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Hi everyone. In this column, I continue on the theme from my last column. I addressed a question posted by Dr. Lee Elaine Skallerup. In a posting, she wrote: “I would be interested to know, what about the opposite problem, having too much to say? I was so wrapped up in my research, I never knew when or how to stop.”
My last column can be summarized as: (1) Know your audience, (2) Work with points and subpoints, and (3) Work with a writing partner or group. I made the point that having a clear sense of your audience will help you to focus your writing. I also suggested that you consider the main point and three points that you want your audience to remember as they are walking their dogs or working out on the treadmill. Then I used an example from Sara Lehman, where she used six points to focus her manuscript; the point being that identifying a main point and three subpoints is really a metaphor for choosing a few points appropriate for the length of your writing and stick to them. Then I emphasized how writing partners and groups can often provide feedback on our writing in ways that we just can’t. Others can remind us to include the trail maps in our writing. In this column, I’ll discuss the concept of a focus statement. Then we’ll discuss being strategic about writing your dissertation in a manner that sets you up for the next stage of your career.
Sure, knowing the main point and subpoints works when you know what you want to say, after the dissertation research is completed. What about before? Beforehand I suggest using a focus statement. A focus statement is a planning tool. The focus statement is two to four sentences that briefly reflect your thesis, context, and methodology or analytic methods. Oh, and it needs to be catchy. I have found that only after students have sweated over a focus statement are they really ready to write the proposal and embark on their research. Why? Because otherwise the students get excited by some tangential idea and spend months reading that terribly interesting topic that really doesn’t move them forward toward completing their dissertations. I know I have done that. There is a time and a place for exploring new ideas and there is a time for “putting a stake in the ground.” Sorry, we live in three-dimensional space and as muggles we can’t even Disapparate. So at some point you will have to decide on one dissertation topic and put all those other interesting ideas aside, at least for a while.
The advantage of playing around with various focus statements before you choose one is that you get to experiment with different ideas in a very contained space without wasting too much time on prose. Whether one of my students is choosing his own dissertation topic or is choosing a dissertation topic within the program of research set by her adviser, I have them identify three to four possible dissertation topics. Using the focus statements as a decision-making tool, I have them write out the focus statements and include various elements. These elements include the context, something like “Based on the current state of stem-cell research.…”
A focus statement also includes some sort of focus or hypothesis: “My study examines what happens when elementary age students are taught prewriting….” You’ll need to include the theory or methodology: “Using structural equation modeling/literary criticism….” Plus, you’ll want to include your prospective contribution: “My research will help to make all world leaders nice to one another and thus bring about world peace.” Of course, these examples are from various possible focus statements and are not quite catchy enough, but you get the idea.
Sharing your focus statements with your dissertation adviser, writing partners, and writing group will help you to identify a doable dissertation more readily by gaining valuable feedback early on in the process. Every hour you spend planning and clarifying your dissertation will save you five hours later. Okay, I’ll admit I made up the “five hours.” I don’t know now much time it will save you; I do know it will save you time. For you to work efficiently on your dissertation and be able to develop a regular writing routine (which I’ll discuss in my next column), you need to be focused on all aspects of your dissertation from the literature review, to the purpose, including the methodology, and considering the contribution and implications. Another advantage of sweating through the development of a focus statement is that from a focus statement, a well-organized one-page outline should fall out very readily.
Now let me throw a wrench in the works. When you are in graduate school, you have a clear sense of purpose: getting those three to five signatures on the second page of your bound dissertation. There is great solace in having a clear mission. Of course along the way you do learn something — at least that is the hope. But I want you to think beyond the dissertation as you are planning or writing your dissertation. I want you to view your dissertation not as the end of your doctoral education but as the beginning of your career. I foreshadowed addressing this issue in my previous column when I wrote that “dissertation writers need to be strategic about writing their dissertations in a manner that sets them up for the next stage of their careers.” So, if you haven’t already, I want you to think beyond your dissertation.
Are you interested in an academic career in a field where journal articles are the coin of the realm? If so, chances are you are in mathematics, the sciences, or social sciences. If so, I want you to consider writing a journal article dissertation. This format is very common in the sciences and becoming more common in the social sciences. For this dissertation, you write an introductory chapter, a literature review chapter, and a concluding chapter. In between you write two to four stand-alone manuscripts that could be submitted as-is to a peer-reviewed journal. By the time you defend your dissertation, you may already have one or two of these accepted for publication or in print. By choosing this format, you will get direct supervision from your adviser on the format for writing journal articles in your field, along with learning about the submission, review, and resubmission process. Plus, you will have publications listed on your CV when you apply for a post-doc or a faculty position.
Are you interested in a faculty position where you will be expected to write books? Or, are you interested in transforming your dissertation into a book around which you can develop a consulting business? If so, I suggest that you go out and buy William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book. He spent over 20 years working in academic publishing and in his book, he packages his decades of advice into a user’s manual for prospective authors. Plus, the book is short and so you won’t be able to use it as much of a procrastination tool (nice try!). Read this book before you write your dissertation. Why? Because while you will have to include elements in your dissertation that you won’t be including in your manuscript, like an extensive literature review, you will be able to write your dissertation in a manner that sets you up for readily revising your dissertation into a book while your committee is reviewing your dissertation and during that time right after you have defended.
Will you need to have a self-funded post-doctoral grant as an intermediary to your desired job? These expectations are more common in the sciences. Then get your hands on as many funded and unfunded post-doctoral applications as possible and read through them as you are writing your dissertation. Ask current post-docs or alumni from your lab to share their funding submissions. Search through the nsf.gov and nih.gov sites and read through the abstracts of funded post-doctoral research grants. If the full grant is not online, send an email to the program officers and ask if they have access to full applications they can share with your or email the recipients and ask whether they would be willing to send you a copy of the proposal. For your dissertation, you will have to write a conclusions chapter anyway; you may as well spend that time setting up the introduction and specific aims of a future grant submission while you are at it.
Not everyone is interested in pursuing an academic position after they receive their doctoral degrees and therefore you may not be interested in dissemination through the traditional academic routes. Rather, you may be interested in using your dissertation to offer training and consulting. One of my former students was a very successful principal who had a passion for transformational leadership. He was not at all interested in writing journal articles, but he was interested in developing training workshops and materials. He did and based on his doctoral research, he provided training to local schools and about the power of transformational leadership for raising our public schools to a new level of performance. He kept his goal in mind as he was writing his dissertation and completed his training materials soon after he defended.
While embarking, researching, and writing your dissertation, keep in mind the importance of planning, such as writing a focus statement. Also, keep in mind the value of looking beyond your dissertation and using your dissertation to set yourself up for the next stage of your career.
Inevitably in these columns, the concept of regular writing routine has come up. In my next few columns, I discuss developing and sustaining a regular writing routine, preventing and addressing writer’s blocks, and silencing your internal critic. As always, if you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.