Surviving the Dissertation:
Motivation and Encouragement Across Disciplines
“I spent every night until four in the morning on my dissertation, until I came to the point when I could not write another word, not even the next letter. I went to bed. Eight o’clock the next morning I was up writing again.” –– Abraham Pais, Dutch-born American Scientist
“You don’t need special traits, special genes, or special motivation to write a lot. You don’t need to want to write – people rarely feel like doing unpleasant tasks that lack deadlines – so don’t wait until you feel like it. Productive writing involves harnessing the power of habit, and habits come from repetition.” — Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, 129
Both these quotations from prolific writers have quite a few things in common. Both stress on the endurance to continue writing in a repetitive process so far as to turn it into a habit. However, while Pais himself was a genius, Silvia’s academic counseling is also for the average student, a third of who do not complete their doctoral dissertation in USA. However, it is clear in the implications that both the scientist and the academic counselor are stressing on the habit-related part of writing and that there is no substitute for extensive research and hard work. Nevertheless, this statement is not without its problematics in the contemporary world where students face regular issues with dissertation writing in content and process.
The content of a dissertation varies across disciplines and, in many cases, so does the process. As the doctoral dissertation is the first major step in original research, this blog will concentrate solely on the Ph.D. thesis. This is not to imply that dissertations and theses at undergraduate and post-graduate levels are not concerned with original research; it is only to reiterate that rigorous methodologies are learnt and applied only at the doctoral level.
Issues of Content and Process
There are numerous issues faced by students at both the content and process levels of the doctoral dissertation. Both these types have their problems and solutions so that students might be motivated in due process of their dissertation.
- Issues Regarding Content
The issues regarding content are mostly over statements of the problems, review of the literature and research methodologies. All these examples vary across disciplines and some require logic and mathematical reasoning (the hard and applied sciences), while some require creativity and an intuitive grasp of multiple realities (the creative arts, mathematics and the humanities). The research methodologies for thesis problems are in varying degrees of difference depending on the subjects.
However, there are also points of integration where interdisciplinary research occurs and such higher issues, when taken up by any Ph.D. research student in his/her dissertation raises problems regarding content and methodologies. Similar to disciplinary issues regarding content, interdisciplinary transgression of boundaries brings a host of new challenges. The methodologies and secondary literature regarding the issues of content in interdisciplinary studies also have their own problematics. Students often face many problems in drafting their proposal as many fail to get “the bigger picture” of their disciplines. Those who move beyond such hurdles also face problems regarding content as the formulation of new methodologies and their due or innovative application, bureaucraticor governmental hurdles in ethnographic fieldwork, archeology or in rummaging through archival sources. There are even problems in content such as formulating new theories and canon building, politics of inclusiveness or exclusivity that might challenge the very foundations of the dissertation itself.
Finally, there is the problem of secondary literature, plagiarism and anxiety of influence. Knowledge of a number of languages is required to read all secondary literature of a particular dissertation topic. Besides, in ever-growing fields of knowledge creation within disciplines in a global world, the intellectual responsibility to contribute something new to the existing database of human wisdom remains.
- Content Issues in Arts, Humanities and Mathematics
In these disciplines a more creative and holistic worldview of things are taken. However, most holistic worldviews are also problematized in due process of the dissertation. This kind of continuous problem-solving and mastery and subversion of worlds and forms require extensive readings in secondary and critical literature, a learned pedagogy and a keen insight into the themes that dominate the disciplines.
- Problem: Students often have a problem in mastering the bigger picture and in reading extensive theoretical, secondary and critical literature. This kind of approach leads to a tunnel vision of things and simplistic ‘interpretation’ and ‘solution of problems’.
Solution: Students undertaking a Ph.D. dissertation have to make slots for extensive reading. Reading all and sundry literature produced hitherto about the topic in question and about theory and methodology can only ‘bring out’ the insight that leads to the formation of incisive world views. This expansion in ideas can only lead to a mastery and subversion of realities and worlds that are key in the process of methodological problem-solving.
Problem: When students leave disciplinary boundaries behind, many of them have to face the challenges of forming new and innovative methodologies for problem-solving, canon building and mastery of ethnographic, archeological and archival work. This sort of work often creates disciplinary and bureaucratic hurdles.
Solution: Such problems need to be overcome by inter-disciplinary and inter-departmental collaboration. Active collaboration between faculties and departments through small study groups of senior and junior (Ph.D.) researchers lead to successful interdisciplinary knowledge creation and production. Bureaucratic hurdles in research can only be solved through internal channels of influence and students must make the best of their contacts and public relations.
- Problem:There is also the problem of plagiarism of ideas and the anxiety of influence. Mostly, such plagiarism is unintentional and the result of limited reading.
Solution: Without extensive reading of most relevant literature in two or three languages regarding the topic of the dissertation, it is an impossibility to avoid genuinely unintentional plagiarism. Each language should have a slot in the student’s study schedule that goes into bettering his knowledge of relevant literature.
- Content Issues in Hard, Engineering and Anatomical Sciences
Most of the issues regarding content in the hard, engineering and anatomical sciences are about ethics. Theoretical discoveries, ground-breaking technology and medical research have great repercussions in the human and non-human worlds. Often Ph.D. dissertations in these arenas do break new ground. Very understandably, there is always a human, non-human or environmental cost and this spontaneously brings in questions of ethics.
- Problem: A) There are numerous issues regarding the content of the hard sciences. Some of these are concerned with the bettering of knowledge through practical application and the question of ethics. There are questions like to whose purpose and betterment should a technology be applied and what is the ethical role of the student or scientist if his or her discovery or invention is being used for detrimental or evil designs. What is the role of the student of science or engineering when his or her dissertation or invention is being used for destructive instead of constructive purposes? What if the perpetrator is a ruthless and fascist government? There are also issues regarding patenting of inventions and the rightful attribution of new theoretical paradigms to the scientist(s) ormathematician(s) concerned.
- B) In the applied sciences and engineering there are issues regarding transparent collaboration between government agencies and the private or public research universities or institutions. There are times when a Ph.D. dissertation might break new ground in knowledge, but there might be ethnic, racist or religious bias on part of the supervisor or the institution concerned. Also, there might be political repercussions of a particular theory, invention or paradigm as manifest in a dissertation. Some such examples are studies of the energy sector where, at times, ground-breaking work in Ph.D. dissertations has sometimes been ‘held back’ on the pretext that ‘the political and socio-religious world might not be ready.’ Besides, there is always the question of environment and to what extent should corporate or governmental bodies go to implement profit maximization. In the real world, sadly enough, most of these rules are flouted ruthlessly and unethically by numerous heavy, chemical, food and energy sector industries in the developed and developing nations. Students might face many hurdles when they theme their dissertations on these ethical issues, especially if the work is of immediate relevance to the industrial sectors mentioned above. Their work might also face corporate or governmental usurpation or ‘hijacking’ and then used by some such body for nefarious designs.
- C) Then, there are momentous questions in the anatomical sciences such as the ethical use of human subjects in research by scientist(s), corporate bodies and governments. There are issues regarding pharmaceutical or ethical medical testing in underdeveloped nations. Like in the above sciences, Ph.D. dissertations do bring about questions of ethics. Also, in the pharmaceutical sector, protocols are flouted ruthlessly by governments and corporations. The real world scenario for content issues in the above sciences is bleak indeed.
Solution: Hence, most of the content-related issues in the hard, engineering and anatomical sciences are about ethics. Students who are about to embark on their Ph.D. dissertations are required to investigate the kind of university or institution which they are applying to and to what government agencies it is linked and how far its parameters of social responsibility and transparency run. There are no immediate solutions to these issues than to be vigilant and affiliate oneself with civic-responsibility and transparency bodies. Continuous mobilization of public opinion by students, in cases of rampant flouting of norms by corporations, industries and the government, is required. Only with proper awareness, ethical responsibility and consistent vigilance will reformative democracy be prevented from turning into fascist and banana republics. Students and their supervisors who are involved in ground-breaking work for research and development should be always aware that they are in touch with civic-reformation and ethical-research related bodies. In case of responsibility towards the non-human and environmental worlds, processes of sustainable and eco-friendly development should be followed.
- Content Issues in Business and Management Sciences
Content issues in dissertations and research in the business and management sciences are concerned with similar ethical issues as in the previous section.
- Problem: Dissertations in the Business and Management sectors also have content-related issues regarding new methodologies and ideas in business as these often clash with governmental vested interests.
Solution: Sustainable development in business and related spheres should be researched extensively and corporate social responsibility (CSR) should be taken seriously. Corporate and business dissertations should emphasize, along with new methodologies, to be legally and ethically responsible for the betterment of people and the Earth and not mere maximization of profit. There should always be a balance between new ideas in the business sphere and the maximization of profit margins.
- Issues Regarding Process
Although, problems and issues regarding content are variously different across disciplines, process-related issues have a similarity among them. There are also the problems regarding process such as personal and family problems, procrastination and writer’s block along with issues in managing time and balancing part-time work and study. Some of the solutions to these issues are as follows:
- One should arrange for small study groups and collaborate among friends with similar academic interests to give birth to new ideas. Sometimes participatory knowledge leads to innovative ideas due to collaboration among people with similar interests.
- If one is having problems of familial or personal nature, counselling sessions with an expert in psychiatry or family-issues should be arranged. Sometimes an expert can assist in ways which are known only to them.
- The best way to break through procrastination is to begin writing on any issue that comes to mind in relation to the dissertation. New ideas germinate automatically when one makes an active effort to keep on writing.
- The best way to get over writer’s block is to write about the first idea that comes to the mind. It is best to follow Pais’s method of continuous writing till one drops so that breaks do not disturb one’s mind.
- It is always in one’s best interest to first get an idea of the big picture of the dissertation. Once the big picture is in mind, every gap will automatically fill up.
- If one gets stuck in gaps, one should seek the help of one’s supervisor. The supervisor is the best person to guide through the dissertation.
- If continuous writing is a problem due to part-time work or other issues, one should take continuous notes and jot down ideas that comes to one’s mind.
- Writing daily, even for a 15-minute slot, enables continuity and brings closure to the dissertation.
- One should always keep the big picture in mind as it helps to connect the dots through the notes and the process of continuous or daily writing.
There are many issues in the writing of a dissertation that often forces students to quit and drop out. These can be divided into content and process-related issues. While content-related issues are concerned with the discipline and its technicalities, process-related issues are more universal across disciplines. Solution of these issues in a number of ways gives motivation and encouragement for dissertation writers across disciplines.
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