If I had my dissertation to do over…

I asked a random group of people I know pretty well (that’s random as in casual not random as in statistically random!) the question: If you had your dissertation to do over again what would you do differently?

Responses ranged from their relationship with their chair to organization of the process to nuances in the lit review.  In fact, the only thing the responses and respondents had in common is that, to a person, they wouldn’t do it again!

Working with a dissertation chair

Your dissertation chair becomes one of the most important people in your life. People talked about the importance of matching your chair to the methodology, your personality, your topic.

“I would have been more deliberate about choosing a chair for my dissertation. I would have conducted interviews and had a better understanding of how we would connect. I would also have connected with a dissertation coach right away, to help guide my emotions as I had so many other things to do.”

“I would have touched base more frequently with my chair.”

“I would have worked better with my chair. I ended up cutting about 75 pages of what I thought was scintillating content—and could have avoided all of that if I had just checked in with my chair sooner.”

“Choose a realistic, no-nonsense chair.”

The dissertation process

More than anything else, people who have written a dissertation  say they would change things about the process itself.

“I would do a better job on organizing the data from all the articles and readings into a more coherent format.”

“I did a lot of highlighting and flagging on the reading, but felt like I had to go through this a second time to pull together the converging and/or diverging data points. Doing so would have shortened the process. While I was happy with the outcome, for others, it might make a difference on the final product.”

“I would have done it sooner (I was fried from the coursework though so maybe I should have taken off three months and then buckled down). Other advice? Keep it simple (don’t save the world!). Expect that everything will take longer than it should or than you expect. Use an editor earlier.”

“I would make sure I had a realistic time frame. There are many things in the dissertation process that are out of your control and I wasn’t prepared for them (IRB review, changes in the dissertation committee, the workload of the dissertation chair…”

“I would write outside of my home more often…Scheduled dedicated time for writing and stuck to it!”


New doctors talked about all the people involved in the dissertation process—work colleagues, cohort members, spouses (this was a big one), children, parents, and more.

“There’s really nothing I would do differently, however I would
encourage folks to find a research librarian and make him/her their new best friend. This was such a help in my research that I acknowledged 2 librarians by name in my dedication. In fact, I also provided both a signed (by me and all the committee members), bound version of the final product. These two individuals were invaluable – they did alot of the so-called ‘heavy lifting’ at the front end.”

“I would have created a project plan, leveraged my spouse better in the endeavor, selected an advisor better, and used a support network.”

“My mother babysat one day a week for my twins so I could have uninterrupted time to write—and think. I’d still be working on it now without her.”

Topic and methodology

Everyone talks about the importance of having passion for your topic; one person mentioned the importance of having passion for your methodology.

“Our doctoral instructors said from day one that we had to pick a dissertation topic that we were passionate about. That is certainly true. We lived and dreamed this topic for months….in some cases, years. What they did not warn us about is that you should also pick a research methodology that you are passionate about because you will also dream (or have nightmares) about this for months or years. The dissertation process requires you become an expert in your topical area and an expert in a particular research methodology.”


Anything that’s referred to as a terminal degree ends up being personal.

“I wouldn’t beat myself up so much when I didn’t make the progress I expected to make or if I didn’t understand something I knew everyone else was understanding. My chair said that some things just had to percolate; I was thinking more Keurig coffee maker than old fashioned drip grind!”

“Half way through I realized if I took a walk every day, sometimes twice a day, it helped me get back on track and stay sane.”

Dr. Kat

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

©2016 KathleenJCannon

Pick the right dissertation committee

So you picked the right chair/advisor and things are going swimmingly—right up until you pick the rest of your committee. You think, it’s the chair that matters—I only need bodies for the committee. Wrong. You know those horror stories about dissertation chairs? There are probably again as many about dissertation committees.

Most universities have guidelines for choosing chairs and committees listed on the graduate school website. Here are some examples of chair and committee selection policies:

  • Roles of the Committee Members: [University’s] dissertation supervisory committees are generally composed of three members: a committee chair, a committee member, and a committee university research reviewer (URR). In some rare cases, a fourth, external member may be added to the committee to provide special expertise.
  • The dissertation committee chairperson and at least one committee member must be full-time members of the faculty of [ ] University, holding the rank of professor, associate professor, or assistant professor with an earned doctorate. The chairperson is to come from the student’s program of specialization. Further, in order to ensure a diversity of perspectives during the proposal and dissertation development process, at least one member of the committee must hold professorial appointment in a program different from the student’s program.
  • The committee members shall be chosen from at least two departments, and at least two members shall represent academic specialties that differ from the student’s chosen specialty; one of the committee members must be a tenured [University] faculty member unaffiliated with the student’s home program.

Even with these guidelines you still want to be very careful. The first thing to do is to ask your chair (assuming you have a good working relationship with your chair) for suggestions for other committee members. Once you get some names you can use these questions to help you make your choice. Be nice! Prospective committee members are interviewing you at the same time you’re interviewing them. They might be required to serve on a certain number of committees but it doesn’t necessarily have to be yours!

  1. Do you have time to be on my committee? Ask your chair about the expected time commitment for a committee member. Your university might have this spelled out in a document you can send to a prospective committee member. Tell him/her your schedule and outline their involvement, time commitment.
    One editing client said her committee member forgot to mention she was going to be out of the country for six months—right in the middle of the dissertation proposal stage. Another client told me that a committee member was adopting a baby and said whenever that came through they would be leaving the country and then she wasn’t sure of their schedule. And both times this came up after the proposal stage so it would have set back the dissertation timing by months.

Most institutions have a formal dissertation committee approval – and disapproval – process. What that means is that it’s going to be near impossible to change committee members once they’ve been approved.

  1. What methodology did you use? Which methodologies are you familiar with? Grounded theory? I’ll have to read up on that. Again, my client was told this after they were well into the proposal. And some members might have a pet methodology. Appreciative inquiry anyone?
  2. Are you familiar with/interested in my topic which is ______________? You’ll want to have a solid outline of your topic and even an elevator speech to sell it. One doctoral candidate changed her topic really frosted one committee member who had only agreed to be on the committee because of the topic.
  3. Have you served on other committees? How many? How recently? One doctoral candidate feels she dodged a bullet by asking other advisees about a potential committee member. Three out of three said to find someone else! It was the same complaint for all three – unresponsive, vague, uncommunicative.
  4. My chair is _________. Have you worked with or are you familiar with him/her? What happens if you disagree with my chair or another committee member? This is a huge question so listen carefully to the response.
  5. What kinds of things have you published and where? You can usually get a list from the university website or via a simple google search. Or check amazon.com. Writing style says a lot. So is publishing volume.

More tips for choosing a dissertation committee

  • Personality matters. Find someone whose personality matches yours—or at least doesn’t conflict with yours. You don’t want a “runs with scissors” committee member in a “plays well with others” world. One doctoral candidate said her committee member always second guessed her chair and tried to do end runs on nearly every call. Still another said a committee member contradicted the rest of the committee at every turn.
  • Go with the winners. Check out print copies of dissertations done through your school and this potential committee member. Some places give awards for outstanding dissertations so that’s where I’d start.
  • Pick someone geographically desirable. One woman thought she had secured the perfect third committee member only to find that working remotely wasn’t remotely working! It’s so much easier if all of your committee is in the same city.
  • Stay in your university. Even if it’s not required, it’s best and easiest to work with people from your own university. The only good reason to invite an outside member is if someone has highly specialized expertise; and even then you want to make sure your chair approves.

Dr. Kat

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

©2016 KathleenJCannon

Picking a dissertation topic — Passion is over-rated!

Okay, I’ll probably be struck down by the dissertation gods but I’m going to take a stand on this. Here goes: One of the biggest mistakes doctoral candidates make is overrating the importance of passion. You’ve heard it dozens of times–pick a dissertation topic you’re passionate about. That’s simply too overwhelming a directive.

By this time most people are passionate about finishing, about reading a book for pleasure, about never again hearing the words that end in “ology” or “istic” (epistemology, ontology, and positivistic, heuristic), and being called doctor for the day (any more than that and people start asking you to look at a mole on their back).

My recommendation? Pick a topic that you’re interested in or better yet, one that you can leverage to actually make some money once you’re done with school. So let’s say you’re a vice president of HR; you choose something like the decentralization of HR and do a positivistic case study of one organization that is going through this HR change process. Or you could do an interpretive study of the same topic but do a deep dive into the various stakeholders’ feelings about the change in the way HR is being delivered.

Time-saving tip: The easiest way to pick a topic is to review a bunch of dissertations on your topic (HR decentralization) and look at two sections in chapter five. One is “limitations” and the other is “suggestions for further research.”

So for the example above, a limitation would be that the researcher only used one company, or one industry, or one geographic area and you could do the same study but broaden it to include two companies or a different industry or multiple locations. Most dissertations are pretty explicit about their suggestions for further research. The advantage of this some might say lazy method is that you’ll get some ideas of places to go for the literature review.

Dr. Kat

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