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VI. Organize Before You Write

Mar 16, 2016 by Carol Ray Philips

Perhaps, there are two dissertation curricula: a public curriculum and a hidden one. The public curriculum is the one disseminated by your institution, school, and/or department in the form of guidebooks, templates, rubrics, checklists, etc. As you get closer to starting your dissertation, it is critical that you become familiar with these materials. It's hard to give general advice about the public curriculum because different institutions have distinct rules and processes. You need to carefully follow these explicit rules to progress as quickly as possible.

The hidden curriculum consists of the unwritten rules and ways to make the dissertation process work better for you. This post discusses several aspects of the hidden curriculum: understanding the iterative process, maintaining the momentum, and creating systems of organizational tools.

Recognize the Iterative Nature of the Process

In your previous coursework, you submitted papers to be graded. Your instructors may have provided substantive feedback that you were meant to apply to future papers. The dissertation process proceeds using an entirely different process. You send drafts of parts of your dissertation to committee members. They do not grade that material, but provide feedback for you to incorporate into the next draft that you show them.

While different institutions and faculty handle this process differently, generally you and your chair go back and forth with your drafts. Sometimes second and third committee members come in during that exchange or are invited in after the chair has approved a sizable chunk of your writing, such as a chapter or the proposal. Also expect that additional committee member(s) or other gatekeepers (such as the Institutional Review Board) will require further iterations. Think of it this way: each person in one of these positions wants to help you improve your work. Rarely will one of them not have suggestions for improvement. You will likely produce numerous drafts. Just remember, such iteration is the norm.

Maintain Momentum

Once you've sent materials to your committee, you may think you need to wait to get their feedback before continuing on the next writing or researching task. Think again, there is always something dissertation-related for you to do. If parts of your work have been approved, begin writing first drafts of the next parts. Update your references. See if anything new has come out since your last search. Try to stay connected to your work by maintaining your daily dissertation work time.

Create Systems

To work efficiently. create systems of all sorts. For example, since you will have, at least 50-100 references, you will need to use a reference database. As soon as you've read a text, enter it in your database with all of its bibliographical information. Set up columns to record important information about the text: type of research methods used, the type of sample, and, the findings. Be sure to include relevant references that you read in your coursework. When you are waiting for feedback on a draft you've submitted to your committee, use the time to update your reference database.

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