Avoid These 6 Common Ph.D. Dissertation Pitfalls

Any doctoral candidate who is wrapping-up their dissertation project is going to have a number of things they overlooked that can be a real headache to deal with as time runs short for completion and then graduation. I have placed myself in one such situation presently. Through my own lack of attention to detail, a number of issues have been identified in my dissertation that are now requiring quite a bit of effort to correct. In fact, I’ve spent so many hours today working on the project, this blog post is the break I am needing just to let my mind have a break before getting back into the mix and getting this thing finished.

The 6 most common mistakes identified (by making them):

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Don’t be a cowboy! Ask for guidance

1. Trying to do it all without input

Don’t be a cowboy (or cowgirl)! There is great value in being a self-motivated person who doesn’t want to bother their professors with questions about every little detail. However, you do need to know exactly what is needed of you and you should discover these things prior to moving forward on any aspect of your dissertation. It’s a real bummer to have to go back and redo areas of your project simply because you assumed you knew what your committee wanted. Get all the details up front.

2. If you make a statement, it needs support

You can’t make a statement without supplying peer reviewed, documented support for it. You’re not going to get away with making a statement like, “academic achievement scores are improving due to increased time spent in physical education” without giving specific citations to support it. Every statement you make must be verifiable with scientific support. If you don’t have research that supports the statements you want to make, don’t make them. Your professors will tell you to find support for your statements in the current literature or remove them from the paper. The doctoral dissertation isn’t about what you think, it’s about what the research says – it’s science, not opinion. Every aspect of your project must have relevant, current research to support it or else it’s just trash.

3. Make sure your statistical analysis plan is approved by all committee members

Your dissertation committee members have things to do and your dissertation isn’t very high on that list. You cannot assume that just because you emailed them all your project proposal that they read it carefully. If they don’t read it carefully, it’ll come back to bite you later on when they tell you that they don’t approve of some aspect of your project. This is especially true with the statistical analysis plan you develop for Chapter 4 of your dissertation. Make sure all members of your committee sign-off on you statistical analysis plan before you begin running stats. You’ll thank me for this advice.

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Your committee members have been there to see it all. Follow their direction

4. Remember that your committee members know more than you

Working to have a quality relationship with the members of your committee is important – they know more than you and can direct you with sage wisdom and insight. I had a weird situation where two consecutive committee chairs left the university without notice and a couple of my committee members did as well. This placed me in a bind because I was then relying on the input (and mercy) of other professors who I had no relationship with. Luckily, this seems to have worked out okay for me (I’ll know more in a week or so) because my current dissertation committee is quite helpful, but so that you can avoid similar issues, work to visit with your committee members and gain their thoughts on things as you progress through your dissertation project. It’ll keep you from having to do so much backtracking and will help you build a quality project too.

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The first slide of my dissertation defense

5. Keep your Dissertation defense presentation brief and on-point

No fluff! Your dissertation defense presentation will usually run about 15 minutes followed by about 60-90 minutes of Q&A and general discussion. The presentation should be done using Power Point or something similar and should follow a professional, non-distracting format. Your slides will be brief and to the point and you will need to expand the conversation using your own words as reading from the slides shows poor form. You are the expert on this project, act like it! It is also advised that you place additional slides that come after the presentation ending slide, just in case your committee asks questions that need detailed clarification. My dissertation defense presentation was only about 12 slides long, but I had at least 8 additional slides on the back end, just in case someone wanted very specific information about some aspect of the study that I would need to provided them information for. Just in case the technological aspects of your presentation go haywire, be sure you have brought printed copies of your presentation with enough area for your committee members to make notes. It is a best practice to provide these to them whether your computer system is working or not. Most often there will be no technology problems, but I do know people who showed up and the projector was broken, or the provided computer could not read their disk. Be sure to email your committee chair a copy of your presentation and save a copy for yourself in your email inbox for easy access. Always ensure your dissertation presentation goes according to plan by planning ahead.

4 8165583 6. To eat or not to eat? That is the question

It is also important that you ask your dissertation chair their input on whether you should bring food items or not. I brought an assortment of cheeses, fresh fruit, pita chips, hummus, a container of gourmet cookies and bottled water to my dissertation defense but some committees may have specific things they’ll want you to bring, or they may object to the idea of bringing food to the defense altogether. Ask your chair for guidance in this matter.

And there you go! These are my 6, very current, and very real pitfalls that I have experienced firsthand and hope you will work hard to avoid. Your committee will always have edits for you to make no matter how diligent you are in preparing your project, but you can avoid a number of the silly things I have brought upon myself by paying attention to the items listed above.

To your success!

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