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Teaching Adolesence

5 Lessons Learned from Early in the Dissertation Process

Your dissertation is the culmination of years of doctoral work. Here’s what I’ve learned (so far) about how to approach this daunting task.

I am currently in my fourth year of doctoral studies in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s clinical psychology program (though my work intersects with developmental and community psychology). I am in the midst of data collection for my dissertation, which is a mixed-methods, longitudinal investigation of first-generation (“first gen”) college students’ transition into their first year of college, and the role of social support and mentoring relationships in promoting success. I thought it would be useful, for myself and hopefully others, to take stock of what I have learned about the process so far. Here are five lessons learned (experientially, and from a lot of advice from others), focusing on proposal through the defense stages.

  1. Follow a cohesive research program. Ideally, your dissertation should logically follow the program of research you have established in graduate school. This does not mean you need to know what you want to do right when you start, but you should try to think about it, even during your first year. This can inform the topics of your master’s thesis, qualifying exam, practical placements (if applicable), and side projects. Not everything has to fit together perfectly, but the idea is to articulate a cohesive narrative by the time you are on the job market. In my experience, this also helped me approach the daunting task of reviewing the literature for my dissertation proposal. Because I pursued a topic I had been reading and writing about for several years, I felt like I had a head start.
  2. Balance ambition and feasibility. The importance of pursuing a cohesive program of research does not mean that some aspects of your dissertation should not be new or unfamiliar. It is a great opportunity challenge yourself by pursuing your core research questions using new data collection methods, statistical analyses, or populations. Still, it is about balancing ambition and feasibility. You do not have to change the world; you need to design a high-quality, thoughtful study that makes a unique contribution to the field. And, most importantly, you need to finish. For example, I started out wanting to collect survey data from a large, national sample of first gen students, but realized I could do a deeper dive by focusing on students at my university. This has allowed me to conduct in-person, qualitative interviews and obtain more objective academic data through records (with participants’ consent). And of course, focusing on a local sample was cheaper and simpler, logistically.
  3. Choose your committee wisely. If your dissertation proposal is on the ambitious side of that continuum, think about who can add value as committee members. It is certainly tempting to select committee members based solely on how friendly and easy-going they are. I will admit that this was a consideration for me, but I also wanted committee members who would hold me accountable to high-quality science, and who could enhance the quality of my project through specialized knowledge of the topic area, data collection methods, and proposed analyses. Your committee members are your most important resources during your dissertation process, and they may later serve as professional references and connect you to others in your field.
  4. Plan ahead, and establish a careful, structured timeline for the proposal process, particularly if you will have limited data collection windows. This was particularly salient for me, because I wanted to do a wave of data collection at the beginning of first gen students’ first semester to get a baseline (and am following up with participants at the end of their second semester). So, if I missed my first window for baseline data collection, I would have had to wait another year to start my project. Therefore, I had to start the proposal process very early, and I worked with my committee closely to establish a structured timeline of revisions and feedback. I also had to build in time for IRB review, feedback, and revisions after having the initial methods approved by my committee. If you do not have as constrained a data collection window, adhering to a structured timeline is slightly less critical, but still helpful!
  5. Expect the unexpected during the defense. From what I have gathered, the defense process can vary across programs and committees. Some committees will not let you defend until they are reasonably sure you will pass. For others, that is not the case, making the process a bit more stressful and uncertain. What surprised me most about the process was that my committee had fairly substantial questions for me to address that had not come up in the several rounds of review of the written proposal. There is something about having it laid in front of them, orally, that brought up new concerns. My advice here is to expect it, roll with it, avoid “defensiveness” (ironically), and be open to making changes, even at this later stage. Generally, your committee members are just ensuring that your project is sound and that you will be successful.

That is all I have for now! Admittedly, my data for this advice are anecdotal, but I hope other students will find it helpful. I will optimistically promise a “part 2” at some point next year, when I (hopefully) will have moved further along in the process.

Image by denisismagilov/AdobeStock

Matthew Hagler is currently studying clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston with Dr. Jean Rhodes. His research focuses on adult-youth relationships and youth mentoring interventions.


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