A Practical Guide to Dissertation Writing

graduate student taking notes

Maybe you have been thinking about beginning a doctoral degree but the idea of a dissertation is scary, perhaps you are almost done with your coursework and all that is left is that "daunting" dissertation. Either way, don't worry. At DBU, we are dedicated to helping students succeed, and we have put together some helpful tips that will help you navigate your way through the process of writing your dissertation, from choosing a topic to finalizing it all.

What Is a Dissertation?

If you have already completed your coursework, you know what a dissertation is, but if you are at those beginning stages of determining where your academic journey can take you, you may be asking yourself, "What exactly is a dissertation?".

A dissertation is an extensive and original research project that contributes to the existing body of knowledge in your field. The word may seem intimidating initially, but it's essentially a culmination of all the knowledge and research skills you have learned throughout your doctoral program, presented in a written document. By completing a dissertation, you are demonstrating to your professors and to the academic community as a whole that you can produce meaningful research for the benefit of others.

Some dissertations explore some aspect of history, of the life of a historical figure or group of people. Others examine well-known texts or pieces of established literature. Several engage in modern-day research that includes surveys, one-on-one interviews, or scientific experiments. While still more can be based around practical problems experienced in the workplace.

How Many Pages Should a Dissertation Be?

The length of your dissertation will depend on your specific program and department's requirements, as well as the nature of your research. However, most dissertations range from 200 to 400 pages.

Is a Dissertation Necessary for a Doctoral Degree?

If you're trying to find a way around writing a dissertation and still obtain a doctoral degree, you will be out of luck. Completing a dissertation of some sort is mandatory for earning a doctorate for most academic disciplines and universities.

What's the Difference Between a Thesis and a Dissertation?

The main distinction between a thesis and a dissertation is their length and purpose. A thesis is typically a shorter research project written at the undergraduate or master's level, while a dissertation is a more comprehensive and in-depth original research project undertaken at the doctoral level.

Tips for Writing Your Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide

Writing a dissertation is a challenging but rewarding endeavor. As you progress through each step, we're here to provide heartfelt tips rooted in faith and academia.

Let's get started on this journey together, hand in hand.

Step #1: Choose a Topic That Aligns with Your Faith and Calling

If you have completed your coursework, then you probably already know what topic you are going to select. In fact, at DBU, throughout their time in class, students work hand-in-hand with faculty to develop a topic that resonates with their passion and fills a gap in the research already in their field.

However, if you don't quite have that topic in hand, don't worry.  First, make sure that you explore a subject that resonates with your faith and calling. Consider areas of research that align with your theological beliefs, personal experiences, or areas of expertise where you feel compelled to contribute to the body of Christian scholarship.

Remember, your dissertation should reflect your intellectual curiosity and desire to make a meaningful impact in your field. You will be spending hours researching and writing, so you need to select a topic you're passionate about and believe has the potential to advance your field and help others.

Step #2: Conduct a Literature Review

After you've settled on your topic, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get digging. Imagine yourself as an archaeologist uncovering the rich history of your field. Search for published and unpublished scholarly works illuminating your study area. These hidden gems could be books, articles, dissertations, or even unpublished manuscripts waiting to be discovered. (The DBU library has everything you need to start your research.)

Don't be afraid to take your research outside of the library. Attend conferences, seminars, and workshops to connect with leading experts, learn about the latest research findings, and exchange ideas with fellow scholars.

Step #3: Develop a Research Plan

Once you've gained a solid understanding of your topic and conducted a thorough literature review, create a roadmap for your research journey. This roadmap outlines the methodology, tools, and techniques you'll employ to gather and analyze data.

By crafting a well-structured research plan, you'll lay a solid foundation for a successful dissertation. It will provide a clear direction, ensure methodological rigor, and instill confidence in your readers.

You will work closely with your dissertation committee to develop a thorough research plan. Your dissertation committee will be made up of faculty from your institution who will guide you through the dissertation process and ultimately decide when your dissertation is complete.

Step #4: Present Your Research Proposal to Your Dissertation Committee

After all the hard work you've put into the previous steps, it's time to present your research proposal to your dissertation committee. Think of it as presenting your project blueprint to a panel of experts. This formal proposal will provide a detailed overview of your research journey, including the questions you aim to answer, the tools you'll use, and the timeline you've set for yourself.

Not every institution handles research proposals the same way. Some, like DBU, have formal presentations before your committee to ensure you have a clear direction before you begin, and others have a less formal means of approval. Either way, before you start, you need to make sure your committee feels good about your destination.

Therefore, before submitting your proposal:

  • Make sure it's polished to perfection;
  • Review it thoroughly, seeking feedback from your advisor or fellow scholars;
  • Ensure it is clear, concise, and well-organized; and
  • Once you're confident in your work, submit it to your dissertation committee and prepare for their review.

Step #5: Collect Your Data and Prepare Your Outline

Now that your proposal has the green light, it's time to collect your data. Whether you're conducting surveys, interviewing experts, or sifting through archives, remember that every piece is a step closer to answering your research questions.

Step #6: Write Your Dissertation

Armed with the insights gained from your data collection and analysis, you're ready to write your masterpiece. Remember, your dissertation isn't just a collection of facts and figures; it's an opportunity to showcase the profound implications of your research for your discipline and add to the area of Christian thought and practice.

The writing process can feel long and arduous, and you will have to find time to get alone and block out all distractions. However, your professors are there to help you along the way. Be sure to let them help you as you write, and be open to feedback and criticism. Writing is a craft, so trust others to guide you.

Step #7: Final Defense

Once you have completed your writing and your dissertation committee feels good about everything you have completed, it is time for your final defense. If you have followed the guidance of your faculty members and have made all of the necessary corrections and changes, then you are ready to go.  Each institution has a different method for defense, but in all of them, you will be called upon to provide a final summary of your dissertation. Don't worry…by this point, you know your topic as well as anyone in the world! So provide a clear synopsis, be ready to answer any questions that may arise, and be confident that the hard work you have put into the process thus far will pay off in the end.

The Bottom Line

At DBU, we stress to our students that pursuing a doctoral program isn't just an academic pursuit; it's a calling from God. As you dig deeper into your research and craft the chapters of your dissertation, remember Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV): "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways, submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."

Trust in the Lord's guidance, infuse your work with passion, and let your dissertation be a testament to the intersection of faith and academic excellence.

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