Kicking the ABD Habit
The dissertation is a unique project in all of academia. Even the most accomplished students find that they are often unprepared for the varied skills, rigorous organization, and massive scope of effort required to complete their dissertations. These factors, amongst others, conspire to prevent fully half of all doctoral students from ever earning their degree.
These students are known as ABD, or All But Dissertation. They hope to finish one day, but they never actually plan to do so. It becomes habit — Weeks give way to months, which often give way to years. Each day they wish their dissertation was done, but progress just doesn’t happen. Of course, tuition statements continue to arrive…often until the financial aid runs out, and the students is forced to abandon his hopes and face reality. He turn on the dissertation, and the dissertation won!
So, how can you guarantee that you beat the odds by graduating? How can you approach the entire dissertation process with confidence, effectiveness, and certainty? You have to have a plan!
When I work with doctoral students I also break the dissertation process up into a number of manageable steps. Each of these steps deserves its own write-up, but the descriptions below should give up a good idea of how to start to organize your efforts.
- Topic Selection & Refinement: First, you need to choose the topic for your research and ensure that there is sufficient academic basis in the literature for a dissertation. Every student begins with a vague area of interest. One of the most important steps int he dissertation process is distilling the key elements of this area of interest and developing effective, actionable research questions.
- Methodology Selection & Research Design: The selection of the research methodology and subsequent design form the foundation of the dissertation project. You must select the appropriate research methodology and design based on the previously developed research question(s). Your design may involve case studies, interviews, surveys, or other instruments. At this stage you should review your interview questions, survey items, hypotheses, or other instruments to ensure proper alignment with the research question, methodology, and design.
- Proposal-Defense Preparation: The tenor of the proposal defense varies from program to program and institution to institution. While many are affable conversations, some are adversarial inquisitions. Regardless, you can eliminate undue stress by knowing that they are thoroughly prepared. Understand the format and tone for proposal defenses in your department. Practice your defense presentation. If possible, review a list of questions that are often asked during proposal defenses.
- Data Collection: (As a brief aside, even though you haven’t started your research, yet, you are well over half-way done! This is especially true if you chose to conduct a quantitative study, as I recommend most of my coaching clients do.) Collecting data may involve interviewing several participants over a period of several weeks. Or, it could involve emailing instructions for completing an online survey and downloading the data file a few days later. Whatever design you chose, it is important to get to work as soon as you obtain approval from your IRB.
- Data Analysis: Data analysis also varies dramatically based on the research method, the research design, and the scope of the project. Ensure that your analytical protocol via telephone and ensure that it is in alignment with the research questions, design, and hypotheses. Whether you selected a quantitative or qualitative methodology, assistance is available to help with the heavy lifting. Don’t hesitate to avail yourself of any service your department will permit you to use. For example, I routinely handle statistical data analysis for clients who collect their data via online surveys.
- Results Interpretation: Qualitative themes or statistical results are of little value without context. Consider the significance of the results, extensibility of the results, and the conclusions that the results will support. Dissertations often end with the researcher suggesting areas for future research. Think about what additional questions you would answer if you had more time and money. These are the issues you should raise for your readers to pursue.
- Dissertation-Defense Preparation: The dissertation defense is the final real hurdle in the dissertation process. Although there is invariably some amount of subsequent pro forma work to be completed, many schools allow their students to officially refer to themselves as “Doctor” after passing their dissertation defense. Think about that — Dr. You! Congratulations on a job well done!
But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves! It’s a long way from the start of your dissertation to graduation. This outline gives you a very high-level outline of the dissertation process, and it’s a good place to start. However, I encourage all of my coaching client to develop much more detailed timelines for the completion of their dissertations. You should know whether you are on schedule each week.