by Rick Oaks
Many doctoral students are surprised at how long it takes to write a dissertation. There is a good reason for this: most doctoral programs tell their incoming students that they can write a dissertation in a year. In my experience, this is not true. I have been working with graduate students for years; I have never seen anyone finish that quickly. I think the average is about 18 months, and some students, of course, take considerably longer. Why does it take so long?
Part of the answer is that there is lot of work to be done before you get to the actual research. As far as I know, every doctoral program insists that before you start collecting data, you write a proposal and get it approved. The proposal typically consists of three chapters, which, in a revised form, eventually becomes the first three chapters of your dissertation.
Ch. 1: Problem statement. This sets out, in broad terms, the problem you plan to investigate, and why it matters. There is usually some discussion of other people’s research, but not that much. You might be able to write this in one month.
Ch. 2: Literature review. This chapter reviews and synthesizes a large body of research – pretty much everything that has been written on your topic – with special attention to recent research.
Reading: You should expect to read 100 articles or book chapters, and take detailed notes on all of them. This alone could take you three months.
Writing a first draft [30-40 pages]. You have to pull together into a coherent discussion everything you have read. What are the issues that are of concern to the community of scholars; how have these issues been investigated; what are the areas of agreement and dispute, and so on? Expect to take at least two months to write this.
Ch. 3: Methods. Here, you explain carefully how you plan to do the study, and you justify your approach by referring to the literature on methods. You also have to explain how you will protect your participants from any inadvertent harm. You might be able to write this chapter in a month.
If you have been doing the math, that sounds like it adds up to four months, but I am afraid it usually takes longer. Your committee needs time to read whatever you write, and make suggestions for how you should improve it. No one – absolutely no one – gets it right the first time. You need to plan on at least another two months for revisions.
Once your proposal is approved (by both your committee and the institutional review board) you can start doing the research – but you cannot just dive in to collecting data. There is usually an extended process of locating participants, and possibly, negotiating with the gate keepers at whatever institution must approve. (These might, for example, include the principal at the school where you hope to interview teachers, or the hospital director where you plan to observe nurses.) And of course, all of these people have busy schedules: You can guarantee another few weeks before you get permission to start.
Finally, you are ready to start collecting data. Here, a great deal depends on what sort of research you are doing. If you merely want your participants to complete an online questionnaire, things can move reasonably quickly. You might be able to collect all your data, and get it set up in an SPSS file, in a month. (I am assuming that you have spent part of the preceding six months creating your survey – so that there is no delay when you finally get approval to go ahead). If, on the other hand, you are doing some variety of qualitative research, you will need to put in a lot more time. These days, most graduate students interview 15 -25 participants, for about one hour each. (In my day, we all did 75 – 100 hours of interviewing. We also wrote our dissertations by candle light, since no one had invented electricity yet.) You must also transcribe each interview and then (depending on your approach), read through the transcripts, carefully coding them for themes. An optimistic estimate is that you might manage two interviews a week – count on three months for the interviewing alone.
Finally, you get to write up your results. Here again, there is a big difference between quantitative and qualitative research. Analyzing questionnaire results with SPSS really does not take that long, especially if you have designed your questionnaire well, and you know what hypotheses you want to test. (Most schools will allow you to get some coaching on this from people like us but of course, we cannot do the study for you—you have tell us what hypotheses we should test.) It is reasonable to think that this could be done in a month.
Analyzing qualitative data is a different ballgame. You have to pore over the raw material, noticing themes and variations, until you decide what sort of story you can use it to tell. I cannot imagine anyone doing an adequate job at this in less than three months.
After you have finished writing, there is, once again, that whole business of revising. Your committee will read what you have written and offer their critique; you have to revise your draft to address their objections and suggestions. There is really no good way of estimating how long this phase of process will take. It depend on the quality of your first draft and, I am afraid, the charity of your committee. Please understand: your committee wants to finish – there is no advantage to them in asking for endless revisions. At the same time, your committee is responsible for maintaining academic standards, and most of us (I have served on my share of those committees), take that obligation seriously. You should expect to revise everything you have written, probably more than once. If you can wrap this up in another two or three months, you can be proud of yourself.
You will notice that I have suggested very different time frames for qualitative and quantitative research. There is no question about the fact that quantitative research is faster. Does that mean quantitative research is the better choice? Not necessarily – it all depend on what you find more comfortable and interesting. I started out as a qualitative investigator, and it remains my first love. These days I also teach statistics, for reasons that remain something of a mystery to me. I actually advise my own students to do mixed methods research: a combination of questionnaires and interviews. If that sounds like double trouble, it really is not. Stay tuned for more on, “Which method should you choose?”
Dr. Richard Oaks studied psychology and sociology at Harvard, received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Michigan, then did two post-doctoral fellowships at Yale.
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