Working Backwards and Dissertations

January 31st is Backwards Day. Celebrate today by thinking about your dissertation backwards…

I’m a big fan of Dr. Stephen Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 2 is “Begin with the end in mind.”

Before you ever even start your dissertation, you should consider carefully why you’re doing it in the first place. If you’re like most of the students I speak with, the answer is something like, “because I have to write a dissertation to graduate.” In fact, I haven’t talked with a single student of the thousands I’ve had occasion to meet who told me, “You know, Dr. Strickland, I just really want to write a dissertation.”

When I say it that way, I’m sure it seems as obvious as a ham sandwich. No, the problem is that you never even asked the question, at least not that way. You inherently knew that you have to complete a dissertation, so you just set about the task of trying to do so, without any self-relfection or strategy.

Your school most likely told you to start your dissertation project by immersing yourself in the literature and choosing a topic your passionate about.

But what does “choosing a topic you’re passionate about” mean for your dissertation?

  • It means that you’ll try to create the best study you can, geeking out on every twist, turn, and tangent you encounter.
  • It means that you’ll be compelled to defend your choices against your committee, instead of accepting their suggestions.
  • It means that you’ll be focused on the journey, not the destination.
  • It means that you’ll take much longer to finish your dissertation, and run a much higher risk of never finishing at all.

Does that sound like the best way to finish a task you’ve been assigned? Not to me!

Instead of choosing a topic you’re passionate about, pick a topic that holds only marginal interest for you but that you can tolerate. This way, you can remain professionally detached throughout the dissertation process, free to nimbly adjust your focus and scope in response to requests from your dissertation committee. This is how you move quickly!

But, my backwards approach to the dissertation journey doesn’t start with how you choose your topic. In a sense, it doesn’t even start with choosing a topic at all!

Remember that your goal is to graduate, to finish your dissertation as quickly as possible. So, if we think about beginning with the end in mind, again, what does the end of this process look like?

Essentially, the last real hurdle you’ll have to overcome is collecting and analyzing your data. Sure, you’ll also have to write up those results and win your final approvals, but, when you get there, those steps will be much easier than you could possibly imagine right now.

So, if you want to work backwards to ensure that you don’t get hung up on any roadblocks, getting crystal clear about how you will collect and analyze your data is the place to start.

Figuring out exactly what you can do, what assets you have available to you, and what approaches will be most efficient is the most difficult part of the entire dissertation for most students. It’s also the highest leverage decision you will make in the entire dissertation process.

Too many students skip this step entirely, instead trying to simply pick a topic, even though they have no idea whether they can feasibly complete a study on their chosen topic. They hope to find their way through to the end even though they don’t really know where they’re going.

But, hope is not a plan.

Make sure that you have a solid, detailed plan for completing your dissertation in mind before you ever start writing.

If you’re having trouble moving forward through the dissertation process and you think that working backwards might be the answer for you, click here to schedule a quick, 15-minute chat with me to see if you’re a good fit for our Fast Track Your Dissertation Coaching Program. If you are, then I’ll invite you to join the fastest group of dissertation students out there and help you to reach graduation a good year or two faster than you would on your own.

If you need extra support and guidance to make it to graduation, I may be able to help. If you'd like to find out whether you qualify for the support we offer throughout the dissertation process, then...

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.

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