Practical tips for graduate students undertaking a dissertation

Producing a doctoral dissertation can be an intimidating process, writes Bill Huckle. Here, he shares practical strategies for graduate students taking on the work to share their original contribution to knowledge with the wider community

William R. Huckle's avatar
9 Jul 2024
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Perhaps you’ve heard the adage “the best dissertation is a done dissertation”. Facile? Maybe. Once you’re on the other side of a finished dissertation, however, you may find yourself agreeing. 

Yes, the writing is important, but earning a PhD is a process that includes not only your research and literature review but also adhering to submission requirements, collecting feedback and preparing your oral defence.

As an associate dean in the Graduate School at Virginia Tech, I am involved in student support and mentorship, curriculum design and programme governance. These experiences continually remind me that the dissertation process can feel overwhelming, fraught and exceptionally challenging. 

Below are practical strategies for tackling the PhD dissertation that I share with the graduate students I advise. While these pointers are perhaps most relevant to students in the life or physical sciences, I expect that many will translate to the arts, humanities and other disciplines as well.

  • Rather than waiting until well into your studies, start writing introductory chapters relatively early in your graduate programme as soon as is feasible.
  • Preparing a detailed literature review can more effectively inform your experimental approaches and may result in a manuscript suitable for publication.
  • Familiarise yourself with institutional requirements for preparing and defending your dissertation well ahead of time. This can include document-formatting conventions and submission procedures, as well as deadlines for the formal scheduling of your oral dissertation defence with the graduate school. These details are typically found in an official graduate catalogue or programme website.
  • Counting backwards from your desired formally scheduled defence date, set (and adhere to) a schedule for completion of requisite tasks. These will include drafting the document, executing your own revisions and those suggested by your advisory committee, and originality confirmation. 
  • Allow at least three or four months for writing and editing your dissertation and collecting feedback from your advisory committee. Resist the temptation to do “just one more experiment” and other distractions that will slow the preparation of the document.
  • Clearly convey to your advisers your needs and expectations for editorial turnaround time to help them plan and manage their own time…and don’t hesitate to remind them as deadlines approach. 
  • Often it is time-efficient to distribute chapters for feedback as you complete them rather than waiting until the entire dissertation is finished; you can then focus on another task while your advisers review the writing in hand.
  • If your dissertation will consist of multiple already published or submitted manuscripts as separate chapters, allow time to write comprehensive introductory and concluding chapters that contextualise and tie together the individual reports.
  • If your scholarly work has been done in conjunction with other graduate students, make sure to acknowledge who is responsible for which specific contributions and that work you contributed has not been/will not be claimed by another student as their own.
  • Allow time to check that copyright law is followed. If you have signed away copyright for images or other protected elements to publishers, secure the needed permissions to use them in the dissertation document well in advance of submission.
  • Write your dissertation abstract last. You won’t have an accurate picture of what you’re abstracting until the full document is finished. This is like the executive summary of a report or a presentation; the details will be finalised upon completion.
  • It is common for your advisory committee to suggest – or insist – that certain editorial revisions be completed following your oral defence. Give these your full attention such that the final document can be submitted and approved within the required time window.

And a quick word to clarify terms: in the US, the term “dissertation” is typically reserved for the document produced by doctoral candidates, whereas master’s level graduate students complete a thesis. Both are written products that reflect and document the detailed exploration of original concepts in a particular field of scholarly endeavour, and the terms are often used interchangeably.

Writing is essential for successfully sharing your work in your field of expertise with the wider community. That may seem intimidating, but it can also be highly motivating and rewarding. Remember too that, once released online, your dissertation will be accessible by other scholars all over the world and will be the single, quasi-tangible representation of the totality of your doctoral study – make it the most polished document it can be. And if you need help, reach out and ask for it. 

William R. Huckle is associate professor in the department of biomedical sciences and pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and associate dean in the Graduate School at Virginia Tech.

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