You don’t have to start your dissertation at the beginning


Think about it. How can you do an introduction to an entire document before you know all the parts? That’s what happens when you force yourself to start your dissertation proposal with chapter one, background and introduction. You don’t have the background yet. How about thinking of a dissertation proposal a little more organically…do a little bit of the lit review, a little of the methodology, some parts of the introduction, add references as you get them.

The outline to most dissertations is pretty much the same. So all you have to do is plug in the sections as you go. The sections for my positivistic case study on why senior women leaders opt out (available at my website at is below. So the way I started was that I had read about this phenomenon about women leaders opting out and thought that sounded kind of interesting. I started looking up some articles on the subject and kept separate folders in my laptop for the basic sections.

Time-saving tip: Let’s start with the opt out phenomenon. I found ten articles on the phenomenon and added opt out to the “definition of terms,” added the ten articles to the references using, of course, APA style, and skimmed the articles for related topics which I kept in an outline–I refer to the outline as buckets. I took notes on the sub-topics (reasons for opting out which were a guess at this time) and kept those separated by folders. So I was building my outline one folder at a time. I was guessing that family was a reason to opt out and that career growth was a reason and the glass ceiling was a reason and bosses and organization culture…you get the idea.

The beauty of doing it this way is that some days when you’re dog tired but know you have to do something you can keep plugging away on the grunt work. Then you can save your high energy days for theories or themes or summaries. Another good reason for doing it this way is that it prevents you from investing too much time going in the wrong direction. One of the things I thought would be a big part of my research was the decision making process and decision theory. Turns out to have nothing to do with it so I’m glad I didn’t waste all kinds of time exploring that.

Keep the outline in front of you at all times to keep yourself focused. Add to the outline/TOC as you go along.

Pick the right dissertation chair

There are probably as many dissertation chair horror stories as there are dissertation chairs. And there are just as many good chairs/advisors that have made the dissertation process less awful (okay, that’s not the fault of the chair but I’m not going on record saying doing a dissertation is fun or easy or even rewarding or interesting). There are parts of the process that might be all those things but by the end it’s just work.

I edited one dissertation for a super sharp woman from the deep south who said this about her advisor “ah don’t know what he was thinking, I mean, ah just could not follow what he was saying and he would change his mind and tell me one thing one week and another thing another week–I might could have gotten another advisor but thought in the end “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

A chemistry doctoral student had an advisor that wouldn’t let him finish. He’d approve something, say “we’re good to go” and then go another whole direction. It was never right, never enough. “I think the only reason he finally approved everything is that he was going on sabbatical and needed to get this off his plate.” I asked him why he didn’t change chairs and he said that just wasn’t done and that would have reflected badly on him.

Yet another doctoral candidate said her chair was so disorganized she (the candidate not the chair) started recording their dissertation sessions. “I wanted to have documentation in case it came to a head.”

How do you pick the right advisor? And work with the advisor once you’ve picked the right one? Here are some questions you could ask:

  1. How long did it take you to do your dissertation? (The woman who started recording the sessions with her chair found out it took her chair almost six years to finish her dissertation. That’d be a red flag for me!)
  2. What methodology did you use? Which methodologies are you familiar with? (I chose a positivistic case study for my dissertation and wanted to work with someone very familiar with that methodology. One woman told me her advisor had no idea how many people she had to interview for her particular methodology. Another person said she talked to one potential chair who said they didn’t know much about grounded theory but this would be a good way to find out more. Don’t think so.)
  3. How do you make changes in the dissertation? (This can be a great way to eliminate someone. I wouldn’t work with anyone who didn’t use track changes or insert comments electronically. One woman told me her chair used only handwritten notes and would only provide them in person. What?!)
  4. What are your expectations of doctoral candidates you work with? (This is kind of vague but you’ll get an idea of how they like to work with someone. It’s a pretty important and intense relationship so you want to make sure this is someone you can work with.)
  5. Are you familiar with my topic which is ______________? (Assuming you have some idea of your topic you should ask if your potential chair/advisor knows anything about the topic or has any interest in it?)

Next up: Ten things guaranteed to tick off your dissertation chair!


Dr. Kat

Fun, fast, experienced, reasonably priced dissertation editing, coaching, and therapy.

©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.