Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: Writing the Doctoral Dissertation

At the beginning of any dissertation journey, both the journey and its destination seem hazy and amorphous. As the years of coursework rolled by, I had felt as if the diss was a huge, distant thing on the horizon that was painfully, slowly coming into view. It started to take a shape, and it became more and more real as I could see it looming there. But when I found myself close up, at the end of coursework, at the top of the field exam climb, I realized it wasn't a thing at the top of that mountain. I looked out across another chasm instead, with no clearer image of what the diss really was than before all my hard work.

Enough of that! I won't deny that this poetic sort of thinking about dissertating can be helpful, and is my usual mode as an English major. But especially as a disorganized English major, and as anyone in any discipline who has ever had trouble seeing the clear shape and scope of a project, I needed help thinking practically. I needed help making a plan. There are so many good books on the market, but many of them are titled in metaphorical language, some inspiring, some terrifying: Survival Guide! One of the books in our office has a cover image of a stormy sea with a flimsy lifesaver floating on it.  No thanks.  My dissertation is not the Titanic.

In Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach, the dissertation is not characterized as a "quest" or a "trial by fire" or anything other than what it is. It's a writing project! The book turns the diss into a procedure, like any other.  A procedure with linear steps (some cyclical ones too), with deadlines, and with clear goals. Gone are the musings about "demystifying" the "journey" or some other useless crap that a person in the throes of drafting could have thought of themselves.  If what you need is a clear, disinterested voice, untinged by commiseration or by condescension, to say to you "DO EXACTLY THIS"... then this is the book you should read.

Also, this book is fairly new, like of-this-decade new.  Its authors know about current trends in scholarship in various fields, alternative sorts of dissertations, and contemporary expectations for research in an age of globally accessible information and project collaborations.

In my youth I was always the straight-through writer, never an outliner. In grad school I began to see the purpose of having a structure and some goal-points in mind before beginning a project. But I never put that to use beyond the twenty or so pages required for my term papers.  Assorted piles of papers with color coded post-it notes were enough semi-organization to get me through. But now, as I face this new ~200 page project (journey, chasm, abyss, whatever you want to call it), this book has me obsessed with the checklist, the calendar, the breakdown, and even the "budget" of the dissertation.  In a very good way.

Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach (by Gordon B. Davis, Clyde A. Parker, and Detmar W. StraubBarron's, 2012) is available online and in the NIU bookstore.  Here is a summary from one of the contributors:

http://www.gs.howard.edu/sbe/text/reading5.pdf

At $12.99 it will be one of your best grad school investments (or maybe a close second to the coffee pot).

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