This past Monday, May 12, 2014, I successfully defended my dissertation proposal. Here at LSU doctoral students go through several different processes en route to the Ph.D., the proposal defense being one of the most critical, important, and empowering experiences. Your proposal consists of the first 3 chapters of your dissertation (in my case 5 chapters; more on this later) and is an opportunity for you to: 1) articulate the problem or issue you are researching in your dissertation; 2) outline your research methodology, process, and proposed analysis; and 3) answer questions from community members and your dissertation committee regarding your dissertation research agenda. Once you pass your proposal, you are cleared to continue and finalize your study. In other words, the proposal defense is the final hurdle a doctoral candidate must complete prior to actually conducting their dissertation study and completing the dissertation.
Since I have recently completed this process, I wanted to share some tips with fellow Ph.D. students who are thinking about their dissertation proposal. Of course, each person’s process will be different. However, I think reflecting and sharing some of my own tips may help those of you out there beginning this process.
Your dissertation should advance our knowledge in a significant way. Therefore, be bold in your research questions, your potential methodology and analysis, and your study. My dissertation focuses on college student use of digital social media and identity issues. I am being bold in several ways. First, I am challenging the dominant narrative in college student identity research regarding ‘development.’ I believe digital spaces make linear conceptions of identity, that have largely dominated our discourse, obsolete. Therefore, I draw on complexity theory to make an argument that researchers, educators, and practitioners should focus on college student identity emergence in the 21st century.
I’m also being bold in my research ‘methodology,’ and my ‘analysis.’ I’m conducting a digital immersion study. I seek to understand not just how students utilize social media in identity work, but how this works across distributed digital spaces. I am utilizing a variety of new and emerging digital research techniques: online interviewing and video interviewing, as well as digital immersion. In terms of analysis, I’m drawing on concepts from post-qualitative researchers, challenging what it means to do analysis, challenging representationalism, and challenging the very notions of individual identity.
To me, these are bold steps. However, I am learning more in this process about what it means to conduct research, how to think through the research process, and how to push the boundaries of ontology and epistemology in educational research.
You will likely hear this from many faculty members. You must be focused on your research agenda. It actually takes a lot of time to think through your ideas. Contemplating theory, selecting the best methodological and analytical processes for your research questions, and writing take a lot of time and energy. I have been working on my proposal for almost 9 months, but the time was critical to producing a proposal that adequately speaks to me as a researcher and advances our understanding of what I consider to be an important topic for researchers, educators, and practitioners in higher education.
Write to Discover
You may begin your proposal thinking you know exactly what it is you want to research, or with a very clear set of research questions. For me, I knew I wanted to research digital social media, and I started this academic year with a clear set of questions. I remember my Dissertation Chair telling me in September: “Paul, these are not actually your questions.” He was right. As I wrote my literature review, as I wrestled with methodology and analysis, and as I brought different theoretical and philosophical traditions into conversation with one another, my original research questions completely shifted.
The only way I came to understand my dissertation proposal was by writing. Writing more. Re-reading. Discussing my thoughts with my committee members and Dissertation Chair.
Write down your thoughts. Do not be afraid to type out ideas, connect different literature and research together, or think through really complicated issues. Even if you do not use everything you write, you will have explored all the possibilities and thought through all the potential issues up front. This will increase your confidence and knowledge of your topic and research agenda.
Do the work
One of my favorite people to watch on TV is Iyanla Vanzant. On her show and in her writing she constantly is telling people to “Do the work.” Though she is talking about personal psychological work, I think it is appropriate to co-opt this statement as part of the dissertation writing process.
When I say Do the work I mean hunker down and get it done. I mean do it right the first time. Don’t see the dissertation proposal as only a checkbox. I viewed the proposal almost as if I was writing the final dissertation. Therefore, I sought to fill in all the gaps that might possibly be asked by my committee. I sought to write in such a way that there would be minimal work that I needed to do after the proposal to fill in the gaps in my literature review, or my methodology, or my analysis section of the proposal.
This paid off. Yes, it took extra time to read and write about as many issues as possible. However, I now feel that extra time on the front end will pay off on the back end. I do not need to spend extraordinary amounts of time working on filling in the gaps. I can focus solely on conducting the research and writing the final chapters of the dissertation. This is important because that is just as time consuming and important as the proposal. I want to write quality in the final chapters – and I can now focus on doing that.
Meet with your chair weekly
The single greatest thing I did was set up a weekly meeting with my dissertation chair. This helped me to stay focused on writing. I felt that I needed to come to each meeting with new ideas or sections of chapters written. I incorporated his feedback into the proposal, or addressed his concerns. For me, knowing I would sit down with my chair each week helped me stay on track and accountable, and it ultimately helped me finish the proposal in a timely manner.
The additional bonus was that by proposal defense day my chair knew as much as I did about my topic. This helped my chair feel confident in addressing issues with my study to other committee members and also support me since he knew my research agenda was solid.
Take Notes of the Process
I keep copious notes on the process, especially during meetings with my chair. This has helped me to be reflective of the process, but also ensures I am addressing all the issues I need to deal with to complete my dissertation.
See yourself as a researcher
I have been very intentional about seeing myself as a researcher, not as a student. It may seem like a minor psychological task, but we are what we think we are. If you are writing a dissertation you are a researcher. You are part of a community of scholars. You should see yourself as such. Mentally picture yourself as a researcher, as an expert on your topic of inquiry, because you really are. If you “do the work,” as I stated above, nobody in the room at your proposal will know as much about your topic as you do. Nobody will have thought through all the issues as much as you.
Seeing yourself as a researcher rather than as a student increases your self-efficacy, self-confidence, and drive. It has given me more passion for my subject because I do not view it simply as a hurdle I must jump through to get a degree, but rather as a vital part of my long-term research agenda and my research interests.
Surround yourself with support
Some people have a writing group. Certainly I had a writing group fall semester when I was beginning this process. It was helpful. I think it is equally important to surround yourself with other people who understand what the process of writing a dissertation is all about. For me, this meant that I was intentional about connecting with other people I knew who were writing a proposal or who were serious scholars. In addition, it meant I forged some strong relationships with even more advanced doctoral candidates: people who were almost done with the process. These folks were invaluable – they gave me perspective, motivated me when I was feeling discouraged or confused, and helped me think forward to the next steps post-proposal. It was also motivating to see these individuals finish their dissertations – it helps you to see the process can and will come to conclusion.
I found writing the proposal to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I feel passionately committed to my topic and the decisions I have made as a researcher for this particular research project. I also know that I still have much to learn – but I am prepared to conduct this study and see what emerges. I hope some of my advice is helpful to those who are beginning or are immersed in this process.
What advice do you have for other Ph.D. candidates in writing the dissertation? Share in the comments section below.