Back to Dissertation Basics

Your doctoral dissertation, the pinnacle of your student career, is probably the most rigorous academic task you’ll ever face. It challenges all graduate students, even top-grade, well-published ones, because it calls on skills far exceeding those required by course papers or even journal articles.

The Three R’s

Many doctoral students are well trained in research skills–that’s what they learn in their programs–but many don’t really understand how do dissertation tasks such as “read analytically and synthetically,” or “write discursively.” The students hear these phrases so often they think they know what they mean. They begin the dissertation with enthusiasm, unaware they’re only rudimentarily equipped with the “basic” skills of reading, `riting, and ruminating.

When students work on the dissertation with undeveloped “basic” skills they encounter one problem after another. They can’t find viable topics. They can’t organize their literature reviews. They get writer’s block. They can’t get their drafts approved. Eventually all too many students erroneously conclude they aren’t capable of doing a dissertation and drop out. Of the fifty percent of doctoral students who don’t graduate, many just need training in “basic” dissertation skills.

Not-So-Basic Skills

In truth, dissertation “basics” are anything but basic. Reading isn’t simply identifying and interpreting words and sentences–it’s analyzing, criticizing, and deriving implications from the literature. Writing isn’t just composing well-formed paragraphs–it’s clarifying and constructing concepts and synthesizing themes that justify your study. And thinking is more than remembering and relating ideas–it’s abstracting patterns and generating original insights. Only by knowing how to read, write, and ruminate at these levels can you “discursively write” a dissertation that “analyzes and synthesizes” the literature and “argues persuasively for your study.”

It’s not surprising if you don’t have these skills fully developed when you start your dissertation, but you should have them when you finish. The dissertation is a learning task to teach you the highest scholarly skills.

Skills of the Scholar

A doctoral degree implies that you can read, write, and think like a scholar. It’s essential you perfect these skill levels because you’ll be expected to use them in your academic career or profession when you have your doctorate. Publishers want articles and books that suggest syntheses, themes, causal sequences, patterns, and propositions that people haven’t seen before. Employers expect doctorates to problem-solve by analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information with “clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness to reach conclusions” (Paul 1994). A dissertation presents the ideal opportunity for you to master these scholarly skills.

In this issue, defying the umbrage of our more advanced readers, we focus on dissertation basics–what they are and how to perfect them. Athletes constantly practice basic skills–improving their backhand, their golf swing, their free throw. The same kind of practice perfects mental prowess. Condition your basic skills so you’re free to focus on the research game. That’s when the fun begins.


Back to Dissertation Basics was extracted from Dissertation News No. 5-1994,
published October, 1994. Other articles appearing in this issue included:

  • How to Read the Literature
  • The Art of Critiquing Empirical Articles
  • Modernizing Academic Styles
  • Writing Readable Sentences
  • Tips for Writing a Literature Review
  • The Dissertation as Essay
  • What’s Wrong With Literature Reviews?