Writing a Dissertation: Tips From Former PhD Students (Part 1)

Thinking back to the beginning of my doctoral studies, I remember having an enormous fear of writing a dissertation. Everything appeared to be intimidating: choosing a topic, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting results, writing chapters, and, of course, defending the complete project. I remember asking my fellow graduate students who were ahead of me in the process about tips and suggestions for writing a dissertation.

I know that I am not alone in my fear and uncertainty, as I often hear graduate students asking the same questions that I once had. So in my next two blogs I’d like to feature six young scholars—second language writers—who have recently graduated with their doctoral degrees from Purdue University and who are now working in various educational contexts both in the United States and abroad. I asked each of them to share their experience in writing a dissertation and provide a piece of advice to current students pursuing their doctoral degrees in the language teaching field. The suggestions from three of them are below, and the other three will be introduced in my next blog.

Aleksandra Kasztalska (Linguistics)

“Even though I was happy with the finished product, I couldn’t wait to put it down and ‘move on’!”

  • Current position: Assistant Professor of English; Southern Arkansas University
  • Year of graduation: 2015
  • E-mail: AKasztalska@saumag.edu

My professors always told me that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” and I think that single sentence is one of the most important pieces of advice I received while in grad school. When working on research, I—like many other graduate students, no doubt—tended to set unrealistically high standards for myself, which meant that I was always a little too ambitious about what I could accomplish in the time I was given. Above all, I always felt that there was so much more literature “out there” that I needed to familiarize myself with and as a result I had a hard time putting away all those articles and actually starting on my own papers.

I feel like I approached my dissertation in a similar manner. My original goals and scope were rather broad, and my dissertation committee immediately asked me to narrow down what I wanted to research and write about. Although a little uneasy at first (I wanted to do ALL THE THINGS!), I quickly realized just how right my committee members were. As I started reading the literature and then collecting and analyzing my own data, I found that several months had passed like a blur and that there was still so much more to get done before the defense date! Clearly, my professors were right: This was taking me much longer than I had expected. Sure, I’d done research before, but the dissertation was a whole new ballgame because there were more steps to follow, more unexpected problems to figure out, and because there was a lot more at stake than just a class grade. I was thus extremely relieved that I had narrowed my scope because it allowed me to deal with a more manageable data set and gave me more time to actually write up my findings and make all the necessary revisions without pulling all of my hair out.

Was my dissertation perfect? Of course not. But I gave it my best and I was proud of my work. And, above all, I was able to graduate on time. Which was probably for the best, because, even though I was happy with the finished product, I couldn’t wait to put it down and “move on”!

Ksenia Kirillova (Hospitality & Tourism Management)

“If I have something interesting and new to think about, then I have something to write!”

  • Current position: Assistant Professor, School of Hotel and Tourism Management; The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
  • Year of graduation: 2015
  • E-mail address: ksenia.kirillova@polyu.edu.hk

From the start, I have been a good writer in my native language, Russian. Somehow I always knew what to write and how to write it. Continuing my education in the USA, however, proved that my writing skills were not very relevant in the U.S. academic discourse. Particularly, I struggled with the organization of a logically coherent argument and sentence structure. Although I had improved my writing by the beginning of the PhD program, I had also developed tremendous anxiety about the very act of writing in English. When I inquired with one of my PhD teachers, for whom English is also not a native language, I received an unhelpful piece of advice: “Just keep writing, and it will get better,” ultimately leaving me (and many others) in a swim-or-sink situation.

In this context, writing a dissertation seemed a formidable endeavor. Yet, somewhere in the process I learned a couple of useful lessons. First, no matter how much I dislike writing, I had better get it on with and do it. I made it a personal goal to write at least 500 words a day, and I did not allow myself to go to bed until this objective was fully achieved. Second, writing is thinking: If I have something interesting and new to think about, then I have something to write! I also carefully studied my advisor’s (who is a successful second-language writer herself) published work in attempts to imitate her writing style.

I personally have never been able to benefit from free writing or many other techniques normally suggested by writing teachers. Choosing a dissertation topic that inspired my thinking and fueled the passion was the best writing technique for me.

Masakazu Mishima (Second Language Studies/ESL)

“Are you committed enough to break through all the obstacles to achieve your objective?”

  • Current position: Adjunct Instructor, Language Center; Rikkyo University
  • Year of Graduation: 2015
  • Email: mmishima@live.jp

 “Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” This is a well-known quote from an established American business professional and prominent writer, Paul J. Meyer. As I now look back, all the struggle and joy of writing my dissertation as a second language (L2) writer, his words precisely encompass the particular mindset that I maintained throughout the process of dissertation writing.

Writing a PhD dissertation in the language that is not your own sounds daunting, but I have never really paid attention to the fact that I am an L2 writer. In fact, I have never felt that I am at a disadvantage by any measure. Having been in the field long enough and read many scholarly works, the most obvious fact to me is that quality work is never really about your language status. Look around you! How many of the now-established scholars in our field are L1/L2 writers? And who really cares about their language status? I never really hear people asking at a conference, “Your recent publication was phenomenal. You are not an L2 writer, are you?”

What we (should) care about is whether or not your work contributes to the field and whether or not it demonstrates your in-depth knowledge with keen insight that thrusts into and fills “the gap” in the field. Of course, the quality of writing matters, too. But writing a quality piece for any purpose is a challenging task, and this challenge applies to anyone regardless of his or her language status. That is why it boils down to the question: Are you committed enough to break through all the obstacles to achieve your objective? There are a number of practical tips that I can offer as a former PhD student, but they are all subsumed by the single word—commitment. From finding resources to concocting ways to deal with obstacles of any kind, it is all within you waiting to be discovered.

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 PhD Students (Part 1)

  1. Claudio Leopoldino de Mattos says:

    Nice discussion.
    I have just finished my Master course and the writing process was really challenging, but now I am anxious to move to my PHD.
    thanks for sharing.
    Claudio Mattos

  2. Aeysha says:

    I had the same experience when I started my dissertation for my PhD. These are true feelings which will disappear when you finish your work