. This orientation toward professional writing provides readily available What Is a Dissertation? models for dissertations in specialized fields, In response to the What? question, we in academic books and research articles. You can think of a dissertation as a continuation can also clarify the form, style, and scope 9of a dissertation in your field by examining finished dissertations on file, as close as possible to the type of research you are doing and preferably those approved by your own advisors. Your dissertation will remain at all stages a work in progress, providing working drafts, data, and ideas for future publications. Efforts to avoid further revision at every stage or to include everything you know about the subject represent student writing strategies that will make the process unnecessarily slow and frustrating. In following sections, we will extend this analysis to other differences between student writing and professional writing, with attention to focus, frame of reference, time management, and other factors relevant to getting complex writing projects done. A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 10Rhetorical Differences Between Student and Professional Writing n American research universities, the The following contrasts therefore polarize boundaries and rhetorical shifts between rhetorical factors that can be difficult to Iundergraduate and graduate studies observe in intermediate, overlapping contexts. are somewhat blurred. Like professional Their purpose is not to criticize student academic writing, student writing takes writing or to distinguish good approaches many forms, most of them based on the from bad ones. As a rule, undergraduates kinds of writing that college teachers do. produce writing in the way they do because Undergraduate lab reports resemble scientific the situations in which they write favor research articles. Student research papers those approaches, not because their methods for literature, history, or sociology courses and motivations are “wrong.” Descriptions resemble research articles in those fields. of these contrasting positions will include Doctoral programs and advanced research some discussion of their implications for facilities coexist in the same departments dissertation writers, who are moving between with undergraduate studies. Graduate them. advisors in these departments also teach and advise undergraduates. Some courses enroll The Rhetorical both advanced undergraduates and entering Features of Student Writing graduate students. And many of you serve as teaching assistants in undergraduate courses. Because assignments across the Undergraduates sometimes begin to adopt disciplines ask undergraduates to produce many types of writing, the What? question approaches to writing characteristic of real scholarship, especially in honors projects or we posed earlier is most difficult to answer. co-authored articles with advisors. In turn, Writing assignments in diverse courses, however, share some underlying rhetorical rhetorical features of “school writing” often continue into graduate studies, in papers and features that condition the ways students projects assigned in graduate-level courses. typically complete them. 11Regardless of its form and field of study, When undergraduates produce an essay in “school writing” is produced: one draft and at one sitting, their standards and motivations at the moment and those • to complete assignments, for the end product will be more or less the • in fairly short time frames, same. In work on a dissertation over a period • to demonstrate knowledge or skills, of months, however, you may have high • to audiences of teachers, motivation to get the project done eventually, • in exchange for grades and other forms but your motivation to work on it at the of evaluation. moment, on a given day, may be quite low, These rhetorical features of school writing especially when more expedient, short-term influence methods, stakes, and standards for chores are calling for attention. If a text will writing as well. In high school and in college, go through several drafts, furthermore, your successful students develop some standard standards for writing at the moment can be methods for producing school writing low, even if standards for the finished product efficiently, usually under pressure in the midst are high. We will explore these variables of hectic schedules. One of their most basic further in Section 6. strategies is the effort to make the first draft When completing a paper with a close the last, with varying amounts of revision and deadline in the midst of other assignments, an editing depending on the task’s difficulty and undergraduate will tend to avoid the second the time available. Undergraduates typically (or third, or fourth) thoughts that might produce at least one page of nearly finished improve the finished product but would writing per hour, which most scholars and complicate the task and require extensive other professional writers would consider revision. These circumstances encourage blinding speed. students either to follow an initial plan (or How do they do this—and how did “outline”) for writing or to settle for a strategy you do it if you fit this pattern in your that emerges in the process of writing. Even undergraduate work? And why does the if they discover a better approach that would process of completing a dissertation or a require rewriting, motivations to complete professional article usually become so much the task will usually trump the higher slower and more arduous? standards they could meet through revision. For most of us, writing isn’t intrinsically We can observe these factors at play in this slow or fast, easy or difficult. Instead, Cornell junior’s account of her work on a 13- rhetorical factors contribute to varying page research paper: relationships between motivations and Right from the beginning I knew that standards at the moment. In other words, my first draft was going to be my last. The writing becomes relatively easy and fast when only revisions that I made to the first draft our motivations (at the moment) to get the of my paper were typos, and occasionally I work done are high and our standards (at would fix awkward sentences. There were the moment) are low. In turn, writing can absolutely no changes in the ideas, theme, become excruciatingly slow and difficult and organization of the paper because they when immediate motivations are extremely were already determined before I started low and standards are extremely high. writing. Part of the reason I did this was time Note that motivations and standards constraints, but most of the time I just didn’t at the moment are crucial factors of feel like it: the sense of completion was so productivity, especially for large-scale and great that I just couldn’t bring myself to go long-term projects such as dissertations. back and correct the paper. A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 12 With clear deadlines and limited time, observed that “all manuscripts and proposals student writers tend to postpone working on are graded pass/fail”; but a large proportion an assignment until the pressure builds, along are actually graded “revise and resubmit.” with their incentives to produce writing And these judgments occur toward the quickly. Stakes and standards for the quality end of extremely complex and convoluted of this work are relatively low because an writing processes, with ongoing evaluations assigned paper counts only for some portion and extensive revisions over months or of a grade in one course. And because (especially for book manuscripts) years. If an school writing mainly serves the purposes undergraduate paper is a “one-night stand,” of learning (rather than the dissemination a research article, book, or dissertation is of knowledge or communication with a “long-term relationship.” For scholars broader audiences), it typically has no future who hope to get their work published, the beyond submission and grading. A Cornell undergraduate ideal of making the first draft PhD candidate therefore described the the last is a childish fantasy. Competition, undergraduate papers he wrote as “a series of stakes, and standards for publication are one-night stands.” simply too high. No one can reasonably College students typically assume that expect to meet those standards quickly in a the skills and strategies they developed single draft. Even if optimism or vanity leads in undergraduate studies will serve their us to try, colleagues, referees, and editors will purposes in post-graduate studies and careers. defeat that intention. Very few of these students are aware that the While school writing is typically writing their teachers produce, especially an individual enterprise, academic for publication, results from fundamentally publication is a social endeavor, as lengthy different processes, approaches, and acknowledgements usually demonstrate. motivations. Accomplished, productive scholars know that they can meet standards for publication only The Rhetorical Features of incrementally, with lots of help from others. Most scientific writing is a social activity from Professional Academic Writing the beginning, especially if it is co-authored, Although scholars, like undergraduates, but even an individually authored publication produce many kinds of formal and informal in the humanities ultimately results from writing, the projects most relevant to doctoral collaboration with other scholars (including candidates are manuscripts for publication. reviewers of manuscripts) and editors. In contrast with student writers, scholars Adapting to these circumstances, produce manuscripts: productive scholars must abandon the romantic notion that brilliant writing • to communicate research findings or emerges directly from brilliant utterance arguments in a field of inquir y, • over comparatively long time frames, and solitary, creative inspiration. They know • to audiences of other research specialists, from experience that to meet high standards • in exchange for professional satisfaction, at the end of the process they need to keep standards relatively low toward the beginning recognition, and credentials. for three reasons: These rhetorical features of professional writing influence methods, stakes, and • With lower standards at the moment standards. Reflecting on the contrast they can produce working drafts more with school writing, one graduate student quickly. 13after a year, Boice found that “binge writers • They can’t accurately assess the quality (a) accomplished far less writing overall, (b) of their work while producing it. got fewer editorial acceptances, (c) scored • Whatever they are saying will no doubt higher on the Beck Depression Inventory, change considerably before the work is and (d) listed fewer creative ideas for writing” published. in the judgment of their peers. Scholars who have effectively adapted to Although Boice argued that binge writing the realities of professional writing also keep results from widely held, romantic beliefs their motivations fairly high and consistent that extraordinary writing cannot result from in the time devoted to a project. Accepting ordinary minds and methods, we can usually that writing for publication is a substantial trace the origins of academic binge writing part of their job as scholars, and one that under pressure to undergraduate writing requires sustained attention, they schedule methods. A majority of undergraduates regular blocks of time for this work and avoid are binge writers who postpone writing distractions during those blocks of time. If assignments until deadlines loom, pressure they wait for the right mood, for inspiration, builds, and motivations rise. Graduate or for their schedules to clear, they’ll never students who procrastinate and struggle get serious projects finished. to complete writing projects often report When scholars do not adapt their that they cannot concentrate and sustain approaches to the unavoidable demands attention to their work in what should be of publication, they typically develop what the best conditions: when they are feeling the psychologist Robert Boice described fresh, unhurried, and relaxed. Habituated to as “binge patterns of creative illness.” In a years of procrastination and binge writing comparative study of “binge writers” and as students, they still associate productive “regular writers” among assistant professors, writing with heightened anxiety and stress. Boice argued that binge writing results from When these habitual associations and belief that the most creative, original work related methods no longer work, they can results from a combination of eccentric be difficult to alter, as undergraduates often brilliance and intense, manic concentration. discover when they face the challenge of Writers of this type believed that “binges of completing honors theses over a period of writing offer special advantages, including months. One PhD candidate recalled her loosened, brilliant thinking and rare confusion and distress, as a college senior, opportunities for quick, efficient completions when she realized that her previous writing of long overdue projects.” Boice observed strategies were useless in this new endeavor: that binges of writing often follow periods of Not only was I traumatized by having to procrastination or blocking that induce the start working in November for a ‘paper’ that feelings of pressure and desperation these was due in June, but the comments from my writers consider necessary for productivity. advising professor were painful. I distinctly By contrast, the “regular writers” in this study remember turning in a chapter that was typically worked on writing projects at least largely copied from a course paper I had three days each week in “relatively brief but written a year earlier that received a very regular sessions.” They were moderate in good grade. The comment from my advising their expectations, in their feelings of “mild professor: throw it away and start over. happiness” with their progress, and in their methods. Most professional writers learn to accept Assessing the results of these methods the futility of trying to produce brilliant, A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 14reiterative process of professional writing finished writing in the first draft through and revision, but even the most experienced the sobering experience of publication. scholars cannot avoid extensive revisions Due to high standards driven by intense of drafts, potential rejections of their competition, manuscripts that have even marginal prospects for acceptance have manuscripts, further revisions, resubmissions, been thoroughly revised through multiple and resulting frustrations. This sobering drafts. Following peer review, many of these realization also carries potentially liberating are rejected and must be further revised for implications for young scholars. Because the submission to other journals or publishers. process of writing for publication involves so Even acceptances are almost invariably much revision and uncertainty, spontaneously provisional, requiring significant changes brilliant, eloquent writers are not necessarily in response to diverse and often conflicting the most productive or successful. Instead, criticism from reviewers. When a book this process favors writers who are the most manuscript is finally “done,” and the author • patient, never wants to see it again, the copy editors • persistent, and work it over and the text staggers back • open to advice and criticism from others. like the undead, marked with hundreds of suggestions for editorial changes. For this reason, scholars who struggle When you begin to compose a to write clearly but produce rougher drafts dissertation, a book manuscript, or a journal quickly, inviting extensive help from article, such an awareness of the process can colleagues, typically publish more than be daunting and disheartening if you still those who expect to complete brilliant work believe that good writing represents brilliant without assistance. As a professor in English utterance. The end of the process tells you observed, “There’s always a point in a writing that even your best efforts at the beginning project where I can’t improve it further on my won’t be good enough. What you say now own. I have to let other writers help me, and will probably be no more than the basis for let it not be entirely my own.” saying something else instead. If you abandon such romantic ideas of Some Conclusions good writing, however, this realization can To summarize these contrasts, school also be liberating. Considering all the revision writing is comparatively linear, and and copy editing that occurs even at the end professional writing is typically “loopy” or of a professional writing project, it seems recursive. Professional writers continually silly, even vain, to think that those first drafts go back to reconsider and revise previously eventually buried in scrap files were precious written words, sentences, passages, and drafts. or intact. First drafts, and even later ones, Undergraduates can more easily reduce don’t have to be wonderful. Writing doesn’t the writing process to a linear sequence have to be a stressful performance before an of procedures (e.g., write, proofread, and imagined audience of scathing critics. Even turn in) because their projects are simpler, the referees of a manuscript won’t read its stakes and standards are fairly low, and early versions. When you are producing them, the products usually have no future. With therefore, you are actually quite free to say whatever occurs to you, without feeling that rare exceptions, the papers students turn it has to be profound, eloquent, or even true. in will never go through the messy stages Following sections will suggest ways of further review, revision, and editing that of streamlining this typically laborious, occur after scholars “turn in” manuscripts 15for publication. One Cornell senior realized will need to be extensively revised before this fundamental difference when he first you submit drafts for your B Exams, where co-authored a journal article in biology with committee members will usually ask for one of his professors—a manuscript that was, further changes. In these last stages, the as he said, “examined, criticized, corrected, roles of advisors resemble those of interim submitted, returned, resubmitted, returned, manuscript reviewers and editors. In earlier etc., and finally accepted.” In comparison with stages, some advisors will closely monitor finishing papers for his courses, completing your progress, reading plans or rough drafts this process seemed “almost impossible,” and and recommending changes along the way. he concluded, “The only way I think people Others remain in the background, waiting to will realize the effort that has to be put into see nearly complete versions before they tell a paper to raise it to the standards of a good you how much work remains. Although these journal and hard, cold reviewers is for them expectations vary, the average dissertation to publish.” requires fewer rounds of revision and editing What do ALL advanced graduate students than comparable publications do, especially need to learn, regardless of their fields and in later stages of the process. academic backgrounds? They need to learn how to think of a dissertation or professional article not as a form of accomplishment (or polished utterance) but as a process through which such a text gradually comes about. At this level of writing, accomplished texts come about through patience and persistence more than through innate linguistic and intellectual brilliance. Because publications involve extremely frustrating processes that require dogged determination, thick- skinned response to criticism, and extensive revision, failure typically results from faint- heartedness, vanity, impatience, and false expectations, not from lack of ability. When a large interdisciplinary group of university faculty was asked whether any of them had ever heard of an academic book or article manuscript that was accepted and published without revision, only one said that he heard such a rumor, but he doubted that it was true. To what extent does this convoluted ordeal of publication apply to dissertations? We previously noted that dissertations are comparable to complete working drafts of publications, which need further revision before publishers will accept them as manuscripts. Because they should approach publication standards, most dissertations A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 16Focus and Frame of Reference here are some core features of these decisions because the task before professional academic writing that are them seems so different from the research Tequally essential to effective dissertations and writing they have done as students: so and further distinguish them from most much longer and more complex, with so student work: Every effective dissertation many possible approaches to consider, and so (or research article) must bring into focus much time still available. A romantic notion a specific research question it intends to of true scholarship also may suggest that if answer (or hypothesis it will test, or argument they pursue open-ended research, reading, it will defend) and explain the significance and contemplation, the form and focus of the of that question within a broader frame of dissertation will eventually materialize like a reference. This frame of reference includes vision, ready to be written. both the subject area of inquiry, from which But this postponement represents, on your research draws data or evidence, and the a much larger scale, a continuation of the previous research most relevant to your own. writing strategies undergraduates use to Doctoral candidates who focus their delay writing papers until deadlines loom, research questions within a frame of reference hoping that inspired approaches to their early in the process tend to complete assignments will then emerge out of thin acceptable dissertations most efficiently, in air. Desperation then passes for inspiration, part because this early focus resolves so many and most student papers are really assembled other issues about the organization and scope more or less haphazardly from the material of their projects, relevant reading, and other and ideas nearest at hand. potential dilemmas. Long-term struggles Effective dissertations do not materialize with dissertation writing often result from from inspiration or imagination. Like professional research articles in their delayed, unresolved decisions about the central focus and significance of the project. fields, dissertations are constructed objects, Dissertation writers often delay making assembled from fairly predictable types of 17components in certain ways, intended to tell inquiry in their fields. In practice, however, particular kinds of convincing stories about writing about the subject has very different your research and its meaning within a field implications for the student and scholar. of inquiry. Learning to bring significant Figure 1 illustrates the sharp contrasts questions and textual boundaries into focus between these two approaches to writing, within a much broader frame of reference is seen in the relations between the focus, scope, therefore a crucial stage in the development and frame of reference for each. of academic writing ability—one that poses special challenges in the transition from student to scholar. To make this distinction clearer, imagine that a naïve student is writing a research paper for a course taught by an experienced scholar who is writing research articles in the same subject area. Teachers often use such assignments with the belief that they are giving students a taste of real scholarly FIGURE 1: FRAMES OF REFERENCE IN STUDENT AND PROFESSIONAL WRITING Frame of Reference Frame of Reference ? ? STUDENT SCHOLAR A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 18The Student Writer The Experienced Scholar For the student, the frame of reference Established scholars begin research and for writing consists of knowledge he or she writing projects with very large and highly recently acquired from readings, lectures, organized frames of reference they have and other course material or from references assembled through years of reading, research, gathered for completing the paper. Because teaching, and other professional activity. They undergraduates usually try to use most of often have two or more related research their knowledge and assembled references in projects underway, each of which will yield a research paper, the frame of reference and publications that answer different (though the scope of the paper are nearly contiguous. usually related) research questions. Principal Although there is a question mark Investigators of large research groups may representing a research question at the center have several related, co-authored research of the diagram, teachers often complain that articles in different stages of production, in student writers don’t really have a research collaboration with graduate students or question, position of their own, or reason for postdoctoral fellows, along with conference writing. The paper will simply have a “topic.” presentations, review articles, and other The lack of a broader frame of reference projects. largely accounts for these problems along In each case, the scope of a research with difficulties establishing an authorial article or even a book will be much smaller voice, distinguishing the author’s ideas and than the writer’s frame of reference. Because knowledge from those of other writers, or enormous amounts of information are making references to sources. potentially relevant to the topic, productive For the same reasons, student writers have scholars usually bring significant research difficulty introducing their work to the reader. questions into focus early in the research When the scope of a paper and its frame of process, often in the form of research grant reference are nearly the same, there are no proposals that resemble working drafts of broader perspectives from which a writer research articles (including literature reviews, can take a position, construct an argument, methods, and predictions of important results identify a research question, or explain its and conclusions). While research is underway, significance in a field of inquiry. In contrast, they may identify the most promising journals the perspectives necessary for academic or publishers and begin to draft sections of writing develop in the distance between the the work, such as introductions and methods. scope of the writing and its broader frame Professional academic writing, in of reference. The novice student writer must conjunction with research, is therefore a patch together a new frame of reference ad process of identifying significant questions hoc for each paper, using scraps of disciplinary the scholar intends to answer within an knowledge, “common sense,” and all-purpose established field of inquiry, typically as templates for school writing. For the student, solutions to specific “knowledge gaps” in the main challenge of writing is to assemble previous research. An academic book or almost everything he or she knows about the article distills from the broad and messy topic into a single, coherent document, used dimensions of interconnected phenomena, to demonstrate knowledge recently acquired scholarship, and thought a particular history to an audience that typically knows more. of a particular problem. It presents this 19history as an argument for the significance that the project was “manageable,” resulted of the research at hand and for the methods, from working out the balanced relations theories, and other intellectual tools used to among three dimensions of academic inquiry solve this problem. juxtaposed as points of a triangle: In her work with graduate students in Denmark, Lotte Rienecker observed that those who were having the most trouble completing theses had not yet brought viable research questions into focus within their disciplines. More specifically, Rienecker found that productive writing, and a sense FIGURE 2: THE THREE DIMENSIONS OF ACADEMIC INQUIRY The Question Inquiring about what? (research question, hypothesis, or central argument) The World The Discipline Inquiring into what? Inquiring with what? (objects of inquiry, (theories, methods, data, phenomena, concepts, previous primary texts) research) A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies 20In a sharply focused, cohesive study, the these arguments within a broader frame of writer poses a clearly articulated question reference he would need to complete additional about specific phenomena (or other primary field studies. Further research and writing sources, such as primary texts) through the would delay completion of his dissertation by use of methods, theories, and concepts that several months. define the significance of that question The alternative strategy he chose was also within a discipline. Each of these dimensions closer to his advisors’ intentions. Retaining his depends on clearly developed connections original research question and case study design, with the other two. For this reason, writers he added broader theoretical and comparative who feel lost or blocked in their projects dimensions to the introduction and conclusion of usually have not brought one or more of these this study, expanding its potential relevance to dimensions into balance with the others. For related research questions without complicating example: its basic structure. He could then pursue some • These writers may be excessively of this additional research and writing after he absorbed in the discipline, reading about received his PhD. other research and theory without An undergraduate approach to writing refining their own research questions may tell you that your dissertation should and data analysis. demonstrate all that you know about • They may be absorbed in data collection the subject. As your frame of reference and analysis with too many research expands, relevant research questions and questions or too little consideration of the connections among them will multiply, the way this research fits into their making the project broader and more complex. disciplines. Capable writers can then become mired in • Or they may be trying to answer early versions of research questions that need their dissertation work, not because they lack to be narrowed and refocused to the knowledge or ability to complete it but correspond with the actual results of because they are trying produce something their research. that has become impossible to complete. Instead, this is the stage when your frame These three dimensions of a dissertation of reference should become narrower—more often become unbalanced in the process of sharply focused and manageable. The Cornell research and writing, requiring deliberate adjustment and negotiation with advisors. Guide to Graduate Study says that you are Rather than addressing this imbalance by “ready to present a dissertation” once you have expanding and complicating your project, you passed the A Exam because you are now should consider narrowing and simplifying authorized to write about a focused research your approach, along with other strategies. question within a broader frame of reference Example: you have already developed. You will no A doctoral candidate in the social sciences was doubt continue to read relevant literature in drafting chapters of a dissertation that answered your field, and your knowledge will continue a focused research question about a case study to expand. But the A Exam certifies that when his advisors observed that the theoretical you have moved beyond the level at which dimension of his work was somewhat thin. you must demonstrate the breadth of your After spending a few weeks reading theory and general knowledge. You are now presumed to related cases, he realized that he could expand share that knowledge with other scholars in the implications of this case to broader research your field and are authorized to use writing questions and comparative arguments. In to contribute to it. relation to these expanded arguments, however, his empirical data was now thin, and to validate 21