The Secret to Writing Your Dissertation

You’ve been in graduate school for many years now, and you’ve come a long way. You’ve completed all of your coursework, formed your Ph.D. thesis committee, passed your preliminary/oral/qualifying examinations, and have done an awful lot of research along the way. There’s a glimmer of hope in your heart that maybe — just maybe — this will be your last year in graduate school.

You’ve probably even gotten some papers published along the way, with a handful of them (if you’re lucky) with you as the lead author! But there’s one more task you need to perform before you’re ready to defend in front of your committee: you must write that dissertation!

While there are many guides on how to do that, many of them are either jokes or people grossly overstating the task in front of you. There are some very important things that go into a dissertation, but there are also some huge misconceptions about what a dissertation is supposed to be. What follows is my advice for anyone who’s reached that stage in their careers, on how to write a dissertation. (At least, as far as theoretical astrophysics goes, although I’m sure this is applicable to many other fields.)

First off, here is a list of what your Ph.D. dissertation is not:

  • It is not the definitive work on whatever your primary research topic is.
  • It is not going to settle long-standing arguments in your field.
  • It is not the most important piece of research or writing you’ll ever undertake.
  • And finally, it is very likely not even a document that anyone outside of your committee (with the exception of a few good friends, and possibly your grandmother) will ever read.

What is a Ph.D. dissertation, then? Quite simply, it’s your way of proving to your committee that you are a competent scientist in your own right, capable of standing on your own two feet as a scientist, researcher, and academic. It is where you demonstrate the following:

  • That you are capable of making original, valuable contributions in an active field of research.
  • That you are aware of and informed about the broad landscape of your field, the background and currently competing work being done on your specific sub-field, and that your professional opinions are well-informed and backed up by your knowledge and legitimate reasoning.
  • That the body of work you submit in your dissertation is comprehensive enough to merit a Ph.D.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, that you are ready to go off and continue your research (if you so choose) without the guidance of your mentor(s).

The first, second, and fourth of these are things you must convince your committee of during your defense; the third, however, is something that must speak for itself within your written dissertation.

And that’s why the most important thing you can do is to just crank it out. What you may not realize is that 75% of your dissertation is already done, you just need to take advantage of it!

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