Time saving dissertation references techniques

Dissertation Reference – do’s and don’ts

Most dissertation writers go overboard on the number of references they cite. I’ve edited dissertations with 300+ references. Yikes. Way too many and it makes reviewers suspicious. Here’s a shortcut: Develop a formula based on your dissertation content outline. See how many references others used. My own dissertation was a positivistic case study and others using this methodology tended to have 75 to 100 references.

Rule 1: Start with the minimum number of dissertations.

So I figured 8-ten references for the methodology, 5-7 for each major topic and 3-5 for each sub topic. Here’s how it breaks down for mine. My title was “The combination of five factors that lead to women leaders’ decision to opt out of their senior leadership position.” I know, sounds like a real spell-binder, doesn’t it?

The title kind of gives away the five to seven major topics with sub-topics:

  • The opt out phenomenon (5 sources)
  • Organization reasons for opting out (23 sources)
    • Organization reasons — multiple (boss, culture, M&As, etc.)
    • Organization reasons — discrimination (glass ceiling, lack of advancement / development opportunities)
    • Organization reasons — policies (work / life balance policies)
  • Career reasons for opting out (26 sources – overlap with organization reasons)
    • Career reasons — men and women career choices
    • Career reasons — obstacles and lack of opportunity (men vs. women)
    • Career reasons — patterns (general)
    • Career reasons — patterns for women
    • Career reasons — retention and development
  • Family reasons for opting out (28 sources)
    • Family reasons — career change
    • Family reasons — work / life balance
  • Personal reasons for opting out (13 sources – overlap with career)
    • Personal reasons — life stage and self-awareness
    • Personal reasons — stress and time
  • Openness to change factor in decision to opt out (6 sources)
  • Positivistic case study methodology (5 sources)

There was a lot of overlap but I ended up with 123 references. The secret is to start with an outline. I sort of had an idea going in that there would be a variety of reasons so I started with the obvious. I found a couple dissertations on the opt out phenomenon and discovered a few major references that seemed to pop up in all of the dissertations. I bounced back and forth with the basics and stopped myself after about references for each topic.

This is a big deal. I know a lot of people who go nuts finding everything they can about a topic and printing out entire articles. Better to stick with the main ones for now.

Rule #2. Find out your school’s reference dates policy.

Most schools are very strict on the relevance of references according to date. In other words, stick with recent citations even if there isn’t a written policy. My school had a policy that 75% of the references had to be from the last decade. The exception was seminal research like Lewin’s change formula or similar kinds of references – usually related to research methodology or some broader topic.

One woman I worked with recently had to make a boatload of changes because her university required references within the past five years. That information was in the dissertation guidelines but she didn’t notice it and no one pointed it out until she was on the third version of her proposal. Ask first.

Rule #3. Peer review only, please.

A lot of universities assume a lot. For instance, chairs and committees figure you know to use peer-reviewed references for the majority of your references. Again, estimate that 80% of your references should be peer-reviewed citations. It’s easiest to include that in the search criteria. For this search I went under Academic Search Premier then clicked four limiters:

  • Full text
  • References available
  • Scholarly/Peer reviewed Journals
  • Published date 2010 to 2016

I also check PDF Full Text which is an easier to use format.


Rule #4. A trick to finding references fast.

One of the advantages of clicking “references available” is that you can look at the reference list and get lists of other references. You’ll use the same criteria for years published and peer-reviewed and referenced. Then you read the abstract to see if it makes sense to go any further and save the PDF in a folder with the keywords and title and author. Once you go through four or five references you start to get a sense of the significant research on the topic.

Rule #5. Use styles instead of hard returns and keystroke spacing in references.

Arghhh. This makes me crazy. I’ll turn on “show invisibles” and see a hard paragraph return after each line and a tab for the next line. Instead set up a style that says references and use it for all.


  • Use styles instead of hard returns
  • Purdue owl format
  • No space after doi
  • References less than 10 years or 5 years if time sensitive or that’s what your chair/school/committee wants
  • As cited in – don’t do it
  • Create your references while you’re creating literature review. Use at the end of single page citation on outline topic. Keep a separate document with references. What a lot of chairs and committees will do is look at references first to get a sense of the research and citations. 75% need to be peer-reviewed. I made up that number but that’s what I was told and I think it makes sense.
  • Use apa and get as close as possible so your editor can add some value. Like suggest more references or inconsistencies.


Dr. Kat (aka Dr. Kathleen Cannon)

Fun, fast, experienced, reasonably priced dissertation editing, coaching, and therapy.
Contact drkatcannon@dissedit.com

©2016 Kathleen J Cannon





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