Theses and dissertations allow a degree candidate to demonstrate their ability to perform research about existing scholarship in their field (also known as a literature review). In addition, dissertations (and some theses) require original research and analysis which ultimately adds new knowledge to the candidate’s academic discipline. In that sense, such a research project represents a scholar's initiation into their field, and is often parlayed into the publication of at least one article in a scholarly journal.
This brief introduction to the overall process (not meant to be comprehensive) will emphasize how the Wahlstrom Library can support you during your project.
Needless to say, a thesis or dissertation is a lengthy, involved project (dissertations take 2 years, on average) for which advanced planning is necessary to ensure success. Below are a few suggestions of elements that require planning in order to avoid last-minute stress or unwelcome surprises. As always, consult your program's specific thesis / dissertation guidelines, rules and timelines when planning.
Before you even start:
- Get assigned an advisor
- Get assigned (or pick, if applicable) your dissertation committee
- Get your topic approved - this may require a literature review and then in the case of a dissertation, a short topic proposal defense
- Create your data management plan
- Pick your citation management solution - the Wahlstrom library supports the following free software/applications: Zotero, Endnote basic, and Mendeley
As you start:
- Obtain a volunteer editor or hire an editing service (especially important if English is your second language)
- Make your family / friends / co-workers aware of the scope and importance of this project to ensure their help or cooperation
- Depending on the type of research you are doing, arrange for IRB approval / training / access to any scarce departmental resources or mentoring that you will need
As you are in the middle of the process:
- Ensure that the dissertation committee regularly receives drafts and returns feedback so that they can check your progress throughout - you don't want to find out at the last minute (such as at the Defense) that a committee member is unpleasantly surprised or dissatisfied with your final output
As you are finishing:
- Schedule your dissertation Defense, including arranging for the venue, final drafts for the committee members to read before the event, copies of the abstract for any guests, refreshments if desired, etc.
- Ensure that you will archive your final draft in the necessary manner(s) - find out any associated cost(s) ahead of time
- If you intend to publish about your research in an academic journal, it is recommended you do this within 2 years (or the odds are that you'll never get around to doing it)
There are several factors to take into account when choosing a thesis or dissertation topic. The topic must of course be personally interesting to you, but it must also be within your capabilities, as well as (in the case of a research thesis or a dissertation) something which can be researched - not all topics are, or at least not within the time granted to you by your program.
If you aren't certain of the viability of a topic you are interested in, doing the literature review will help give you an idea of whether research into your topic will be of value to your field. If you feel certain the topic is valid, your advisor will then help you decide whether the scope of your project will allow you to complete it in a timely manner.
If it's decided that your topic as initially conceived is a bit too ambitious, you can always modify it to be doable within a shorter time frame and then expand upon that research a bit later in your career.
Whether you are writing a thesis or dissertation, the literature review is where you will become familiar with what is already known about your topic, including the scholarship by noted researchers in the field. (Please also see the Literature Reviews page for additional information about literature reviews).
Your literature review will inevitably be selective; it will not and can not include everything you came across during your search. It also should not be a mere listing or acknowledgement of the seminal articles and studies in your topic's field; it should support your thesis's thesis statement, or in the case of a research thesis or a dissertation, should support your choice of research topic, helping you to explain why your proposed new research is needed and timely.
If your department requires you to submit and defend a dissertation proposal, this review will of course need to be completed before you even start the main project.
If you want some tips on how to most efficiently find the most relevant articles supporting your proposed project, this is a great time to contact a librarian and schedule a research consult. We can help you pick relevant search terms, navigate the most useful article databases, figure out what other important online sources of information (such as grey literature) to check, and can offer tips on the quickest ways to get access to any needed resources that UB doesn't own.
There is no rule regarding how much original research needs to be carried out in order to successfully complete a research thesis or a dissertation. Inevitably, however, there will come a time to stop researching and start analyzing and writing up your results. If you get stuck in that area, your advisor(s) can help you figure out when to stop collecting data and start writing.
Remember that this research you will do represents just the start of your career - it doesn't have to (and won't be) a perfect piece of work.
Don't forget to archive your data according to the guidelines of your data management plan.
Parts of a Thesis / Dissertation
Theses and dissertations will contain most or all of the following elements:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Body of the text
- Appendices (If necessary)
- Tables and Figures (If necessary)
Many people find that creating an outline before actually starting to write to be a crucial step. Doing so will help give you a sense of what your ultimate narrative will be, which also may now differ from what you had originally intended to write. An outline will show you the logical progression of your ideas.
Follow your school / department's guidelines for thesis / dissertation styles. You will want to obtain a copy of the relevant style guide, as you will likely be consulting it often.
At this point in your academic career, you should have the ability to write clear, economical prose. If you do not, if, for example, English is not your first language, then obtaining the services of a good editor may be necessary.
A good recommendation is to write the first draft, going all the way through to the end without stopping to make any modifications. Once you have that first version, you can go through it all and better judge what needs to be changed / deleted / added. This is a good time to ensure that your writing effectively transitions the reader from one idea / point to the next. It's the third draft (and any subsequent versions) where you can refine your prose further. Ensure that your thesis/dissertation advisor / the committee sees your work as you go along at the appropriate times (according to your school/department's official thesis/dissertation guidelines).
Adding In-Text Citations and Your Bibliography
If you have organized your sources and citations using a desktop or web-based citation manager, you should be able to insert in-text citations and generate/update your bibliography as you write.
Backing Up Your Project
It is a good general habit to back up your thesis/dissertation on a regular basis. It will be up to you to decide how frequently you do so - that might be monthly, weekly, or even daily, depending upon your own personal level of risk-tolerance. A good practice for backing up important documents is to have at least three copies: One copy on your computer, one online in the cloud, and one on some sort of portable hard drive (this can be a flash drive). Some people even print and store a paper copy of various drafts as they go along.
If you are using a good citation manager, your citation data and cited documents should also be backed up on the web (but double-check to see that this is indeed happening when you are periodically backing up your document - occasional computer technical or software glitches have been known to prevent this synching of your cloud-stored citations with the most current list on your computer).
A dissertation's oral Defense is the part of the process that most students just starting their research may find the most intimidating. However, keep in mind that by the time you have completed your research and have written it up, you will be the expert in your specific topic. Also remember that while your advisors will examine you during the Defense, as they want to see that you have the confidence to answer questions about and extrapolate upon the likely ramifications of your research, they all do want you to succeed.
The best way to smooth the way for a Defense where there are few to no unwelcome surprises is to make sure the committee members have been kept updated on your progress all along by sending drafts and making sure you get feedback from all the members so that you know that they are aware of your progress.
Prepare any needed visual aids such as slides, etc., for the day of the Defense, as you will want to offer a brief synopsis of your project at the beginning of the presentation, but don't be tempted to try to fill up the entire time given with this background information - the committee will be waiting for the question period, and will have their due one way or another.
If you are uncertain about your ability to gracefully answer unexpected or difficult questions, ask a couple of friends to read your dissertation draft and then ask you what he or she sees as the inevitable questions. However, having done the research and analyzed it, you will likely already know of any areas of weakness that are likely to be questioned. Again, no research project will be perfect - but you can always address these issues up front during your synopsis if you like. If you get a truly unanswerable question, sometimes it's perfectly fine to just acknowledge it but to say that more research would be needed in order to obtain an answer.
After your defense, after you are sent out to wait and the committee has deliberated, you will be called back in. Congratulations! Odds are you will be told you have successfully defended your dissertation and have earned your doctorate degree. Even so, don't be surprised if the committee requests some minor changes to your dissertation. Make these in a timely fashion, before supplying any needed final copies for archiving purposes as per your department's guidelines - be aware that in some departments, the degree isn't actually granted until you have correctly archived these copies.
How your thesis or dissertation needs to be archived will depend on your program's guidelines. Most programs at UB require you to send your completed document to the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database, as well as to supply one or more printed and hard-bound copies to the department.
It is also highly recommended that you submit a digital copy of your completed project to UB's institutional repository, UB ScholarWorks - doing so will allow your fellow students to see your work, which will help those in your program who are just starting to work on their own theses and dissertations and want to see an example of the quality of work that will be expected of them. You can see examples of our currently archived theses and dissertations by school:
Davis, G. B., & Parker, C. A. (1997). Writing the doctoral dissertation: A systematic approach. Barron's Educational Series.
Fitzpatrick, J., Wright, D. J., & Secrist, J. (1998). Secrets for a successful dissertation. Sage.
Madsen, D. (1992). Successful dissertations and theses: A guide to graduate student research from proposal to completion. Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.
Rudestam, K. E., & Newton, R. R. (2001). Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. Sage Publications.