To Finish Your Dissertation…

"The dissertation is the monument to the moment when the committee gave up" ~ Dr. D. Barry Lumsden

I shared the APA spelling information with my clients and decided it was a good time to throw the same information into my blog! Many of you work in places or attend universities in which arguments about whether to capitalize “internet” as a proper noun or to use a hyphen for “semistructured” occur. Twenty years ago, “internet” was a proper noun, but now it’s not (much to my chagrin). Many of my clients have the same struggle with their professors refusing to recognize that language is dynamic and changing. Every day, I get a document in which the professor inserted the hyphen into “semistructured” or “socioeconomic.” Neither of these words has been hyphenated since APA 5th edition of 2001. They made further adjustments in the 6th edition of 2009, and the 7th has been out since 2019. To be clear, I started using APA during its 4th edition of 1983. Yeah, I am that old, but also, I am that dynamic (Am I right?! Ha!). Thusly, I provide you with a link to the APA’s current spelling preferences.

And now a fun (to me) tangent…

Above are the famous cats and doors of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in a picture I took in December of 2022 while I strolled around with my family. I give you this photograph because the amount of cat graffiti I see the kids spraying seems to be proportional to the number of cats found on, under, and near cars and balconies. I also have a lot of love for Save a Gato, which is the group that offers a sanctuary in Old San Juan for dumped strays.

Below is a little graffiti humor I found at an abandoned high school in Hatillo, PR, where the airsoft and paintball clubs spend their weekends! The Graffiti Cat’s “Ha!” always cheers me up even as it lurks on the East wall of the courtyard turned overgrown jungle. (Why makes no sense, but I cannot help but laugh at it.) I think we have all had a day where we felt metaphorically hit by paintballs while being right about some writing-related discussion with colleagues or professors. I now arm you with tools! I hope you get to have a “Ha!” moment when you open that link to the APA’s spelling preferences. I know I said, “uh oh,” when I saw a few of the word preferences! LOL, HA!

We CAn’T win all the spelling ruckuses, but we can have fun during the debate! And sometimes, we go off on mental tangents, but tangential thinking can cause us to have creative breakthroughs!

The qualifying exam, the specialty or specialization paper, or the comprehensive presentation of the literature on a topic of interest to you as assigned by the professors are all labels I have heard associated with the last hurdle to becoming dissertation/treatise eligible. This paper has also been referred to as SQE, SQR, CPP, CQE, and more among the many institutions in the US with which I have some familiarity. Passing this final, predissertation-stage paper doesn’t exactly mean you are a dissertation candidate or have achieved the status of all but the dissertation (ABD) because those labels vary by institution just as does the label of this “take-home” writing assignment that leads to professors blessing you with the opportunity to move forward toward writing a dissertation, capstone, or treatise proposal.

For our purposes, let’s use a generic label for this assignment across institutions: Academic Research Final (ARF; onomatopoeia intended as a stress reliever). Your ARF has a few purposes: (a) Tell the professors things they don’t know. (b) Entertain them. (c) Make them excited. (d) Give them pause to think they don’t actually know everything like they think they do. When I say these things to my clients, they usually say that they haven’t been taught to write for professors that way in the classes. And I usually reply, “You’re right.”

The ARF Process

Let’s start the process with the end in mind: (1) Edutaining the professors; (2) Making a “call to arms” or a “call to action” through conclusions (that cause a problem to be explicit) with recommendations for policy, practice, and most importantly, future study based on the gaps in the studies reviewed.

How do we do that? We tell them things they don’t already know. Note, whatever you have been writing in classes represents things they already know.

What you want to provide is new information–new empirical studies that they may decide to apply to their classes. Think of your work as a potential source of future curriculum used by professors for the classes the future people in the program will take. You are using this paper to show your expertise that is built on the backs of those peer-reviewed, empirical articles that probably were published after you took any given class. That means: You will do a lot of citing! Lots and lots! Lots of synthesizing between articles’ findings and methods. Lots of comparing and contrasting between articles’ methods and findings. You will even do a bit of summarizing the methods and findings of the articles to give the professors the “lay of the land” and entice them to believe your information is worthy of their time.

You want to use articles that are within the last 5 years, essentially. You only use textbooks and other literature reviews merely for the introduction or framework that sets the stage for the ARF or to help you organize your strands of interest, but you never use those sources nor any of your sources’ introduction or introductory literature reviews for writing your own paper. If you are having trouble finding articles with your keyword searches of the databases available at your university, go to the dissertation database and search the keywords for the most recent year–ONLY review the bibliographies of these dissertations to find titles (based on their keywords) that seem worthy of obtaining.

Here me: NEVER, EVER, NEVER use the introduction or abstract from a source within your writing for the ARF. Doing that means you are going to be citing the citations cited in the introduction. A BIG NO, NO. It also is how your paper gets hits in an iThenticate, TurnItIn, SafeAssign, Grammarly, or other plagiarism checking software.

Evaluating Articles for Inclusion

How do we evaluate an article for the ARF? Start with the conclusions–start with the end in mind when reading an article just like you start the ARF with the end in mind. If the end seems relevant to your beginning, review the reference list of the article, particularly for articles that are published in the last 12 to 24 months. You may see titles that literally “fit the bill” for your topic and its keywords.

Next, read the methods, note the variables or explicitly stated phenomena of interest, determine what are the findings and how the findings matter for your agenda, and find the weaknesses of the study. Figure out if the study fills the gap you want to fill or if you can find a little tiny inch of the void that your ideas for future study can fill–you will have found a weakness worth exploiting when you write your conclusions.

Be judgmental!

You can now put the articles in virtual or literal piles, buckets, or strands by their methods and/or findings and/or specific variables. You choose these categories as you are the reviewer and expert, a.k.a. the boss of this process. If you are feeling unsure or unconfident while creating your categorical buckets get a friend involved. Tell them about the aspects of the articles and how you see the groupings come together to see if they agree–this consultation is called peer debriefing, and it’s good practice for when you do qualitative research in the future.

The Structure of the ARF

Be aware that ARF length, format, and writing style required varies by discipline, as well as by professor, committee, department, graduate school, and institution.

Some programs require you to write as if submitting the thing to a specific journal and to follow those author guidelines, which could deviate from my basic outline. Others say you need a minimum of 21 to 35 pages without giving much other guidance. There are even a few programs that say you need XX number of peer-reviewed sources that cannot be older than XXXX year. Meanwhile, some have indicated ARF length has no minimum or maximum as long as you cover the content critically and comprehensively.

I have seen rules that reject the use of nongovernmental organizational reports, government agency reports, or dissertations. On the flip side, I have seen students be required to sell their topics’ introductions with statistics from governmental and nongovernmental agency reports. When the topic has a wide gap, I have been students obtain permission to include recent dissertations, when they subsequently enjoyed harshly judging. 😉

This outline can be used and abused as needed for any set of guidelines. Nothing I present is set in stone; however, it represents one pathway or cornerstone for building a successful ARF. I’ve annotated my sample outline:

  1. Introduction to the topic–Give the foundation for the topic and let the reader know what older literature reviews or meta-analyses have set the stage; you can also offer pertinent headlines about why the topic has practical relevance, such as nursing shortage looms large says ABC NEWS (2022). Add an advance organizer either here or at the end of the methods–it tells us all the topics and headings in the remainder of the ARF.
  2. Methods used for determining the studies included in the ARF, including keywords used in databases and names of databases, with the number of total articles found versus used for the paper. If you have to use nonprofit organizations’ reports or governmental agencies’ reports, you will include those items as a separate list because they not peer reviewed. (Don’t forget that advance organizer if you didn’t already write one!)
  3. Group A articles–Summarize each from methods to findings and show us how the articles relate to each other; transition to next group.
  4. Group B articles–Same as above.
  5. Continue until you have covered all your strands through the Group k articles.
  6. Discussion of the Review–Compare and contrast between findings, methods, and strands. Do the ultimate synthesis and critique–harp, and I say harp, on the weaknesses and limitations of the studies you reviewed. The harping is key to making sure the reader is deductively ready for the conclusions and the call to arms that should end the paper. By harping you are proving you can be appropriately judgmental!
  7. Conclusions–What do you conclude? Are the gaps in the literature? Is there evidence of a problem that has not been investigated in the body of knowledge you examined? Remember to be judgmental and confident but cite your evidence. Some people transition from here with a conclusion that is a problem.
  8. Recommendations–You may make policy and practice recommendations based on your conclusions. You most definitely want to get the reader riled up about how more research needs to be done by making a firm suggestion of a study or two, particularly as the ARF is really about selling your topic of interest as a future dissertation or treatise becuase you have proven you are an expert on a topic that has gaps and problems.

Here’s the End I had in Mind for This Topic

By proving you are an expert in the ARF, you set the stage for writing the proposal in which you will collect empirical data, whether qualitative or quantitative. You also get your professors excited about supporting your dissertation as committee members.

You have likely not written a systematic literature review like the ARF for any class, and you need to know the rules between class grading and ARF grading are different. This is your chance to prove you are on the way to joining the club of doctors for which your professors are gatekeepers.

I tend to be the coach for the players in the Club of Future Doctors, and I can tell you that by just having the information I have now covered, you are well on your way to doing a complete and passable ARF, as well as in your own dissertation or treatise, a sound Chapter 1 introduction and complete Chapter 2 review of the literature. None of these products will be done with ease, necessarily, but you will have greater skills for writing them with efficiency and with some confidence you might not have had 10 minutes ago.

How would you recommend organizing work during a Ph.D. thesis writing period?
I am not sure what you mean by “writing period.” When starting out with new students who are confused by their professors’ preferences for bogging them down in the literature review phase, I follow a different organizational structure. I tell my students that we will write their purpose, research questions, then we will back track to what the problem they are interested in solving is. After those important pieces, we work on their methods. The literature is the last piece of the puzzle and still bogs them down, but by then, they have their study designed and they can see the end of the proposal as the light at the end of the tunnel.
What should students know before they start working on their dissertation?
They need to know that they will be hazed by their professors, and by that, I mean, their professors will ask like the fraternity brothers and sisters hazing the pledges who want into the “club,” that is, into the brotherhood of scholars. Professors are not paid to mentor or guide them; very, very few professors, within the chance of error at 5%, actually perform as such. It is nowadays a myth that professors provide mentorship to their dissertation students. If the student is at an online university and at some brick and mortar universities of which I am aware, I make sure they understand that their “chair” is merely a facilitator between the powers above the chair and the student, because the de-professionalization of the professoriate is complete—administrators do not trust their faculty to even try anymore; therefore, faculty do not try.
Can you recommend some tools or apps that can be valuable for the students (writing, organizing time or workload, for taking notes’ etc.)?
I do recommend using apps for analysis, such as Dedoose or NVivo for qualitative work and SPSS and G*Power for quantitative work. I also recommend using as the best app for recording thoughts and interviews or focus group meetings. I have some students for whom using Rev as a tool for a talk to text is worth every penny. The app is better than Google talk to text, which I have been playing with myself because the transcriptions come with come editing which saves the student time and enables the student to type into the document any thoughts that fill in blanks.
Which tips do you usually share with your students that all doctoral candidates should know?
“If it isn’t on the page, it doesn’t exist.” That is my quote because professors do not think beyond what they see on the page and some professors don’t even have short term memory for the text from one page to the next, let alone one paragraph to the next; worse, some professors don’t even read, even if they claim to “read” the document. All they do is scan or skim, so we make these ridiculous 3 sentence paragraphs with repetition. “Being told to delete is always better than being told add content.” Hence, we build in enough redundancy to hold up a 110-story building—if you will allow for mixing metaphors.
Are there dissertation writing tips are usually overlooked? Which?
pleased facial expression while wearing a monocle and holding with a cup of tea, indubitably
Some of the tips I give to my clients are disregarded and overlooked, and I have to start over when they come back the next week, or worse the next month, or worst a year or two later, without making any progress. When I get a new client, I generally have to get them to understand: Never start over! Always use what you have!
How to stay away from procrastination while writing a thesis?
Have an accountability partner, like another dissertation student, but I have seen this work against students who don’t also work with me, so sometimes, I make sure my students meet each other because that friend who didn’t hire me is dragging down my client’s progress. With the accountability partner follow this rule: “Treat what we do together like a class; treat our deadlines like I am a professor and you are in my class. If you miss the deadline, turn it in late, but turn it in!” As they say in the sales world, and I paraphrase in academic language here: We are the people with whom we associate.
Finish the sentence: “The best dissertation is ….”
“Done and Defended” is my often said quote. A lot of people say “done.” Done is written, and that’s good. But I argue that it has to be defended to be the best!
What practices lead students to “fail” their dissertation?
Well, I don’t know what you mean by “fail.” I will tackle this fail idea in two ways: (a) student fails by avoidance; (b) student fails due to politics between professors, or according to the dissertation chairs and committees, or the QRM/AQR/URR/GSR/AQM review level that outranks committee level.

Avoidance: The student chooses to avoid the process out of fear, usually. When those life events happen, they become excuses for avoiding professors and processes.

Politics: Professors use the students as scapegoats or as tools for having petty arguments. When this happens, the students’ work becomes the fuel to the fodder. Unfortunately, the professors set the student up to feel like the failure in the mix by making the student’s work out to be inadequate, the result of their incompetence, and so on.  The student suffers until the professors give up on whatever they are fighting out.
Are there writing techniques you can suggest to Ph.D. students to make their life slightly easier?
I tell them “just write because I don’t care whether it is scholarly or crap, as long as we get the content on the page, we can make it look [academically] ‘pretty’ for the professors.”
Are there typical mistakes supervisors tend to make?
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This issue of mistakes is best discussed over coffee. It can be a long one, depending on the school (online, for-profit are the worsts offenders) and the department, the field of study, etc. There are a lot of variables that contribute to their mistakes. Typical is variable. The worse “mistakes” across all types of schools and programs include failure to know their department’s and school’s own processes and deadlines. Failure to adhere to formatting rules (when they do know them) as required by the graduate school dean or worse undergraduate-degree-holding-only gatekeeper. Demanding students write the document in their style only to have the student find out later that the professor screwed the student and says to follow the graduate school rules as the grad school gatekeepers rip the content presentation apart. At some schools, this happens at end of proposal and at end of defense.
Should academic writing be dry or can students work on developing their own style when it comes to thesis writing?
This is so tricky! I have seen the writing be consistently dry in the sciences. I have seen students of history and politics have greater flexibility in using color adjectives and descriptors as long as the writing is Grade 16 level. The issue in the social science and education fields, which suffer more than other fields from lack of self-efficacy among professors, is whether academic or scholarly writing can be creatively presented. By creative, I have seen students attempt to tell stories in qualitative research and be told not to, but I have seen students provide concise, dry qualitative research and be told to be creative in their story telling. The real answer I tell my students when they try to be good at writing and to use Shakespearean language is “it depends on your chair and your committee and what they want and will tolerate.” 
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Which advice do you wish you knew when you were writing your dissertation?
I was fortunate to have a chair who was nearing his retirement and who would tell anyone anything as long as they sat and listened to his diatribes. He was handing out advice left and right, and in a sense, he trained me to do my job of rogue dissertation advisor.  He didn’t haze me during the dissertation because I had him in several classes, in which he hazed us in class. He mentored me right before the time when schools stopped paying professors to do that job. (If you want to know when that happened, it was during the recession and began about 2006 when legislatures started cutting off public school funds and solidified by 2010.) Now, my minor professor, he was another story—I guess I wish I knew about his whole department’s behavior toward dissertation students in advance.
What’s the best way to recover energy and sanity after writing another chapter?
The best way to recover energy and sanity is to write the chapter to begin with! Actually, I just got off the phone with a student whom I told to do a stress reliever that works for her when she sends her draft to me later this afternoon. I said (quite literally), “I don’t know if you drink wine to unwind, if you eat ice cream, if you prefer to take a walk, if you can watch a Bad Boys movie and practice the ‘woo saw’ meditation trick [that netted a short chuckle from the student], but whatever you do when you press send on this thing today, reduce your stress and relieve your anxiety. That’s your next task.”
What’s the optimal amount of time to be spent on dissertation per day?
Ideally, a student spends a productive amount of time, which could be 15 minutes or 2 hours, depending on the student. Also, a student who has been working on studying the literature about their topic during their courses, needs less time to write a dissertation proposal than a student who hasn’t done that. I think the book that sells the idea of finishing a dissertation in 15 minutes a day, 7 days a week is onto something. However, I usually tell my clients that we need to treat each short goal as a class paper, and I ask them how they did those; then, I guide them to follow suit. If they crammed the writing into a weekend for a class project or paper, then that’s what we make sure they do.
What are the common unexpected problems that arise after you start writing?
These problems rarely are dissertation specific. Most of the problems are personal as in the mantra of “life happens.” My clients have suffered health setbacks; family circumstance changes including birth, death, and divorce; sandwich generation issues; and so on. Some clients have thought they would be done by a certain point, no matter what realistic advice I gave, and scheduled vacations like cruises and extended trips from which they could not mentally return for extended time periods, setting their timelines further behind. The other big problem is lack of confidence, lack of self-efficacy for the task. I spend a chunk of much time building up my students’ confidence.

Whoever possesses the dissertation draft controls the dissertation’s progress. Follow this rule always.

If the professor has the draft, your progress has come to the proverbial red light–they are on offense, and you are on the sidelines. You are well advised NOT to touch the version of the document you sent the professor, even if you think you can because you will track the changes. The version you sent to the professor is the MASTER DOCUMENT. If you do decide you just have to keep working, then open separate documents for the material you want to incorporate and use the copy and paste technique after the professor pitches the draft back to you. Think of what you do as journaling and reflecting and preparing but not working within the master document. It is possible that what you anticipate and what you need to do, after receipt of the draft with comments and questions, do not align. The professor’s comments dictate your next steps. Those steps are solely dependent on the draft pitched back to you.

Working within the document you sent the professor while it is in the professor’s or the entire committee’s possession can cause all manner of chaos when you get the draft with its professorially tracked changes and comments back. Professor feedback can come in a variety of ways on a single electronic document, whether by Google Docs or Word. The professor’s efforts can look like tracked changes, inserted comments, and a variety of random highlighted text or inserted text using multiple font colors. There are times when professors not only do these things but also print the document to hand write notes in margins. You end up receiving the electronic and scanned versions as attachments to an email containing a lengthy missive about your writing. For those of you at universities with detailed “rubric” checklists as part of their so-called standardization of the dissertation, you get additional comments in those documents that you need to configure into the draft alongside the issues the professors presented in the master draft. And those written-in-the-checklist comments can come across as esoteric because professors rarely tie what they write for a section of the checklist to a specific page number, so you have the task of playing detective when you are in possession of the master document. (The more annoying checklist scenario is when they simply highlight some checklist requirement without indicating if the highlight means you did it or did not do what it indicates as necessary, but there is a comment buried in a flurry of comments in the document itself that is supposed to tie the highlight to the text comment.)

These confluences of chaos alone can make it hard to track where any work you did as an effort to intercept their return draft pitches should apply. You find yourself doing a side-by-side comparison between the documents of what you did during their possession and what they did during their possession. This work of comparing between drafts can lead to hours of mental chaos. For example, consider when the document is in the possession of several professors at once and all copies end up being returned to you, so you muddle through the chaos they collectively recreated within the master draft, three to four or five times over, depending on committee size. You have to find a way to consolidate between all their collective comments, because they don’t respect the master document idea. (They regard that as your task.) That’s why you absolutely must respect the master document possession rule as the simile of the red light or of being sidelined on the field of play. If necessary, sit literally on your hands. Avoid any situation that could mentally be ascribed as several football players scrambling to possess a fumbled ball.

I have worked with hundreds of dissertants as an editor and a coach. Every year, I watch dissertants who would rather learn this lesson the hard way than learn it vicariously through the experiences of those who finished before them. These dissertants send the document to the professor who subsequently, indicates in advance some things that will need to be dealt with even as the professor maintains possession of the master copy and makes professorial comments and changes within it. The dissertant, in a frenzy to please the professor, thinks they will get ahead of the request by intercepting those anticipated issues and completes the anticipated tasks in the old master document version while the professor has what is now the master document. However, when they get the “marked up” master draft back from the professor, they are at a loss about what they did in the now-obsolete draft and what they need to fix in what they got back in the now-master draft and in which document do they need to make the fixes. This confusion is inevitable, even if the dissertant’s copy contained tracked changes. At this point dissertants lose from the master document obscure details that matter to professors in the effort to consolidate. Random things like page numbers or undisclosed tracked changes become obvious to professors who see those errors signs of incompetence or disrespect rather than as simple mistakes that can be corrected quickly. I know, it sounds ridiculous and unrealistic that what I am describing can be real, but every year for 15 years now, it has been a very real circumstance that slows down an already too slow process due to the mental anguish the dissertant ends up working to overcome.

Therefore, the bottom line is this: By respecting the master document rule and waiting patiently at the metaphorical red light or on the analogous sidelines of the doctoral field of draft possession, it is possible to avoid the multiple draft collision or interception to fumble problem.

Getting a doctorate depends on wise choices before, during, and after enrollment in your program. I have worked with clients at Ivy League level institutions and at for-profit private online programs as well as everything in between those two extremes. I have worked as an interdisciplinary coach with topics covering public health, natural sciences, social sciences, education, religion, and the arts and humanities.

When I set out to earn my doctorate, I was place bound. I had an infant and a preschooler. I was married, and my husband made the “good” money in the technology world. I studied all the doctoral degree granting options within no more than 2 hours from our home because in 2000, online all the time was not an option.

I first culled out the private, expensive options, which did include NOVA Southeastern that is located physically in the Florida because it offered a cohort model with classes at the DFW airport. When I factored in the public options, I had Texas A&M Commerce, Texas Woman’s University, and the University of North Texas available for my fields of interest (namely, counseling, psychology, higher education). At that point, I had to settle on the degree program, which caused TWU to get knocked off the list because they did not have the right program of curriculum for me.

With my two program choices in hand, in November of 2000, I called the two schools’ programs, and I scheduled interviews with their program coordinators. I interviewed both of them. One of them did not seem to care about my agenda and made me perform an extemporaneous essay exam before being willing to talk to me at all (and I didn’t choose that school; I regarded the essay writing as a form of intimidation or hazing).

I didn’t care whether I was a viable student in their eyes before I applied because I had done the research on earning the doctoral degree. I knew I needed to find accessible professors. Without accessible professors, a dissertation cannot be done in a timely manner was the conclusion from the research on going back to grad school that I had done–some of which included directly interviewing my bosses and others around me. Essentially, I conducted primary data collection just to choose a doctoral program. (Interestingly, 20 years later and 15 years into coaching dissertants, this conclusion remains relevant and rings true.)

When choosing your doctoral program, you need to ask the program coordinators and department chairs many questions. By asking the administrators and professors your questions BEFORE they have a chance to ask you anything or evaluate your merits, you force them to judge you as a viable future student of their (according to them) esteemed program. Why? That’s easy: You show initiative, thoughtfulness, appropriate scientific skepticism, and the ability conduct research by asking them all these questions they should have answers to (and usually are not prepared to answer).

“What are the right questions to ask?” There is no one right set of questions, but the right questions are those that enable you to determine if you will get the support you need after classes end and the dissertation writing begins. First you must know the answer to: “What is your dissertation completion rate?” An evasive answer with no indication of X out of XX students is rated as a grade of F on that question. An honest answer of X% with the inevitable list of caveats that would explain a low value allows for a D grade. An X% answer with a list of all the ways the program and the university worked to support students, then the program was working its way toward a passing value on the item. The dissertation completion percent matters because no doctoral program has a 90% success rate; it is unheard of. In education and the social sciences, 30% to 40% is about average, and in the humanities, the average rate is far less than 30% than I want to type. Usually, they will answer with something like 70% of doctoral students who start classes, finish classes. But out of that 70%, how many finish? Probably about 30% if national numbers ring true, so 30% out of 70% is what percent of the original 100% of all who started classes? Not good is the answer.

Another meaty question involves knowing what are the procedures and processes for completing a dissertation. The for-profit driven models are listed as being doable in 3 to 4 years, but they have built in so many checks and so-called quality control measures that I have seen very few students finish without paying 6 years worth of tuition payments. Many times, they have paid for a year or 2 of tuition after courses ended without making any progress even though they have tried by writing drafts that get rejected, communicating with professors who give answers that leave them confounded and flummoxed, and spinning their wheels like a car stuck in mud.

Added checkpoints beyond the committee and the institutional research board that approves human subjects studies cause extra years to be needed for dissertation completion. There are public and non-profit schools that follow the for-profit cash cow model of adding in check points. Every check point means an additional 2 to 16 (or more) weeks of your money and time being wasted as well as added political drama, in-fighting, and intrigue that serves to frustrate you and reduce your will to go on.

If a program has a level of review known as a university research reviewer, quality review for methodology, academic quality reviewer, dean’s office approval review, etc. that exists AFTER the committee agrees you are ready to propose, do NOT choose that program. Further, if the program adds a final quality review, assurance of adherence to methods review, Chapter 4-5 university research review, etc., that happens (again) AFTER the committee green lights the final defense or worse AFTER the final defense, do NOT choose that program. Another layer that is super annoying and not necessary is the proposal format and style review being done by a BACHELOR OF SCIENCE/ARTS or a Master of Arts in writing/English (which is MLA specific and not social or hard science writing oriented) level employee–if that is part of the dean’s office review process, don’t choose that program.

If a program has a project study or a three chapter dissertation that it sells as innovative, do NOT buy the hype; run away. There is this movement toward enrolling students in a dissertation class that operates parallel to the requirements of the dissertation chair. I have yet to see the chair and the course instructor agree. Thus, unless the course instructor is facilitating an engaged, directive approach and is your chair, I suggest avoiding that format too.

Every university does have a final format review, which should be about the front matter conforming to a uniform standard and ensuring the dedication and acknowledgements are professional(ish). Essentially, you cannot cuss out the dissertation committee or disparage the institution in this official document that the institution will take the credit for publishing. Expect to be told about that process as the last step following the final defense.

A respectable program has the following procedure set:

  1. The three chapter proposal is written in future tense and approved by the chair.
  2. The proposal is approved for proposal seminar by the full committee.
  3. The proposal approved by committee after presentation by dissertant.
  4. The research proposed in Chapter 3 is approved by institutional research board for collecting data.
  5. The dissertant collects and analyses the set of data.
  6. The full dissertation is put together at final chapters plus proposal converted to past tense.
  7. The full dissertation is approved by the chair.
  8. The full committee allows the dissertant to schedule the final defense.
  9. The final defense includes the dissertant’s presentation of the study, gauntlet of questions by the committee, the committee awarding the title of doctor, and all the professors signing a form saying the dissertation passed.
  10. The final approval by graduate school or university level for formatting (margins, etc.), abstract, and front matter conforming to university standards for final publication.

These 10 or so procedures should take 6 to 9 months of time, assuming you have a committee chair who has both dissertation competence and efficacy AND work diligently each week to complete all steps. If you do not have a chair with both values, you can expect a 12 to 24 month process while you are working diligently, weekly to complete all steps. If you cannot make yourself work diligently when you don’t feel supported, you can expect to spend 3 to 4 years on the dissertation AFTER you finish the coursework and complete any comprehensive exams or final specialty papers that are designed to propel you to dissertation candidacy. (Unless you hire a coach.)

Additional questions to ask before you even apply to a program involve learning how dissertation chairs/directors/mentors/etc. are assigned to students. Do students ask professors to be their chairs? Are chairs assigned by the department head? Is there a procedure for transferring to a different professor is the fit is not there with the first professor? What are the drama and politics involved in asking for a new chair should that be a concern in the future? What professors are most prolific as dissertation advisors? What is the completion rate for minorities? (That question matters even if you are not a minority because it suggests how much assistance and advice you can expect to receive from your chair. [And yes, there are a ton of stories that I can tell you about how much that question matters for all students.])

You want to ask about services that include: (a) literature search support by research librarians, (b) research support office that might do data entry or perform statistical analyses, (c) a statistics computer lab or research design tutors, (d) doctoral-level style guide assistance from a writing center (which is usually not equipped for dissertants), (e) institutional research board tutors or coordinators, and (f) other unspecified helpful stuff like free access to NVivo, SPSS, SAS, etc. The presence or absence of these services provides you with some important corresponding accessibility information. Both a set of helpful services and an accessible, competent, and efficacious professor are necessary conditions for timely dissertation completion.

The homework you need to do before you choose a program as worthy of interviewing is this: Look up all the faculty, both adjunct and full-time, on Linked-In, Facebook, Google, etc. Learn about those people and their research interests–regardless of the program format as 100% online or F2F. Find all their peer-reviewed publications. If you can, look up dissertations by the search term of “advisor” and find out how many they have listed and when those dissertations were published. You want to see a few recent ones.

NEVER EVER be the professor’s first dissertant. Don’t allow it. Or at least, make sure a first time dissertation advisor has a co-chair with an extensive track record mentoring them or being available to you for mediating disputes. If you can avoid an abecedarian as your dissertation chair, do it.

Beware and be aware: Many for-profit programs and non-profit programs have professors with no peer-reviewed publications and with only their own dissertations under their belts. The professors were hired by cronyism, usually. Those professors have no clue how to guide you and tend to know only how to tell you that they see something is not right while not knowing how to tell you what is wrong with what they see. They say, “It’s all wrong” or “Go figure out APA and send me something readable” or “Read dissertations to find out how to do it right.” That read other dissertations line is the professor’s code for: “Follow my dissertation because I know what that looks like.”

In short, choose the program with the end, the final defense moment, in mind. You choose them. Don’t let them choose you. The formats of the classes and the course-delivery or related issues are not the real meat of the doctoral degree. The real meat is the dissertation, so learn about the end before you even deign to give them any of your money. Trust me, institutions are happy to take your money for every semester possible until your deadline to do or die comes up at 7 to 10 years after the first semester of enrollment. You don’t want to be All But the Dissertation for one minute longer than necessary. Begin the doctoral program by choosing its end wisely.

As of this month, January 2020, schools are starting to tell students to follow the 7th edition of the APA manual that was released in October of 2019 with a 2020 copyright (what is up with that?!)

Here are some websites to help you make the transition:

A couple of things that are already happening that you want to tell the profs about:

  1. There are no exceptions to the one space after punctuation rule, yaaaas! This means that you only need to use one space after the period that ends the sentence preceding the next sentence. (Chapter 6.1)
  2. There are lots of little technical details changed in the reference listing rules, so don’t let faculty get technical about what is 7th versus 6th with you; everyone is still figuring out you don’t need “retrieved from” to precede “http://” information or that “doi:” doesn’t start the presentation of a digital object identifier anymore because the “http://” part does! Yeah, it’s nutty and confusing right now. (Chapter 10)
  3. The use of “they” when referring to a singular person as a subsequent pronoun is now a-okay because of the gender-fluid world we have come to accept. (Chapter 5.5)
  4. The exceptions for when to use numerals for numbers lower than 10 have been clarified and expanded. For example, we used to use approximately three years, but now we can use approximately 3 years. We used to always spell out third but now we treat “third” as a cardinal number and write 3rd all the time. (Chapter 6.32)
  5. Referring to races and ethnicities: It is always okay to follow the US Census Bureau, but Chapter 5.7 gets really pedantic about the rest of the options! The idea is to follow the preference of the participants, which is something a dissertant can only fix after collecting data, so I encourage dissertants to advocate for following 5.7 AFTER collecting data and using Census Bureau BEFORE collecting data in a proposal. This also means that even though professors cannot handle the inconsistencies, I recommend following the language of each study presented–if Winchester et al. refer to their participants as African American, but Smith & Wesson refer to their participants as Black you go with what the authors did because that is as close to participants as you can get in a literature review for example. Argue for and use the language of the phonemic not the phonetic, always.
  6. Great news! When you have between 3 and 5 authors, you don’t need to list the total set of names ever again, except in the references entry (LOL!); that’s right: Chapter 8.17 (p. 266) says the following: “For a work with three or more authors, include the name of only the first author plus “et al.” in every citations, including the first citation, unless doing so would create ambiguity” which probably occurs when you have more than one citation wit the same first guy and the same year but with different authors included in the mix between the two citations. Thusly, the old first listing of Winchester, Brothers, and Colt (2005) becomes Winchester et al. (2005) all of the time!

There will be much pettifogging in the months to come in 2020 as professors and students and journal editors adjust to all the shifts and fumbles involved in writing according to the American Psychological Association. If you feel like they are playing psychological games with writing, you are not wrong.

I constantly hear from dissertants how their professors have had personality changes at the beginning stages of writing their dissertation proposals. In fact, some professors abdicate their helpfulness verbally, even though the declaration seems counterproductive, counter-intuitive, and logically fallacious. At least the professor is being honest.

Dissertants believe in the myth that was told to them during the recruitment process: “Your dissertation chair is here to guide you through the process and ensure you graduate <insert the norm at your school: on time, in a timely manner, etc.> with a quality study that you can use for publications after graduation.” The reality of 90% or more of cases, the professor is not and likely unwilling to spend added time with the dissertant.

The myth is that the dissertation is a solo, independent project by which the dissertant shows the culmination of all coursework in a final comprehensive, generative task. The dissertation includes evaluating literature, synthesizing literature, creating a process for collecting data to address an identified problem, and creating or adding knowledge for the body of work. The dissertation represents the creation of knowledge as the highest form of cognitive ability in the learning taxonomy, which is used throughout education to develop curricula, produce rubrics, and determine student achievement.

The reality is that the dissertation is a team effort, whether or not that team involves the professors assigned to the dissertant. The team can include the dissertant’s significant other and family. The team can include the editors, coaches, and statisticians hired by the dissertant. The team can include friends and pastors. It is very rare that the dissertant works literally alone, as if stranded on a deserted island.

It is all too common that the professor tells the dissertant to operate as a solo artist and not to bother the professor unless a full draft of the proposal or final product is being sent. In fact, it is common that the professor who said the student’s work was good before the dissertation process changes position to argue the dissertant’s writing does not meet standards of academic rigor during the dissertation process. The good doctor version of the professor turns into a version of Mr. Hyde during the dissertation.

If you have the experience of the turn from Jeckyll to Hyde by your dissertation chair, please note the following: You are being hazed. You are not crazy. This behavior is nothing you can control, your choice for success is to persist, to put on your sharkskin coat and cover your head with its hoody, and to keep bothering your professor.

I received this message at the midnight hour, the witching hour, the proverbial last minute about a fundamental shift in the design or draft that “it’ll only take 20 minutes,” and I have seen several dissertants undergo the fallout of a professor sending this same message. The professor purposefully overwhelms the dissertant with this message, whose underlying tone is either “go away” or “I don’t know what is going on.” In the “don’t know” case, remember, the professor doesn’t want to be caught not knowing, so take the statement as a challenge to justify why you know what you know with evidence.

In the case of the “go away” message, don’t go away. Persist. Your professor knows full well that you lack his or her seasoned prowess for research report writing. You want to receive guidance and wisdom so you need to seek it out with external resources like books, articles, and valid websites.

Recently, I had a dissertant come to me with this exact problem: The professor wanted a fundamental shift in the design of the study that included a complete change in the hypotheses and presentation of the results in a 180 page, five-chapter dissertation and had the audacity to say that making the adjustments was a 20-minute task. The dissertant came to me for help based on recognizing how the adjustments were going to affect all five chapters. I took on the editorial part of the task, noting that copy and paste from the change was most of what was needed, and it was not a 20-minute job, not even for me!

Here’s what is important to recognize when a professor pulls the “it’ll only take 20 minutes” crap, I am a seasoned veteran of research writing. In the case of my example, I needed 1.5 hours to complete the editorial elements of the task; the student had spent over an hour in my office just conceiving of how to make the cognitive shifts in thinking, and those shifts led to hours of rewrites. I literally felt like I was having a traumatic flashback episode to my own dissertation defense when a professor on my committee decided that my complete study required a different statistical design–at my final defense. I had done one type of statistical model, but he decided that my combination of variables would have been better presented with a different statistical design at the proverbial witching hour during my defense. He had the audacity to say that I only needed “a couple of hours” to complete the statistical procedure’s tasks and revise the entire Chapters 4 and 5 of the dissertation. The gasps had by the peanut gallery at my defense were audible!

Now, my advice is the find the middle ground or to use the evidence supporting your previous set up to reduce the impact of the 20 fictional minutes floating around in your faculty’s head. In my case, I found the middle ground, I did perform some additional statistics because the requested modeling was not feasible, literally. Nonetheless, I spent 3 days working on the adjustments that affected four of the five chapters. I went to the professor’s office and showed him my additional 48 hours of new content and multi-chaptered edits. We agreed that my adjustments were an appropriate compromise, and he passed me at that time, and that happened because I brought evidence, and I showed that I learned a new statistical technique and could talk cogently about it in the 3 days following my final defense meeting.

If this case happens to you, you can persist by staying on top of the crisis hourly–don’t wait it out because it will get worse. Professors notoriously forget what is going on with your study, and if you take a hiatus, then you allow them to forget enough to come up with a new “20-minute” problem you have to address. If you remain active with the problem solving and keep an open mind about how to work around the new mental grenade that went off in your head, then this too shall pass.

Let’s talk for a minute about the excuses, excuses you get from professors DURING THE TERM FOR WHICH YOU PAID TUITION. Let’s start with a list of this litany of excuses that I have seen in the emails and other forms of communications that occur between dissertants and professors over a nearly 20 year period, including when I was still a graduate student. Of import, there might be 6 to 8 weeks left in the current time when any of these statements come to you. Additionally, it is likely you got these excuses after you submitted the draft 2 weeks prior to finally getting this much communication. I have broken them into the two categories of online versus brick & mortar doctoral professors:

Online Professors’ Top Excuses

  1. “I can’t get to your document till after this semester, because we have so much going on in the family [or with my kids, etc.]. So, just wait until the first week of the next term, then I will be able to spend time reviewing your draft.”
  2. “I have to attend the funeral of [insert random person who is not a direct relative] in [insert name of some X amount of hours away place] so I won’t be able to read your draft for at least a week, so you need to give me extra time.”
  3. “My grandkids are staying with me for a month.”
  4. “Thanksgiving is coming up in a week, so let’s make an appointment to talk afterward because I am too busy planning for my family to visit. I don’t have time to deal with you now.”
  5. “Until you send an APA compliant document, I don’t see any need to read your proposal because I am not an editor.”
  6. “Why do we need to talk? I insert comments in the document; you should use those comments to guide you. They are very clear.”

Brick & Mortar Professors’ Top Excuses

  1. “I have classes whose students are a higher priority than you are.”
  2. “You don’t understand the pressure on me to get articles written and papers graded, so you just need to wait your turn.”
  3. “I teach three classes and have to grade 17 total papers plus give finals, so your draft will wait until after finals.” (This one was given to a student right after spring break with 7 weeks left in the term during which the professor originally had agreed to allow the student propose.)
  4. “Our department is being scrutinized for <insert administrative crisis, e.g., certification and accreditation, reorganization> so I don’t have time for you. The department chair told us to make the <insert crisis solution> process our main priority, other than classes we teach, this term.”
  5. “I don’t get paid to read drafts. You need to write a final, complete draft of your proposal; then we can talk.”
  6. “I have office hours but those are for students in my classes; you aren’t in one of my classes. Email is fine. You don’t need to come to campus.”

Common Excuses Among Both Types of Schools’ Professors

  1. “How did you ever get through classes, let alone comps? Your writing is not scholarly, and there is no way your proposal will pass with how it looks now. You should consider hiring an editor.”
  2. “I already have a student defending this semester, so I don’t have time to deal with you. You have to wait your turn.”
  3. “Why do we need to talk? Can’t you just send an email?”

These excuses for not attending to students are pretty typical. I have heard about them over and over again for decades. They are examples of how sad it is that you pay good money for academic malpractice to be committed at you every semester. Dissertation students who have careers off-campus or attend online programs rarely have dissertation professors who remain accessible to them by simply answering the phone, allowing students to take advantage of office hours, or using free time to interact with or shoot a short email to students.

You want to persist every 12 to 48 hours, depending on when you made first contact as follows:

  1. Send your email, and expect a reply in a timely fashion: 24 to 48 hours.
  2. Surreptitiously resend the email and drop a text to check for email. Wait 24 hours.
  3. Make a phone call, and leave a voice mail if necessary. Wait 24 hours, repeat text.
  4. Wait 12 hours, call, and keep doing the same thing in 12-hour intervals.

They will get back to you when they realize that their cruise or other trip or wild goose chase is going to have to be interrupted by their job.

Final thought: When you have the sensation of feeling crazy or not sure about what is going on with how you are being treated or how you are receiving the messages sent to you by your professors and their overlords, do not assume you, dissertant, don’t know things (see a previous blog).

Dear Dissertant,

Over the years, I have come to know the novice dissertation advisor as one who chooses to write “this is all wrong” rather than try to figure out how to tell you what the nature of the “wrong” is so that you can efficiently overcome it and make it “right.” The reality is that the novice advisor is capable of identifying wrong but lacks the needed training or experience to recognize what they see as an error or why what they see something you wrote as “wrong.” Meanwhile, the senior, veteran advisor who enjoys “making them sweat” uses the “all wrong” as a way to get under their students’ skins and keep them from coming back to the professor for a while with their questions. (My advice: Never be your professor’s first dissertation.)

It is actually rare, sadly, that a professor says one of the following: “You made a good effort but your effort was filled with problems and holes that need to be cleared up or solved and here they are….”; or “I want to help you so I will lay the issues as I seem them out and enable you to fix them…”  I refer to those professors as “the dream,” and when I have knowledge of such professors, I usually tell dissertation writers who have those dream professors advising them that they don’t need a coach but might want a formatting editor for the entire end product. The dream professor conducts less hazing (i.e., uses less humiliating communication) with students who spend less time on the process of completing and defending their dissertations. The dream professor happens less than 10% of the time.

I share this information in order to debunk the myth that dissertants know very little and faculty know more. For the new-to-dissertation advising, dissertants have only one round of experience less than the new advisor. Additionally, professors generally don’t know the rules of APA any more than you do, which is irritating, especially for editors, when these professors may deride you or your editor as poor writers to create the “illusion of them knowing.”

Know that professors do hire editors, especially when submitting to those top tier journals! Professors can be inclined to use Grammarly and Reciteworks tools as shields or throw those results like metaphorical rocks to look like they know more about writing research than you do. But here’s the rub: APA isn’t accurately embedded at a 100% rate within those tools. Consequently, you–the dissertant–must always have your current APA edition at your fingertips.

Keep this nugget in mind: Professors speak in a special “I’m in the doctor club” code. I was told years and years ago by a mentor, who had been one of my graduate professors, that the one thing faculty never want students, let alone dissertants, to see is them “not knowing.” They will go to great lengths and even tell lies to ensure they look knowledgeable, including using Grammarly as a shield to prevent a student from seeing the “not knowing” in action. Faculty would rather make up rules that are easily debunked, such as “no footnotes are allowed in APA” (yes, that happened and they are allowed) than look up footnotes in the manual’s index and see that a student did apply the APA 6th edition manual’s content on footnotes correctly. Sometimes, professors even say, “Well, if that is what APA says, it’s not what I want, so do it my way.” At least then, we know the professor got caught not knowing! That’s how you start the process of breaking down the gate to get into the club–show the professor you can use evidence to prove your point.

In short, don’t believe everything your professor says–look for evidence to support what they claim! Don’t play the “trust but verify” game. Play with postpositivistic skepticism and daily persistentce!