Ten Keys to Writing a Bad Dissertation

Does anyone set out to write a bad dissertation? It hardly seems possible. Most of us probably begin our doctoral programs convinced that the ideas we put forth in our dissertations will change the face of our disciplines forever! But after years spent reading hundreds of doctoral dissertations–first as a grad student, then as a professor, and now as a professional dissertation editor and coach–I can’t help but observe: There are a lot of bad dissertations out there!


Really great dissertations are pretty rare. They require unique insight, groundbreaking research, rigorous logic, and a touch of artistry. So I’m not sure I could promise to tell you exactly how to make your dissertation great. But I’ve discovered that there are some common threads that run through most of the lousy dissertations I’ve read. So I thought I could share with you some of what I’ve learned by reading bad doctoral dissertations. That way, if you’d like to write a bad dissertation of your own, you’d know how to go about doing it. Or better yet, if you’d like to write a good dissertation of your own, you’d have some idea of common pitfalls.


Here are ten common mistakes you should avoid if you want your dissertation to be worthwhile.


1. Surround yourself with like-minded people.

We all like to be right. And what better way to convince yourself you’re right than by being surrounded by people who agree with you? When choosing a doctoral program, it’s natural to gravitate toward schools, departments, and faculty who share our views–conservative or liberal, this methodology or that one, a particular school of thought or perspective or approach. The good news is that, if you manage to surround yourself with people who think just like you do, you’ll encounter little resistance as you write. The bad news is that, when you’ve finished writing, your research will be much less likely to stand up to serious challenge, since you’ve not had to grapple with opposing points of view along the way. In short, serious challenge has a way of forging strong arguments, and the lack of it has a way of making thought go soft. Do yourself a favor: Seek out an environment that will provide challenge while you’re writing, and you’ll find that your dissertation is far better prepared for the challenges it will face when UMI makes it available to the whole world that exists beyond your university.


2. Choose a topic that is only of interest to you.

It’s a common joke that “No one knows as much as a freshman.” In other words, part of the process of learning is learning how much we still need to learn! When we set out to write our dissertations, we’re like freshmen starting out in school–we don’t yet know how much we don’t know, because we’ve not yet had the chance to explore fully what others have done. At this early stage of the dissertation project, it’s possible to convince ourselves that a topic is fascinating when, in fact, that topic has become passe because of the treatment it has already received; it’s also possible to get occupied with questions that are divorced from the real concerns in the field at present. Two of the best sources for ensuring that your dissertation topic is relevant and worthwhile are recent dissertations and current periodicals. Immerse yourself in these resources at the beginning of your project. Even if you just read the titles, you’ll be more likely to situate your work in the context of what other scholars are doing right now.


3. Keep the scope of your study broad and the terms vague.

Doctoral-level work requires examination of a topic at great depth. And in this kind of research, the number one enemy of depth is breadth. An essential key to writing a good dissertation is to have a clear and precise focus for your work. Other interesting ideas will emerge along the way; resist them–for now. When you’ve finished your dissertation, you can return to those other ideas for the articles and books you’ll write in the next stage of your career.


4. Don’t constrain your creativity with an outline.

For years, teachers have been telling you to outline your papers before you write. And for years you’ve probably been ignoring them. But here you are, starting your doctorate–obviously, it was advice you didn’t need! Dissertation writing is different. You’re going to write hundreds of pages over a period that may take years; it will be easy to get lost along the way, especially as your ideas evolve. Planning ahead is the only way to ensure that your dissertation will be focused, well-structured, and clearly argued; it’s also the only way to ensure that it will ever end! A careful, detailed outline is indispensable. You may amend it as you progress with your research, but don’t omit it or abandon it. As a dissertation writer, the outline is your yellow brick road!


5. Confine your bibliography to sources that support your point of view.

Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of a dissertation is not to prove a pre-determined point; it is to study a worthwhile question. After all, if the answer can be determined before the research is even done, then what’s the value of the work? In the end, a dissertation that disproves your initial hypothesis is just as valuable to the academic community as one that proves you right. What is not valuable at all is a dissertation that’s half-baked because it has only considered some of the available evidence, arguments, and points of view. Don’t stack the deck in your favor; read everything relevant to your topic, from every point of view. In the process, your ideas will mature. The end result will be a dissertation that has far greater depth–and credibility.


6. Presume that if it’s not in English or on the Internet, it mustn’t be important.

Believe it or not, there’s a reason for those language requirements that doctoral programs impose on us. It’s not just that smart people speak more than one language! The point is to open the door to valuable literature that is available–but not in English. Relying on English alone means that some literature (and ideas) will be completely unavailable to you, and other literature will be available only through the interpretation of a translator. It really is worth the effort to learn to read the languages in which your most important sources are written. Without them, your research is incomplete.


And read books . . . and articles! As lucky as we are to have access to so many sources available on the Internet, we can’t forget that there’s something print sources have that entirely Web-based sources do not: gatekeepers. For a book or an article to appear in print, someone (typically a group of scholars in the field) has determined that it was worthwhile. They may not necessarily have agreed with its point of view, but they found that it met the standards of sound methodology, rational argumentation, and timeliness. On the Internet, anyone may publish anything at any time–making the quality of Web sources dangerously uneven. Internet research is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. But there’s no substitute for books and articles written by reputable scholars in your field. Be sure that Web-based sources do not constitute the bulk of your bibliography, or you could find that you’ve left the mainstream without even realizing it and stepped away from some of the most important resources available to you.


7. Let your assertions stand by force, not by proof.

Spend enough hours listening to cable news and you may start to get the impression that the goal of debate is to win, and the way to win is to outshout the other side! Being a geek by nature, I sometimes like to play little academic games when I watch T.V., and one of them is “count the fallacies” in the arguments that T.V. pundits make: ad hominem arguments, red herrings, non-sequiturs–they sometimes make for entertaining T.V., but they never result in a solid argument. If your dissertation is going to withstand serious critique and make a contribution to your field, every assertion must be justified and every argument must be fallacy-free.


8. Turn in your first draft.

The revision process is about polishing your work. Weak arguments get strengthened, fuzzy ideas get clarified, redundancies get eliminated, language gets tightened. If you’re like most doctorandi, you’re always rushing toward the next deadline. When running out of time, the easiest thing to cut out is the revision process. Resist that temptation.


9. Don’t bother with input from others.

You’ve probably had only a course or two in statistics; why not let a professional statistician help you with the statistical portions of your work? You may not be confident of your APA formatting (or whatever style sheet you’re using); why not let a professional editor proof your text? What about just having someone in your department give you feedback on the cogency of your arguments? There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes to catch the things that you’re too close to see anymore. Staying well within the bounds of academic integrity, don’t be afraid to reach out for help with the aspects of your work in which you’re not an expert, so that the expertise you do have is presented as effectively as it can be.


10. Prove your point at all cost.

What’s wrong with being wrong? The process of determining that fact will be a valuable contribution to your field. Academic work is a process of discovery, and sometimes that means discovering that our initial hypotheses were wrong. The honest presentation of the sound methodology leading you to that conclusion will be worthwhile reading for your colleagues. Any effort to get around the facts will show bias–the single greatest threat to a worthwhile dissertation. In academia, there’s no failure where there’s genuine learning. By contrast, there’s nothing but failure when points are “proven” by doctored results, ignored evidence, faked methodologies supplied after the research has actually been done, and forced arguments designed to cover up the truth and arrive at a preferred conclusion. You can start your project with this confidence: If you carry out your research with integrity, follow a solid methodology, consider all relevant points of view, and report honestly what you find, then whatever conclusion you reach will be worthwhile. And if you don’t, it won’t.


Wishing you success in your research and writing,

Albert L., Ph.D.

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