Writing A Dissertation: Tips From Former Ph.D. Students, Part 2

In my last blog, I featured three young scholars—second language writers—who shared their suggestions on dissertation writing. In this post, I’d like to continue this topic and include tips from three more former graduate students, who, just like the ones in the last blog, received their doctoral degrees from Purdue University and are now working in different educational settings.

Veronika Maliborska

“It becomes very easy to get lost in all the information surrounding a given topic.”

  • Field: Second Language Studies/ESL
  • Current position: Assistant Teaching Professor, Northeastern University
  • Year of graduation: 2015
  • Email: v.maliborska@northeastern.edu

Find an efficient way to store and organize all your sources. The amount of articles, chapters, and books one reads when writing a dissertation grows exponentially, and it becomes very easy to get lost in all the information surrounding a given topic. Cataloguing and organizing relevant literature is a laborious process, yet it can save you hours of your valuable time down the road.

The first step is to standardize the titles for all of your source files. I save everything using the year-last name-title; how you title your files would depend on your research focus and personal preference. It is also a good idea to scan printed materials that you cannot access electronically.

The second step is to find a tool to save, organize, cite, and annotate your sources. Your school may offer some workshops and access to such software (e.g., EndNote). Over the years, I have experimented with Zotero, Mendeley, and Evernote. The first two can help you effectively organize sources and even share your collection when collaborating on projects, while Evernote can aid you in brainstorming, taking notes, saving snapshots of interesting quotes, and organizing your ideas.

Finally, back up your files on an additional external hard drive every time you make substantial changes. Computers crash, break, or get stolen, but purchasing a new computer is a lot less stressful than having to collect new data and rewrite your dissertation.

Wutthiphong (Hai) Laoriandee

“You can shine with a simple topic.”

  • Field: Second Language Studies/ESL
  • Current position: Assistant to Deputy Director for Academic Affairs; Chulalongkorn University Language Institute, Bangkok, Thailand
  • Year of graduation: 2014
  • Email: wlaorian@gmail.com

As I write this paragraph, tt has been only two days since the King of Thailand passed away. I would say one important thing that made me go through the challenging time of dissertation writing was my clear goal. I could finish my dissertation as I had planned because I set my definite goal that I had to go back to my university I was teaching to serve my country and my king. I was on a Ph.D. study leave for 5 years, and everybody was waiting for my return to learn from my experience and expertise I gained from Purdue. When you have a definite goal, hold on to it; do not budge, and you will succeed.

Another important thing that made me achieve my goal is that I worked on a doable topic that I liked. I investigated the impact of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations community establishment on English language teaching at my institution. It was doable because my research questions were not complicated, and I collected data from my colleagues. I liked this topic because it was practical. Some findings have guided my teaching since I graduated.

All in all, the keys are set a goal and find some inspiration to achieve that goal. Work on a realistic topic you really interested in, but work hard. You can shine with a simple topic, believe me. ^^

Xun Yan

“A good dissertation topic is not necessarily a ‘trendy’ one or an excessively ambitious one.”

  • Field: Second Language Studies/ESL
  • Current position: Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education (SLATE); University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Year of graduation: 2015
  • Email: xunyan@illinois.edu

A big challenge in dissertation writing is not the writing itself, but the selection of a doable topic. A good dissertation topic is not necessarily a trendy one or an excessively ambitious one; a good dissertation topic should be one that you are passionate about and one that you can manage within 2–3 years. Many graduate students start with a very broad and ambitious topic, but end up either struggling to narrow it down or changing the topic completely.

A good starting point for selecting a manageable dissertation topic is flipping through previous dissertations to see the range of possible topics and to gain a sense of a proper scope of dissertation projects. Also, talk with your adviser and students who are finishing their dissertations in your program, to gather feedback about what’s a feasible topic.

A common misunderstanding of dissertations in TESOL or applied linguistics is that a dissertation has to be a book. Although it is customary for dissertations in social sciences and humanities to be long, a dissertation is not necessarily a book. It is a better strategy to delimit the dissertation topic, while planning for the possibility of further developing the dissertation into several publishable units or satellite projects. After all, a good dissertation is a finished dissertation.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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2 Responses to Writing A Dissertation: Tips From Former Ph.D. Students, Part 2

  1. Claudio Leopoldino de Mattos says:

    I am enjoying so much these set of articles about how to do your dissertation. As I have recently finished my Master course in Education here in Brazil, I have found the tips very expiring. Thank you all for sharing.

    Claudio Mattos
    ELT professional in brazilian setting

  2. Dr Constance Colon-Jones says:

    Doctoral dissertation issues: Indeed a doctoral topic should target tightly into proving thesis point – chapter thru chapter details into validating proposed outcome is critical – for the non-native speaker (most especially, the less than adept at American English and Culture), it is essential to have ongoing doctoral dissertation committee guidance and professional tutorial assistance – DrCCJones, AS, BS, MEd, EdD – Researched, published, and presented – College/University retired faculty – taught 21 credits, developed language lab with Master’s level instructors, graduate and undergraduate student advisor/counselor, Committee Chair and Seats, Study Abroad Travels, Grants awarded

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