To Finish Your Dissertation…

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

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.

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