Academic Exchange Quarterly   Spring  2004    Volume 8, Issue 1


New Professors’ Reflections on the Dissertation Process


Karen A. Onofrey, Arizona State University West

Deanna Day, Washington State University Vancouver



Karen A. Onofrey is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Arizona State University West where she teaches courses in language and literacy.  Her research interests include reader response theory in conjunction with humor and middle school students.


Deanna Day teaches at Washington State University Vancouver.  Her research

interests include literacy education, partnerships with schools and

communities, and teacher preparation.




In this article, we reflect on the process and procedures that we embraced when completing our doctorates.  In the quest for academic excellence, we examine the role of organization, current technology, collaboration among graduate students, and options in traveling and scheduling.  With the intention of providing pragmatic information for those still in the midst of their research and writing, we also share what we wished we had known prior to the experience.
New Professors’ Reflections on the Dissertation Process



Do you recall the excitement you experienced when you opened your acceptance letter into your chosen doctoral program?  And equally important, do you recall a few years later sitting in front of your computer in the middle of the night frustrated when your printer ran out of ink?  What happened to the excitement you first held at the start of your program?  The reality is that writing a dissertation is filled with unforeseen obstacles creating unique journeys for each individual.


When less than 50% of graduate students actually complete the dissertation process (University of North Carolina,, n.d.), this suggests that writing a dissertation is an experience like few others in life.  In her humorous and carefully crafted essay, Higgins (2000) suggests that doctoral students are susceptible to DAC, Dissertation Avoidance Complex, if not aware of the various symptoms.  Clearly, the path is long and filled with tension, energy, and excitement.  Each person’s journey is individualized, yet all writers share commonalities.  In this article, and in a collective voice, we reflect upon the process, procedures, and products that we embraced when completing our dissertations.  In the quest for academic excellence, we examine the role of organization, current technology, collaboration among graduate students, and options in traveling and scheduling.  With the intention of providing pragmatic information for those still in the midst of their research and writing, we share what we wished we had known prior to the experience.


Organization: The Key to Sanity

We believe that writing a dissertation reflects more about the writer’s sense of perseverance than about the intelligence of the writer.  One way to promote and ensure perseverance is to be well organized.  In this portion of the article we offer suggestions concerning manageable writing schedules, maximizing your time to read, understanding your new role as a scholar, structural shortcuts, how to create boundaries when writing, and how to organize your writing supplies. 


To begin, we recommend creating manageable writing schedules.  When deciding how much you need to accomplish in the next day or in the next week, we suggest that you always stop before you finish.  Specifically do not finish all items on your “to do” list at the end of your day because it may make you too unproductive.  Expand your “to do” list at the close of the day and give yourself a clear agenda for your next writing session.  By doing this, you will know exactly where you are beginning and based on our experiences, you could potentially save up to thirty minutes per day.


Next, discover your most productive time of day and work on content area writing during this time period.  At the close of your writing day when you are typically most tired, focus on the minutiae of formatting and editing that often requires less energy and concentration from most writers. 


Because you need to become a master in time management, we suggest that you carry “what if” articles.  A “what if” article is reading material that is imperative to your study that you keep with you in the event you find a few extra minutes before a doctor’s appointment, while stuck in a non-moving traffic jam, or during some other unexpected gift of time. 


It is important that as a doctoral student you learn to expand your definition of humility.  While taking courses in a doctoral program, feedback from professors may reflect expectations they have for graduate students.  When you are writing a dissertation the feedback that you receive will often reflect that of a scholar.  We, as well as many of our colleagues, were not prepared for such intense constructive criticism concerning our organization and format of our writing.  During our coursework we welcomed our professors’ constructive comments, probing questions and further inquiries however, something changed when we passed through the ceremonial gates of the dissertation process. 


We recall opening initial drafts of chapters from our professors and being in complete shock.  Who were these people and what had they done with our endearing and supportive professors?  What had happened to the people who we adored, honored, and respected?  Why had they written on nearly every page?  What we came to realize is that accepting humility is a gift, and in fact, the professors with whom we respected so much wanted us to be the best scholars possible.  This constructive criticism needs to be put in perspective when writing; you must stay focused and not become discouraged.  Ultimately, you need to view yourself as a scholar and no longer as a graduate student. 


Another organizational strategy includes obtaining copies of various dissertations with similar structural formats that are closely related to your content area.  Carefully review how and when various authors introduce their driving research questions, what information is included in their appendices, how the chapters are connected to one another and how findings are explained.  Specific examination of each chapter layout, how data is delineated and organized will also save you time when writing your own.


Creating boundaries on many levels also proves important during the dissertation process.  We suggest changing your voicemail message to reflect your new role as a writer.  For example, the second author created a message that stated that she was in “Siberia” and would return calls after she finished writing her dissertation.  You also need to be selective when answering e-mail.  Tell friends and family not to send jokes or short stories via e-mail.  Tell them you can only answer e-mail occasionally and it should be content driven.  Remind the people in your lives that every second counts.  In the same vein, if outside obligations surface, we suggest attending functions only when you have an invested interest in the event.  If you need to attend events with other people, consider traveling to social or family events in separate cars allowing yourself to leave on your own schedule.


Another aspect of organization includes carefully storing your raw data either in a small fire safe or in the refrigerator in the event of fire or water damage.  Remember to store all of your writing on back-up disks.  Out of fear, we created a back up to the back-up disk.


Finally, do you remember as a child getting a list of required school supplies from your teacher at the start of the school year?  Well, writing your dissertation is similar to this experience.  If money allows, try to purchase writing supplies in bulk and ahead of time.  Nothing is more distracting than running out of ink after a store has closed or using the last piece of paper thinking you have more.  We suggest that you buy a box of computer paper containing several reams and split it with a colleague if that eases your budget.  Also buy a few cartridges of ink and begin to scout out any special paper you may need for the final copy of your dissertation that will be turned in to your perspective university.  Our university required us to have watermarked, 100% cotton paper.  This is not always easy to locate depending on where you live.  As boy scouts everywhere will tell you, be prepared.


Technology: Friend or Foe 

You may be the type of learner that is fascinated with technology or perhaps you view it as a necessary evil.  In either case, in this next portion of the article, we offer practical ideas in organizing your word processing learning curve, formatting your documents, and also suggest current programs and resources for creating references and data analysis.


Sometimes when you find yourself immersed in coursework, you avoid learning how to use word processing or computer programs related to research with the intention of addressing these programs during your data collection process.  Although this appears logical, your time will be in high demand when you become engrossed in your data collection, analysis and writing.  Exploring and becoming proficient in various programs and features of your word processor during your coursework is much more time effective.


Specifically, learn how to create the index, heading and table of contents functions.  According to your university’s guidelines, choose an approved font; customize the page numbers, headings and margins before you embark in the writing process.  Make each chapter a different document; this will save you time when searching for specific sections, spell checking, and editing.  Small documents save you time when learning how to manage much larger documents.  When each chapter is finalized, put all of the chapters together into one document and create the table of contents.


Additionally, take advantage of effective technology.  Two programs recommended by other doctoral students and deemed worthy of investigation include Endnote and NVivo.  Endnote is an easy self-taught program used for creating the reference and bibliographic section of your dissertation.  Using Endnote, found at most office supply stores, ensures all references are accounted for and will save you countless hours of typing and formatting.  Nvivo is a program designed to organize your analysis of qualitative data.  Information on how to purchase NVivo can be found at 


If you find that you learn best from an old-fashioned book, we suggest you peruse The Dissertation and Research Cookbook From Soup to Nuts: A Practical Guide to Help you Start and Complete Your Dissertation or Research Project (Simon & Francis, 2001).  This text is rich in content providing the reader with necessary details and ideas in a whimsical fashion “from soup to nuts.”


Collaboration:  The Lifeline to Success

Becoming an active member in a writing group can prove powerful.  In this section of the article we offer parameters about how to begin a writing group, potential daily responsibilities, and how to communicate with a writing group that spans time zones.


To start, choose to write with people who will push you in your thinking and for whom you have something to offer as well.  Keep your group to a manageable size; three to five members is optimum.  Next, identify areas of specialty.  For example, within your collaborative writing group, who will you contact if you have a question about editing, content, or formatting?  Because the process is lengthy, identify each person’s personal writing schedule so you are aware of when you can most easily contact someone. 


Consider the benefits of a daily e-mail partner and e-mail your “to do” list each morning or at the close of your work day.  Somehow the commitment to words on the computer screen may make you more accountable and more focused.  Equally important is your commitment to be a good e-mail partner helping your partner to stay accountable.  Remember desperate times create desperate measures.


Should your writing group bridge state lines or even time zones as was our experience, we encourage you to e-mail chapters of your dissertation to long distance members of your collaborative writing group.  Include guiding questions with the chapters to focus the readers’ attention on your needs.  After an agreed amount of time, engage in a predetermined conference call.  Another alternative for people living within a reasonable distance is to meet halfway with a detailed agenda.  Lastly, the use of fax machines for easy communication and the opportunity for handwritten notes on drafts of chapters may also be necessary.  After all, there are times when e-mail is not sufficient and snail mail is just too slow.


Long Distance: The Road Less Traveled

Sometimes the road less traveled is an ironic statement for doctoral students.  Both authors lived 110 miles away from our respective university and commuted between four and a half to ten years earning our degrees.  We know more about road markers, driving in inclement weather conditions, radio talk shows, and speed limits than we care to admit.  We have often said that a career in trucking might suit us well if higher education is not a true calling.  Given this commute, we needed to use our time wisely.  Next, we provide ideas concerning carpooling and explore the obstacles of accepting a full time position prior to completing your dissertation.    


One strategy that worked well for us while carpooling was to dedicate the drive to the university to discussions surrounding our personal lives and then dedicate the ride back home to issues concerning our writing.  We could often be found with a small handheld tape recorder in the event that a memorable phrase or sentence was shared.  We would record it on the spot and then easily insert it into our writing the next day. 


Another option is to take a shuttle bus while commuting long distances to school.   Besides conserving your vehicle and controlling the air quality, you are able to read and even write while someone else does the driving.        


Some of our fellow doctoral colleagues began their full time careers under the guise of ABD (All But the Dissertation).  These novice professors are the first to admit there are both benefits and drawbacks to such an experience.  The benefits include being able to attend to student loans faster since doctoral students are not typically overseeing Fortune 500 companies while writing a dissertation.  They also recall their sense of excitement and flattery when they were asked to participate on various long term projects and service opportunities at their universities.  So, as all new professors do, they said “yes.”  In one case, one faculty member did not write nor look at her data for 18 months and when she did revisit it, the journey was long and tedious because she had lost her momentum and interest in the research.  Another new professor recalls being relieved when her university lost her students’ course evaluations from her first semester.  She questioned her sanity as she taught her first semester while she simultaneously finished writing her dissertation, defended, made revisions and graduated from the program.  Does this mean it cannot be done?  Certainly not, but do tread lightly.


Yielding to Life: Alternative Scheduling Avenues

There are many times while writing a dissertation when you may feel as if life has caught you by surprise.  Next, we provide some alternatives scheduling ideas and investigate the benefits of early feedback from your committee.   


The challenge of balancing family responsibilities, economics and graduate school dictates that some doctoral students must work full time while completing their dissertations.  In this case, we suggest that you ask your dissertation director to help you create an alternative writing schedule that will best help you address all of your life’s demands.  Do you need to write your chapters in a less sequential order?  Do you need to create an intense writing schedule to accommodate obligations and career demands during different months of the year?  As history predicts, you may need to consider long weekends and even holidays as precious opportunities for completing or polishing a chapter. 


Gaining early feedback from committee members is another type of scheduling alternative.  Sometimes waiting until your defense to hear about major revisions and comments from committee members can cause undue stress.  To alleviate this problem we advise submitting major chapters concerning your questions to your committee members as soon as time permits.  Next, meet with each committee member individually to discuss any revisions.  This early feedback will help you to continue writing and avoid disappointing surprises at your defense.   

Closing Thoughts: The Beginning of the End

It is important to develop a personal writing style that works best for you.  Use the ideas and resources mentioned in this article that best fit your needs; use them in their entirety and modify others as needed.  Leave your options open when writing since part of the process is not knowing every turn.  Be as advantageous about current technology as time and finances allow.  Lastly, do not underestimate the power of collaboration that might invite you to have a richer, fuller and more beneficial learning experience.



Higgins, J. (2000). The art and science of avoiding the dissertation. Academic Exchange

            Quarterly, 4(2), 126-128.

Simon, M. K. & Francis, J. B. (2001). The dissertation and research cookbook from soup

            to nuts: A practical guide to help you start and complete your dissertation or

 research project (3rd ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

UNC Writing Center Handout/Writing Your Dissertation. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2003,