Writing and Presenting Your
Thesis or Dissertation
S. Joseph Levine, Ph.D.
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan USA
Note #8 - The frustrations of a developmental process
I consider the preparation of a thesis/dissertation to be a developmental process. For each individual the thesis/dissertation can be unique and different. However, the aspect that ties everyone together is the fact that they are all participating in a developmental process. And the frustration of a developmental process is that it may be very difficult to have a clear picture of the end (or even the path that must be taken) when you are at the beginning. However, if you move ahead with the understanding that clarity will grow as you proceed I think you will find life a lot easier. I think that it is naive to assume that as a researcher you will have a nice neat view of the end and a good understanding of the paths to the end when you are beginning the process. The more the researcher is able to embrace and be comfortable with being involved in a developmental process the more comfortable he/she will be with the entire project.
This idea of an emerging understanding can (should?) begin at the earliest stages of the process - with the selection of the focus of the study/research. I have seen many of my students get very frustrated when I repeatedly send them back to the "drawing board" to develop a better focus for their research. I sense that a great part of the frustration at this early stage is that the student may assume that I (the advisor) know what they should focus on and am withholding the information from them. Wrong! What I do know is that I sense that they haven't developed enough ownership in the focus of their study and it is my role to challenge them until they can not only defend their selection to me but also to themselves. The good news is when the student is finally able to defend the focus of the research, he/she is then able to move rapidly ahead in the process. It always amazes me - the student who can defend his/her focus (has developed ownership) develops the initial insights that can help lead through the next steps.
The literature review chapter is also a developmental process. You may not have a clear view at the beginning of the process what the boundaries of the literature review will be, what the sections will be, how it will be tied together, etc. That's okay! In an attempt to get the student past this roadblock I usually encourage them to be very broad in their examination of the literature (don't be too quick to exclude anything). I also encourage the student as they begin to work on the literature review to "capture" everything that they examine because they won't know for awhile exactly what pieces will be important and what ones won't be. Thanks to the proliferation of photo copy machines it is possible to make copies of every article that you see that may (or may not) be important to include. Again, keep in mind that you are involved in a developmental process and the path you will need to take will begin to emerge with clarity ONLY as you get invested in the process. I think you will find as you are collecting more and more potentially relevant articles that your own understanding of what may be important to include will grow. (I briefly touch on this idea in my Dissertation Guide - http://www.learnerassociates.net/dissthes/#10)
At the point when you are no longer finding potential articles for your literature review it's probably time to sit down and see what you have. I like to use the floor or a large table to arrange my articles - putting them into groups, changing the groups, hierarchically organizing the groups, etc. This process can show me the areas that may still be lacking, the areas that appear to have too many articles, the areas that need to be re-directed, etc. When the articles appear to be grouped in a meaningful way I will then have a) a much better understanding of my topic, b) a much better understanding of the work that has preceded me, and c) a clearer picture of how my presentation in the literature review should proceed. And, it has occurred through a developmental process. I didn't have the understanding at the beginning. It grew as I moved forward in the collection of material.
Most of us prefer to start a project with a strong burst of speed at the beginning. My advice - slow down and take a more developmental/emerging approach. Again, my experience has shown me (without fail) that the student who moves cautiously and developmentally at the beginning will finish in much better shape than the student who tries to get off to a high speed running start (potentially running without direction).
If you are comfortable being involved in a developmental process that gains clarity as you proceed, you will be comfortable preparing a dissertation or thesis.
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Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation