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Improving weaknesses with your dissertation

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Yvette Williams. Dr. Williams is the CEO of The Esteemed Scribe, LLC. Her company offers copy-editing, proofreading, ghostwriting, and blogging services. Among her specialties include editing services for Ph.D. Candidates who are preparing their dissertations for defense and publication. Dr. Williams earned a doctorate degree in Urban Social and Environmental Geography from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Dr. Williams taught undergraduate coursework in urban and community studies, environmental science, and environmental ethics. She maintains professional memberships with the Editorial Freelance Association, International Society of Professional Writers, and The Association of Ghostwriters.

You put what you thought were the finishing touches on the last chapter of your dissertation. It feels like you have been writing for ages. Just when you were about to wipe the sweat from your brow, you receive pages of comments from committee requiring you to address weaknesses in your dissertation. After reading the comments, you discover that you don’t know how to answer their questions or fix the problems they pointed out. You’re tired, stressed out, and overwhelmed. You may be even worrying about how to finish writing your dissertation.

Before you give up in despair, it is important to adopt an enlightened perspective about the dissertation writing process. Writing a dissertation is like running a marathon. It is a long and laborious process of learning how to organize, integrate, summarize, and synthesize the writing of your research. And just like a marathon runner, the longer you are in the race, the more your endurance will be tested. Two problems that may show up as weaknesses in your dissertation are poor writing and poor alignment of your research components. In the following sections, I discuss ways to address these problems so that you can finish writing your dissertation.

One of the most common weaknesses of dissertations is poor writing. Your committee may have mentioned they are having difficulty understanding discussions within your chapters because your overall writing is unclear or inconsistent. Some of these problems may be due to grammatical, spelling, punctuation, tense, and other writing mechanical errors. Other problems may include redundancy, wordiness, and weak word choices (problems I struggled with). Both of these problems may stem from the fatigue that comes with writing a dissertation. However, if left unaddressed, these problems will not only prevent your dissertation from being defensible but also undermine your credibility as a scholar.

To address problems of poor writing and improve the overall quality of your dissertation, I recommend editing services. I recommend editing services only if all following are true: 1) all of the writing for your chapters is completed and approved by your research advisor or chair; 2) you have received revision requests and substantial feedback from your committee; and 3) you foresee defending your dissertation within six months or less. Before you hire an editor, it is important to understand that there are different types of editing services available. Furthermore, editing your dissertation is an iterative process that requires time, feedback, and in most cases, a significant financial investment. In my article, From Frustration to Finish: How the Manage the Editing Process for your Dissertation, I discuss different types of editing services as well as approaches to help you select the best editor for your dissertation.

Returning back to the marathon metaphor, you’ve been writing for so long that, like the marathon runner, you may be losing sight of the finish line. In this situation, you may be struggling to bring your dissertation to a close. This usually indicates a second example of weaknesses -poor alignment of your research components to your dissertation framework.

The following are brief, generalized examples of comments you may have received from your committee that indicate this problem:

“I’m not sure what you mean by “x” argument. This doesn’t seem to follow what you discussed about “y” theory. Can you clarify?

“I am confused by what you mean by “x” result. How is this connected to “x” hypothesis?

“Your conceptual model states “x” theory but you haven’t clearly discussed how this model explains your findings.”

One of the most important aspects of writing up your dissertation is its framework. Think of the framework as similar to a skeletal system. Along similar lines, the framework of your dissertation consists of research components (i.e., bones) which forms the scientific basis of your research. These components include the following: concepts, theories, questions, problem statements, hypotheses, results, findings, and conclusions. Although the selection and arrangement of the components may vary by the discipline or paradigm of your research, they should all align and function together. To use the skeletal metaphor, although the skeletal framework of a human differs from that of a bird, all of the bones for each organism are designed in a way in which they fit and function together. To summarize, the generalized examples of comments I presented earlier indicate that there are problems with the alignment of your theory, concepts, questions, or other research components which will ultimately affect how you bring your dissertation to a close.

To reach the finish line, your dissertation will need to function properly. This will happen when you meet one or more of the following objectives: 1) answer a question(s) within a narrow scope of your discipline; 2) add to the theoretical or applied body of knowledge; and; 3) make a unique scholarly contribution to your discipline. To illustrate how to align your research components, I will I share a little about my dissertation research and writing challenges. My doctoral research involved an interdisciplinary framework in which I examined vacant land management in socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods of West Baltimore City, Maryland. I employed theoretical and conceptual perspectives from the disciplines of urban ecology, political ecology, urban geography, and environmental justice. As part of my dissertation framework, I created a conceptual model which proposed that management of vacant land was related to the preferences of selected stakeholders for maintenance activities that created safe, clean, and attractive spaces.

While attempting to align the results of my thematic analysis with my conceptual model, I discovered that the conceptual model was insufficient to explain underlying social relations among stakeholders. In other words, my thematic analysis revealed issues of power and agency that could not be explained by simply examining preferences for maintenance activities. Thus, there was a poor alignment between my research components (i.e., my conceptual model) and my results. Rather than be hindered by this weakness, my research advisor encouraged me to discuss the misalignment in a way that would not only shed light on the challenges of conducting interdisciplinary research but also lay the foundation for grounded theory (i.e., the development of theory from data). In summary, using this approach helped me to meet the aforementioned objectives #2 and #3 and finish writing my dissertation.

In closing, weaknesses such as poor writing and weak alignment of your research components do not have to spell disaster for your dissertation. Rather, look at these problems as opportunities for you to get a “second wind,’’ become a better writer, and, ultimately finish your dissertation. Looking forward to seeing you on the finished side of Ph.D.!

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