My definitions of “myths” and “truths” are based on three types of experience: (a) consulting with thousands of dissertation students during the past 35+ years; (b) teaching graduate school statistics and research methods courses for the past 20+ years; and (c) my training / experience leading up to becoming a Professional Certified Coach (PCC).
Myth #1: Your dissertation must be brilliant, truly impress the committee and be published in a prestigious research journal.
Truth #1: The dissertation must only be good enough to be accepted so you can graduate. Any additional effort to improve it beyond that bare minimum must be carefully considered against all other competing life responsibilities such as family, tuition payments, career and health. More dissertation quality is not necessarily better!
Myth #2: You have never done anything like this before.
Truth #2 A dissertation can be described as “a very fancy term paper that includes some original data.” Most graduate students have successfully written dozens of term papers since high school. Therefore, most know much more about what it takes to get the project done than they realize. Some have found it helpful to refer to their project as “my fancy term paper” to remind them of all their prior writing experience.
Myth #3: You must do all the work yourself.
Truth #3: It is often helpful (based on university policy) to delegate portions of the project to others to utilize their expertise and to speed up the time to completion. This could include portions of the typing, gathering the data, the statistical analyses, transcription, qualitative coding, etc. Some projects are done in student teams or people hire professionals to help. If you look at your professor’s projects, seldom do they work alone and often their grants include money for consultants and research assistants. Other people find it helpful to delegate or hire someone to handle other life tasks such as childcare, routine paperwork, gardening, tax preparation, shopping or other errands to free up more time to work on their project. If you think about it, one term of tuition pays for a lot of babysitting! Unfortunately, some people think that they are “saving money” when they do it all themselves. Often, they really end up paying more money in the form of extra tuition, lost future income or “professional inertia” because their project drags on for extra months or years.
Myth #4: All my committee members and university reviewers carefully read and remember every word that I send to them plus any of the related discussions.
Truth #4: Except for the committee chairperson, most actually don’t read every word and some chairs don’t either! Often the candidate is one of ten or more students that the chair is working with simultaneously. If possible, a good strategy is to send the first few drafts of each chapter to your committee in bullet-point outline form for their feedback. Most committee members will read and provide detailed feedback if given three pages of bullet-points. In contrast, many reviewers won’t carefully read a 30-page chapter and give thoughtful feedback. In addition, a few drafts in bullet-point form increases their comfort level with your project so they tend to ask fewer surprise questions at Final Orals.
Myth #5: Every draft to my committee members and university reviewers must be flawless.
Truth #5: Not true! One of the key differences between a term paper and a dissertation is that with a term paper you only get one submission to get your grade. It’s different with a dissertation because it’s created in multiple drafts (sometimes 10+ drafts!). Many students slow down their project unnecessarily by spending too much time polishing their initial rough drafts. Also, with a dissertation, the process is collaborative with your committee / reviewers, so you need to be okay with the iterative process of innovation while everyone’s ideas are incorporated.
Myth #6: My dissertation must make an original and valuable contribution to the literature of my discipline.
Truth #6: Most dissertations are either repeats or small modifications of other studies and are not later published beyond being added into ProQuest. Most graduate students (and faculty members for that matter) do not have the time, funding, or resources available to make a truly original and valuable contribution. I believe that the true goal of a dissertation at most universities is to teach graduate students the research process, so they can better understand journal articles and the scientific method. Therefore, do what you need to do to simply graduate.
Myth #7: My paper must be long to be accepted.
Truth #7: Not necessarily true. While some schools do require a certain number of pages, length is generally not a key factor. Remember that most of the seminal journal articles in your discipline are under twenty pages in length.
Myth #8: Qualitative projects are easier, quicker and less expensive to complete than quantitative projects.
Truth #8: This is not necessarily true. In qualitative analysis, there really is no limit to the amount of thematic analysis and coding one can do so it becomes difficult to know when you have done enough work. Students are still writing dissertations on the works of Shakespeare and he hasn’t written anything new for quite a while! In contrast, with a quantitative study, there generally are specific hypotheses to test with clear criteria for acceptance or rejection. Once the hypotheses are tested, you can write your findings and conclusions and be done. Compare quantitative analysis using statistical software to the process needed for a candidate to shift through and code several hundred pages of transcripts. Qualitative analyses are often much more time consuming. In addition, the transcription costs alone before the coding process begins are often more expensive than hiring a professional statistician to run your stats for you. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m trained as a clinical psychologist and a professional certified coach, so I know the value of a quality in-depth interview. I just don’t think that for most candidates, a qualitative design is an efficient method to help them graduate while minimizing tuition costs.
Myth #9: It’s always better to pick a topic that you are passionately interested in when deciding what to write about.
Truth #9: There is some truth to this myth but often those projects suffer from “the curse of an interesting topic.” This means that the student makes the project much too large because they can’t decide what to exclude because “it’s all so interesting.” This might especially be a problem if the candidate is in one of the helping professions such as Education, Counseling, Nursing or Public Health. It is generally better and quicker to find a moderately interesting topic with readily available data to get the project done. Later, you can write your magnum opus after you have graduated.
Myth #10: My first proposal to my committee must include everything I plan to do.
Truth #10: Writing the proposal is in many ways a negotiation with your committee. If it were a money negotiation, one would begin by saying “it costs $1 million” while the other person initially offers to pay about $1.00 for it. After a few rounds, the parties hopefully come up with a price both can live with. In the same way with a proposal, make the first proposal offer simple and then add to it only after the committee wants more. I have known some graduate students to offer simple initial proposals, had the project accepted unchanged by the committee, which saved countless hours and months in the process.
Myth #11: I’m getting a doctoral degree, so I know that I have considerable academic ability. Therefore, I need to put 100% of that academic ability into my doctoral studies and dissertation.
Truth #11: Excellence is often a very worthwhile goal. However, the level of quality and effort that you specifically put into your doctoral work must be carefully balanced out against all other competing life demands. When working on your doctoral studies, you cannot use that time or money for other important life goals (opportunity costs). Said informally, do you want your doctoral degree “good,” “quick,” or “cheap”? Candidates are only able to pick one or maybe two of the dimensions to emphasize.
If you would like to know more about Dr. Tom Granoff’s background, here is a link to his LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tom-granoff-ph-d-pcc-31206b1. At the bottom of the profile are over 120 recommendations from satisfied dissertation clients. If you would like to graduate sooner while having less frustration, please contact him directly for a free 30-minute consultation (firstname.lastname@example.org, 310-640-8017, Pacific Time Zone).