Plan Your Assignment

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1: Identify and refine your research question

Your interest in your research questions will help you maintain focus on the dissertation process.  The work you do may become the starting place for future research work and the next step in your career.  Choose a topic that interests you and will help you advance your career. However, your choice of topic will depend on the requirements of your professor, advisor, program, department, college, university, and academic discipline.  Review any documents or handbooks that outline the requirements and expectations.

Strategies:

  • Examine the requirements, expectations, and methods used by your department, program, and advisor.
  • Review completed dissertations in your field, those done by students in your program, with your advisor, and on similar topics.
  • Set up a system for organizing your search results, citations, PDFs, primary sources, notes etc. using citation management tools (e.g. Zotero, Mendeley, EndNote) or other strategies.  You can use these tools to create "in-text" citations and bibliographies or works cited lists as you write.  
  • In some cases, you will be given a research question or a list of topics to choose from by your advisor.  In other cases, you will develop a topic based on your own research interests. 
  • Review departmental information to learn about faculty research areas and identify faculty who might be interested in working with you. Try Experts@Minnesota.
  • Do a preliminary study of the literature related to your topics to understand previous research, key themes, issues, variables, methodologies, limitations, terminology, controversies, and gaps in the current research.  Identify significant researchers and scholars working in the area.  Consult a variety of sources such as websites, research blogs, books, journal articles, conferences, organizations, and other sources.
  • Narrow your ideas to 2 or 3 possible research questions.  Evaluate your question using criteria like feasibility, scope (too narrow or too broad), your level of interest, and future benefit to your career.  
  • Discuss your ideas with colleagues, mentors, and other professors for comment and feedback.
  • Organize your research ideas into a pre-proposal for use in discussion and negotiation with your advisor.
  • Revise and modify as needed based on comments gathered.
  • Be sure that you and your advisor are in agreement about the research questions before drafting the final proposal.

Tips from the Libraries:

 

Percent time spent on this step: 
5%
2: Develop the research design and methodology

The research design is the strategy or blueprint for the collection, measurement, and analysis of your data. Generally the design is the overall logical structure for your project and the methodology refers to the detailed steps for data collection and analysis.   The type of design and method used is determined by the nature of your research question. Certain research designs and methods are core to specific fields of study or programs.  Your design needs to be consistent with the requirements and expectations of your advisor, committee, and program. 

Strategies:

  • Understand that your choice of design and methods will influence the niche you develop for yourself within your department, your discipline, and the wider academic community. 
  • Read and review information about design and methodology (e.g such as books on methodology) and study examples of how these strategies have been applied in research similar to yours (e.g. other dissertations, articles, etc.).  
  • Consider any philosophical and practical factors.  Identify the theoretical approaches inherent in your design and methods.

Tips from the Libraries:

  • Use Sage Research Methods Online to learn more about design and methods.
  • Search MNCAT Discovery for books and articles on theory, design, methods, and analysis.
  • Read about specific statistical techniques and software packages, for example,  SPSS or SAS. For example, Lynda.com offers online tutorials and some libraries and OIT labs have this software. Learn about statistical consulting services, if needed.
  • Learn about data management best practices.  Data management plans assist you in planning the types of data you will collect, standards to document your data (metadata), security measures to protect the confidentiality of your subjects and intellectual property, and methods for archiving and sharing your data.
  • Review dissertations with similar designs and methods to learn about what worked well and what obstacles occurred.

 

Percent time spent on this step: 
5%
3: Review the literature and write the proposal or prospectus

Proposals generally include the title of your project, an introduction, literature review, and a description of the research design and methodology for your proposed dissertation.  This is often used as the foundation for the first three chapters of the completed dissertation. Be sure to read other successful proposals as examples to guide your work.  Check with your advisor, mentors, or department for examples.

Strategies:

  • Title-Write
    an effective title for your dissertation proposal.  Remember that the title is the first thing that is going to help the reader understand the nature of your work. You will likely revise the title but aim to include the most important descriptive words. The title words will help researchers find your work in the future when they search for research online.  Avoid ambiguous words and use a subtitle if needed.
  • Introduction-Use the introduction to establish the context of the research being conducted and to summarize the current and historical understanding about the topic, your rationale, theoretical perspective, and proposed design and methodology.  Explain the significance of your question and potential outcomes.
    • The introduction establishes the context for your research by briefly summarizing the current and background information about the topic.  Use it to state the purpose of your work in the form of the hypothesis, question, or research problem, and briefly explain your rationale, theoretical perspective, design and methodological approach.  Identify the significance and potential outcomes your project. 
    • The introduction might include acknowledgement of the previous work on which you are building, an explanation of the scope of your research, what will and will not be included, and a "road map" or "table of contents" to guide the reader to what lies ahead. 
    • Although this is the first section the reader comes to, you might want to to write it last, since until then, you will not be absolutely sure what you are introducing.
    • Write in the future tense since it is a proposal.  It can be changed and edited later once it becomes part of your dissertation.
    • Tips for writing an introduction from University of North Carolina 
       
  • Review the literature to support your question and explain how your research will fit into
    the existing literature. Review the literature in your field to:
    • Develop an in-depth understanding of your topic and clarify why your research is significant
    • Ensure that your research is an unique contribution.
    • Understand the broader discipline and field(s) of which your topic is a part. Position or frame your topic in your field and establish the link between existing research and your question.
    • Explore important methodologies, controversies, and research issues.
    • Identify names of key researchers, core journals, other research centers, possible sources of funding.
    • Explain your rationale for the research design and methodology and your plan to use and describe why it is appropriate for your research.
    • Your reading and study of the literature should be very comprehensive as your prepare your proposal and later write your final literature review. Now is the time to immerse yourself in your topic.  
    • The written literature review is selective and does not include every article or source your find on your topic. Think of yourself as a curator at a museum. Select the most meaningful, representative works for your "exhibit" but you will have had to have read and critically evaluate many more sources that you don't include in your literature review.  
    • Build a workflow or system so you can keep track of sources (e.g. citation, PDF, etc.) including notes/rationale for sources you are using and for those you choose not to include (with your rationale for excluding them in case your advisor or committee have questions later). 
  • Schedule your proposal meeting after approval by your advisor and/or committee chair following departmental procedures.  In some departments the proposal meeting is called the "prelim oral."  Be sure that committee members receive their copy of the proposal in advance.
    • Determine the expectations
      and requirements for the proposal meeting, for example, find out what
      type of presentation, if any, is expected.  Talk with colleagues who
      have completed this process to understand more about the meeting.  
    • Be sure that you have completed all the necessary forms from the Graduate School or your department.

Tips from the Libraries:

  • Meet with your subject librarians and or librarians from related subjects to learn about useful library databases, keywords, citation tools, and specialized services for researchers.   
  • Go to workshops or watch recorded workshops from the University Libraries. 
  • Use the Center for Writing, Student Writing Support resources, especially for graduate writers resources.   
  • Review other dissertations both for ideas on how the literature review can be organized and for useful articles and other sources. 
  • Review what you already have written and presented for your course work and other projects.
  • Use subject-specific databases, in addition to, MNCAT Discovery to locate the literature in your field.
  • Search article databases outside your discipline. Explore interdisciplinary databases such as Web of ScienceGoogle ScholarScopusJSTORWorldcat, etc.
  • Browse and search in the core journals in your field. 
  • Decide if you need sources that are international in scope and use additional search strategies as needed.
  • Identify non-digitized sources.  Depending on your research area contact library archives or special collections and consult with curators or other staff to learn more about relevant resources.
  • Use Interlibrary Loan to request materials not available at ULibraries. 
  • Use subject headings or a thesaurus within a database to find similar sources by concept rather than just keyword match.
  • Review the bibliographies of articles and books to identify additional sources.
  • Do "cited reference" searches to identify researchers that have cited other specific books or articles of interest.  Use specialized tools like Web of ScienceScopusGoogle Scholar and other databases to trace the citations both backward and forward in time.
  • Track where you have searched and your search terms by keeping a research log or journal.  This will help you identify the most productive sources and not repeat what you have already done.  If needed you will be able to report your search strategies.

 

Percent time spent on this step: 
15%
4: Gather and analyze your data

After your proposal is approved, the next step is to implement your research plan by gathering and analyzing your data.  Before you begin there are more steps to consider if you have not completed these.

Strategies:

  • Obtain any needed human subject or animal care approval from the Institutional Review Board.
  • Create a strategy to organize your files, contacts, observations, field notes, and bibliographic information.
  • Implement a small pilot study before proceeding with the full data collection. This will help you to test your approach to ensure you are collecting data that reflects your research question.  Document details such as time involved and issues in the study for either you or the participants. Determine if any modifications to your study need to occur before proceeding.  
  • Identify and test a strategy for transforming and analyzing the data (e.g.  coding data, transcribing interviews, running statistics, etc.). 
  • Test your analysis method with the small pilot study or sample of your data.  
  • Create graphs, tables, images, and other outputs that illustrate your results.
  • Meet regularly with your advisor to discuss and resolve any questions.

Tips from the Libraries:

  • Use Sage Research Methods Online to learn more about design and methods.
  • Search MNCAT Discovery for books and articles on data visualization, data mining, data processing, methods, and analysis.
  • Try Lynda.com for online tutorials on data visualization, Excel, charts, graphs, etc.

 

Percent time spent on this step: 
30%
5: Write the Results and Discussion sections. Update the Introduction and Literature Review sections.

Results Section:

The results section of your dissertation is the place to report your findings based on the data you gathered. This section should appear in a logical sequence based on your methodology.  State your findings without interpretation.  

  • Use non-text objects to illustrate your results including tables, figures, images and visualizations. Illustrative objects should either be placed within the dissertation text or at the end of your dissertation.
  • Summarize all your results whether they are statistically significant or not.
  • Put raw data, survey instruments, and release forms, etc. into appendices if appropriate and required.  

Discussion Section:

The discussion section is often considered to the be the core of your dissertation.  It gives context to your research, explains what your results mean, and the relevance. As part of the discussion incorporate elements of your literature review and describe the significance and implications of what you found.

  • Include your research questions identified in the introduction. Describe how you have moved the field forward. Explain how your research enhances or fills a gap in existing research. Identify any unexpected or contradictory findings.
  • Explain how your results relate to existing literature and if they are consistent with previous research.
  • Describe how your results can be applied. This could take a variety of forms such as real world application, best practices or recommendations.  

Update the Introduction and Literature Review. 

  • Review and update your introduction and literature review sections to ensure that they are accurate and current. Change the tense if needed from future to past.  

Write the Conclusion.

  • Share the conclusion have reached because of your research.
  • Explain limitations in your research and possibilities for future research on your topic.

Tips from the Libraries:

 

Percent time spent on this step: 
25%
6: Edit the Dissertation draft and prepare for your defense

Although editing and revising occurs throughout the writing process, budget sufficient time to return to your draft for full-scale revision. Seeking feedback, reviewing, and editing your document helps you to:

  • See your text from a reader's perspective.
  • Examine the overall organization and identify what is no longer relevant and what sections need further development.
  • Bring together parts written at different times to create a coherent, connected whole.
  • Make your ideas clear to others, which in turn, will result in better reader comments. 
  • Plan and negotiate your progress in consultation with your advisor and committee members.

Strategies:

  1. Separate large-scale revision from small-scale editing and proofreading, making sure to make large changes in organization and content first rather than spending hours smoothing out a sentence you'll end up cutting. Use a checklist of common errors when you do your final editing and proofreading, or consider hiring an editor to help you identify and fix such problems.
  2. Ask colleagues and others for specific types of feedback to guide the comments. Connect with your dissertation support network and members of your committee to receive constructive feedback.
    • Help your readers help you by giving them a direction, for example in a cover letter, in which you explain what you want to accomplish in the draft and list your specific questions and concerns. 
    • Identify potential readers' expertise and skills when deciding which parts of your dissertation you want them to review.  For example, perhaps only people working in your lab can constructively comment on your "methods," while friends in other disciplines would give useful feedback on the "introduction."
    • Respond to all comments even though you may decide to not incorporate a suggestion.
    • Negotiate with your advisor and committee members to establish a process for submitting drafts for their feedback.
  3. Check all calculations, visual details, and citations for accuracy and validity and remove sources you are no longer citing or add new ones.
  4. Prepare the bibliography, appendix, title page, and acknowledgements.
  5. Be sure you are formatting your document to meet the graduate school preparation requirements.  

Prepare for defense:

Your defense is your final opportunity to present your dissertation as a coherent, intelligent product to the committee members who will read and evaluate it. And, although the defense is a challenging prospect, remember it is your chance to share your work with interested colleagues, who will give you valuable feedback.

  • You may or may not be expected to give a brief presentation at the beginning.
  • Focus on the needs of your primary audience (your advisor and committee), either by consulting them directly or considering their feedback to your initial draft.
  • Review your notes and rationale for making the decisions you made in your draft for example, including or excluding certain seminal theories, authors, and research methodologies.  
  • Remind yourself that at this point you are now the "expert" on your research and the goal of the defense is to present and share your expertise and seek feedback from interested readers.
  • Dissertation Defense from Texas A&M
     

Note: Check deadlines for commencement and submission of the dissertation.

 

Percent time spent on this step: 
15%
7: Finish and submit your dissertation

Your dissertation defense committee will have informed you that you passed your defense, or passed with minor revisions needed. In some cases, substantial revisions are needed before the committee members agree to pass the dissertation. The procedures, requirements, and timelines for completing the dissertation process may vary depending on the department and college with which you are affiliated and the type of doctorate you will receive. Once any needed revisions have been completed and approved, you are ready to finish the dissertation and submit the final version to the Graduate School.  

Strategies:

  • Many departments have their own handbooks to guide students through the process with timelines and specific academic style guidelines. Consult the details in the doctoral handbook for your department and college.
  • Review the Doctoral Dissertation Submission requirements found on the Graduate Student Services and Progress Office website. Follow the steps outlined
    for Doctoral Dissertation Submission.

Tips from the Libraries:

  • When submitting your dissertation consider your rights as an author. For example, you may want to retain your legal rights to the copyright for your work.
  • A copy of your dissertation is submitted to the University Digital Conservancy (UDC) for long term, open access and archiving.
    • You will retain your rights to your dissertation when submitting it to the UDC.  
    • The UDC copy of your dissertation will be freely available for you and others to read and link to with a permanent url. 
    • Learn more about the benefits of the UDC for your dissertation.
  • A copy of your dissertation is submitted to ProQuest/UMI Dissertation Publishing making information about your dissertation available through ProQuest Digital Dissertations. The full text of your dissertation will be available through libraries that subscribe to this product or copies may be purchased. You may also opt to make your dissertation available on an open access basis via ProQuest Open Access Publishing.  

Closure

Once you have completed the committee, departmental, and graduate school requirements regarding the dissertation, you're almost done. Now it is time for personal and professional considerations. Find a way to bring closure to the dissertation and the doctorate as a goal, deadline, and benchmark in your life and look ahead to the future and the next steps in your career. Taking time to celebrate your achievements, honor and appreciate those who have helped along the way, and refocus your activities will help you articulate and pursue new goals for research, publications, teaching, and community service.

 

Percent time spent on this step: 
5%