Having Trouble Getting Started?

Writing a dissertation is a daunting task. We have, up until the dissertation stage, been led through tasks by professors in structured courses.  The courses were neatly titled and tied to a topic, there were were learning objectives, assigned readings, and weekly discussion questions.  Additionally, several of us were going through the same tasks at the same time.  In other words, we knew exactly what to expect, and we had support.

At the dissertation stage (usually begins with a proposal or prospectus) students are largely set adrift, which is frightening and can lead to a lot of lost time (and money!) trying to figure out where to begin.  Many people look at the five chapters as a progression, and it seems logical to work through it step-by-step beginning with Chapter 1.  I both agree and disagree with this method.  It makes sense in that you must begin somewhere, and where else than at the beginning, but it does not make sense because most people have not done all the background work necessary to write Chapter 1.

I tell my clients to think about the first three chapters as an iterative writing process.  I also tell them that by the time they will have completed a good dissertation proposal, they will have largely completed the first three chapters.  Let this sink in for a minute if you are in the proposal/prospectus stage:  You need to do the same work as you will be doing in the first three chapters in order to get a proposal together that is acceptable. 

Go ahead and begin at the beginning, but soon you will realize that you will need to go deep into theory and background before you can explain what you will be doing, why, and how, which means that you will be reading the literature and writing your literature review.  How else have you uncovered the gap that exists; the gap that your dissertation is addressing?

What often happens is this:

  • An idea for the topic of study is there – maybe you have brought it through all your coursework and now you are ready to get to work (excitement).
  • Review the literature about the topic to see how others have studied it (find some good information, still excited, but begin to see the mountain of literature grow).
  • Review of the literature continues, and now shows there are a million ways to think about what you want to study (mild panic and consternation).

What I suggest at this point is to find some background information about the problem and begin to write about the problem.  Go back as far as you need to to describe the problem.  An example is the topic of high school dropout rates in the US.  The research you’ve done has obviously shown that the dropout rate in the US is bad, so go find some good articles about the basic topic.  When did dropout rates in the US begin to be studied?  Why was this an area of interest – how did it impact society?  Who studied dropout rates and from what fields?  How did they study them (mainly quantitative or qualitative)?  What theories were used as the basis for the research?  What did they find?  How has the problem of dropouts progressed over time?

Then begin to write.  Explain the topic according to what you’ve read.  Start broad and gradually narrow the focus to the area of the US in which you are going to be (hopefully) conducting your research.  This exercise will give you LOTS of good information for both Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

As you work to establish the background and as you read through the articles, write a paragraph or two about every article you read, and you will be writing Chapter 2.  When I was pulling the articles to describe the problem for my own dissertation, I put them in chronological order.  I used physical copies of the articles – and yes I killed many trees, but it was the way I could keep things straight.  I wrote the year of the article in bold on the front page and stacked them up.  Then I went through them chronologically to see how ideas changed over time.

The suggestion here, to begin with the problem, gives you a place and a way to begin.  You will only need a few paragraphs of basic background information for the problem.  More later on the iterative nature between Chapters 1, 2, and 3.

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