Wednesday, February 08, 2012

dissertation summary

Today I have decided to pick apart the chapters of a dissertation (at least, mine) so you readers can get a view of how it all comes together. I hope it's helpful!

First I do have an update. When we left off, I was starting to crush myself under the stress of looming deadlines, as is my style. Healthy right? And then I received the changes to the particularly painful lit review chapter. After putting on the finishing touches and reading the chapter through to catch any weirdness that tends to occur when you chop up 85 pages of writing and re-order it, I sent the chapter to my advisor on Monday morning.


So here is what happens now, as I understand it.

  1. He will read the chapter and probably catch a few things I didn't catch, or make some suggestions based on the comments I wrote for him.

  2. I will make those changes/take those suggestions in to consideration.

  3. I will receive (hopefully) the OK from him to rework the other chapters so they incorporate suggestions the committee offered, and also flow nicely with the 'new' chapter.

  4. He will check over my changes to those chapters, probably offering suggestions and catching things I didn't catch, again.

  5. I will fix those.

  6. He will read the entire thing front to back, possibly making more suggestions, which I will consider/repair/work in.

  7. To the committee it goes! (Again, heh.)

I think I've just described the rest of February. Ideally, this will be back to the committee the first week of March. Let's hope! (That'd be about 6 weeks prior to the preliminary approval deadline). A decent (but still not super) cushion, much more palatable than the 12 days they were given in the fall.

Now... to describe where I'm at, progress-wise. I wonder if reading the list above, people might think: "So you finished working on one chapter. There's... 4 more to go?! And one chapter took a week plus two weekends, plus months of re-organizational work with the advisor? GOOD LUCK with that deadline."

Thankfully that isn't the case. The chapter in question is Chapter 2: Literature Review. My fellow grad students may understand what that means, but for those who don't, here is a brief summary. The literature review is a very detailed tour of the research and knowledge about the topic area. It must be well-researched, and provide detailed background information, historical stuff, right up to the present/modern interpretation (if that's your study/program's angle). It must also tell somewhat of a story that leads the reader in to your logical reasons for doing your study, and it must show that there is a gap in the current research on the topic (this is a gap you intend to fill with your study). The length and detail varies depending on the program (and even the advisor I bet), but in my program this is a very detailed, in depth chapter that must start with information and finish with justification, with a logical flow of how you got from A to B. Does that make sense? Here is a real-life example from my own work.

My study is about the technology beliefs and fluencies of college students who are studying to become teachers. So chapter 2 needs to explain to the committee (and whomever else reads it) why this is an important study. So my chapter starts by describing the history of technology in the united states, moving in to how it is used today in business and personal lives, and also how technology used to be, is now, and should be used in schools. It moves in to the research that has already been done on these topics. It discusses those for a while, through the use of examples (we call these "empirical studies": it's research where someone actually studied and reported something--didn't just tell us about it) and sourcing experts' published articles and books on the subjects. New terms are introduced, and then used throughout (they are not used prior to their introduction and discussion of what they are and why they matter). Eventually, the chapter rolls in to a summary type of thing, several pages long, where the aforementioned terms, studies, topics and concerns are synthesized in to a reason why my study is important, and finally, what my study is.

That's chapter 2. Mine is (I just checked) 89 pages long right now, and that's with no figures or pictures. There are a lot of headings and subheadings (4 levels deep). They take up 6 pages of the table of contents for the dissertation! The references/bibliography section (which is probably 95% made up of sources used in this chapter) is 26 pages long, with an average of two lines being taken up for each source. The 6 pages and the 26 pages are not part of the 89 pages. If chapter two were to stand on its own, with its references, it would thusly be 115 actual pages long. 121, if you included a table of contents!

Now imagine if you will, you have written a paper like this through the course of many sleepless nights and hermit-like weekends...and you are asked to revise and re-organize it so it will flow differently. (The goal being: you are changing your logical reasons for doing the study; the preceding info must reflect that.) You need to do a lot of outlining, cutting, pasting, and re-writing. The re-writing comes in to play not only for the transitioning from section to section (since section A did not previously belong above section B, so they are disconnected!), but also for the emphasis. Some things you want to emphasize, aren't emphasized enough, so you have to rework and supplement your other sections to emphasize the right things. The goal is that the reader will read it and think "oh, this is an important issue, and these other issues support that idea." And additionally, remember how I mentioned that you have to define and build on your terminology throughout the paper--not using terms until you have introduced and familiarized the reader with them? Think about doing that, with 90 pages, and the having to essentially 'turn the paper upside down.' Suddenly none of the terms you used in a section that used to be at the end, can be used since you've moved that section to the beginning. FUN FOR YOU!

That is what I've been doing over the last week-plus-two-weekends.

I have a total of 5 chapters, but chapter 2 drives all of the others as so.
  • Chapter 1 is the introduction. A summary of the rest of the chapters, introducing the problem and foreshadowing what is to come in Ch. 2 and beyond. Mine is currently 8 pages long, and will probably remain close to that length when I rewrite it.

  • Chapter 2, we just talked about. 89 pages, give or take a few by the time it's final. The end of chapter 2 also has the research questions -- these are questions I decided were important to explore, after doing all that research for the chapter.

  • Chapter 3 is methodology, so it talks in great detail about how the study will be done (quantitatively--with stats) or qualitatively (with interviews/people's thoughts). Mine does both. It also justifies "why" you're doing the study using the methods you chose--how do these methods answer those research questions? Mine is 16 pages. It will grow a bit.

  • At this point I just want to note that in many PhD programs, the above three chapters must be complete before the dissertation proposal is even accepted by your committee. I only needed summaries of mine; my proposal was about 40 pages long total, I believe. I later used it as a starting point to build my dissertation.

  • Chapter 4 is the results. It is not what I think of the results, it's the results, and an objective indication of how this result answers the research question. (Did I reject the null hypothesis based on this finding?) Lots of charts in this chapter makes it longish, page-wise. Mine is 40 pages right now.

  • Chapter 5 is discussion. THIS is what I think of the results (in my "educated" opinion). I tie the results back what was researched in Chapter 2 and my research questions. Did this study help find anything new in terms of the research? What are the implications? I also talk about stuff like limitations in my study and what others could do in the future to improve this research. Mine is 42 pages. The END.

  • Well, not really the end. There are still appendices and references, those take up 50 more pages after the end of the last chapter. There are also about 25 pages before the first chapter starts, by the way. These include table of contents, the abstract, the signature pages, dedications, and all that biz.

Stack it all together and it's... 270 far. (Remember last year, when I was so sure I was almost done? ("It's already almost 90 pages!" hah!)

Hopefully with that list, you can see why Ch 2 takes so long. It's over twice as long as the next longest chapter! And it's very research intensive. The rest should be easy and breezy (in relation to chapter 2). I'll be chipping away at that very soon!