A common reason graduate students struggle to be productive is because they have little sense of what a dissertation is supposed to look like. Often reading other people’s defended dissertations in your own department can be helpful to provide you with a better sense of what a dissertation looks like and a general sense of what is expected. You can ask former students for copies of their dissertation. Also, most libraries and even departments keep bound copies of students’ dissertations on file. At the time I conducted my master’s thesis (a qualitative study), I found it very helpful to review a former student’s qualitative dissertation study, especially the method section, to obtain an idea of what I would need to write. That dissertation study was quite different from my project but I was able to use it as an example that helped me get started.

Exert a bit of caution when using this strategy. When you read someone else’s dissertation you are reading the final product; a product that has likely been through many rounds of revisions based on feedback from others and considerable time, effort, and struggle to take shape and be in its final, bound form. If you find yourself becoming anxious and wondering how you will do a dissertation at the level you are reading, remind yourself that this dissertation was not written in a day or even a month and likely involved much sustained effort. It is possible that you will read other people’s dissertations and have the opposite experience. Sometimes, students find it reassuring to see that most dissertations are not prize-winning nor are they publication ready. Reading other people’s dissertations can be a way to recalibrate your expectations and see that your dissertation does not need to be a magnums opus.

This article was written by Alison Miller, PhD, owner of The Dissertation Coach, a business dedicated to helping doctoral and master’s students successfully earn their graduate degrees.

Copyright August 2007 by Alison Miller, Ph.D., The Dissertation Coach