Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Beginners guide to dissertation writing: recommended resources

Today I decided to share ideas and resources to help you conceptualize your dissertation study.

One of the areas that I find students struggle with is the use of a conceptual framework. So far, I have found two great resources to help with this area. The first, which I am using in a dissertation proposal seminar for the first time this May, is a book by Upenn professor Sharon Ravitch and her co-author Matthew Riggan. As Ravitch and Riggan state in the preface, they, like me, have watched students struggle with articulating a rationale for choice of topics and methods, provide a theoretical or conceptual framework for studies, and or fail to connect conceptual frameworks to existing literature. Their book "presents conceptual frameworks as a mechanism - process and product - for resolving much of this confusion and lack of coherence". I highly recommend this text.

The trusty text that I was using prior to coming across Reason and Rigor is John Maxwell's Qualitative Research Design, now in its third edition. Maxwell provides an excellent overview of the process of conceptualizing qualitative studies in chapter 3 titled 'conceptual framework: what do you think is going on?" I highly recommend this book, even for folks using quantitative methods this chapter would be very useful.

The other area where students struggle is in setting up the research design for the dissertation studies. My favorite resource for this is Creswell's Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. In this text, Creswell provides detailed instructions on how to write a research proposal using qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods. Chapters 2 and 3 are on literature review and using theory respectively, which both help with conceptualization of research and can be used along with the two resources discussed above. Creswell dedicates an entire chapter to how to construct a purpose statement, and provides excellent ten examples for studies using various research methods. I have used the 3rd edition shown below, though the 4th edition has just been published by Sage.

Another excellent resource that goes beyond proposal writing, to data analysis and interpretation for qualitative methods is also by Creswell, Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing amongst five approaches. In this text, now in the 3rd edition, Creswell provides indepth coverage of phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, case study and narrative approaches to qualitative inquiry. Students often struggle to understand and articulate the philosophical assumptions behind their research studies. In the chapter on 'philosophical assumptions and interpretive frameworks' Creswell makes difficult terms such as ontology, ephistemology, axiology and methodology understandable. The text goes into sufficient explanation for each of the approaches as to enable a researcher to determine the best choice for her research study. By showing how one study can be explored using each of the 5 approaches, Creswell helps to unpack both the comparisons and the uniqueness of each approach.

The first resource discussed here, Reason and Rigor, is excellent whether you are using qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods for undertaking your research. The other three are specific to qualitative methods. Next time, I will focus on recommending resources for quantitative methods.

What other resources would you recommend for social science dissertation writers? Do not hesitate to comment or email me.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Preparing for the Oral Defense of the Dissertation

This week I get to celebrate one more doctoral candidate who successfully defended her dissertation, congratulations Dr Priscilla Ndlovu! In the spirit of celebration and as several others run towards the finish line, I decided to revisit a topic I covered a year ago on (March 30, 2012) on getting to a successful defense. In that earlier post, I talked about creating a plan and working it, avoiding distractions and derailments, keeping a pace akin to coursework, learning from those who have gone before you, social support and accountability. In that post, Keith Keppley also posted his reflections as one who had successfully completed his defense.

First of all, at this point in the journey, you are an expert on your topic – including the context and content of your study. Act like one! Demonstrate your competence confidently. Own it!

Be prepared to answer questions about the content of your study. Expect questions about the conceptualization of your study, the theoretical framework, the methods employed (not only how suitable, but what you learned about research design by using the specific method), the findings and implications.

As far as implications go, at this point the committee or examiners want to know, ‘now that we know this (your study findings), so what?’ Demonstrate your expertise by linking your study findings to existing literature where you can be extending it and/or even critiquing it.

Further, expect questions related to the practical implications of your study. That is,  in what ways does your study inform the practice of [e.g. leadership development, organizational change, long term healthcare administration, college teaching…]whatever your topic is? Your examiners are interested in hearing you articulate the [potential] practical applications of your study. 

Finally, I have noticed in some of the committees that I have served in, that some of us are also interested in hearing how the dissertation process impacted you. Indeed, if the dissertation process is more than just an intellectual exercise, it might, for example, impact the choices you make about your future career goals, it might make you reflective about your social identity and the power associated with the researcher role. My dissertation process opened up a world of cultural explanations and depth of understanding about women’s status in my motherland in ways that came as a surprise. For some, the impact might be in getting them excited about scholarship to the point of deciding to become academics…

As usual comments and questions welcome. All the best as you prepare for your oral presentation.

Dr Faith