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Organizing the Process of Graduate Research

Mary Hricko, Kent State University


After graduate students complete their degree coursework, most are usually uncertain how to determine a suitable topic to research for a thesis or dissertation length project. Beginning research for a graduate thesis or dissertation may seem like a daunting task, but there are several useful strategies that can simply and organize the process. The following overview offers suggestions to consider at the various stages of the research.

Selecting a Committee

When deciding upon which faculty members in the department might be good candidates for a thesis or dissertation committee, most students usually select individuals they have enjoyed taken classes with and have similar investments in the research topic. Before finalizing the committee membership, it is recommended to see what type of working relationship these individuals have with one another. For example, have these faculty ever written a paper together? Have they served on other thesis or dissertation committees together? Do they have experience working on projects together? While such collaboration is not necessary, it is important to know the type of working relationship potential committee members have had with one another. It is also recommended to talk to each of the potential committee members to determine if they are able to devote time to support a thesis supervision commitment. Selecting a faculty member who is working on a book project or teaching several new course preps may not be the best choice if that individual has limited time to fully participate in the process. It is also important to see the experience the individual has with supervising such projects. Departments have records on who has served on previous committees which can prove useful in the formulation of a committee related to your area of study. Graduate students should take time to meet with potential committee members and talk with them about the proposed project to determine if they are the “right” people to help you. Doing so may prevent challenges with committee members that do not get along professionally or have opposing research aesthetics. It is important to get a copy of the committee member’s most recent curriculum vitae, especially for the external committee member, to get a sense of the breadth of their research directly related to your proposed topic of study.

Topic Identification

Most students rely on their dissertation chair or committee members to help with deciding upon a topic for research, but take some time to look up recent dissertations through Dissertation Abstracts on the topics you are considering. This research is valuable because it reveals what work has already been done and it provides already researched bibliography lists for a literature review on the topics you finalize. Reading the conclusions of these papers could also provide directions for the thesis or dissertation since most conclusions outline what additional research must be done, what further studies could be explored, and what gaps in the research still exist. Doing this preliminary research also provides a sampling of how other researchers prepared their prospectus proposals. Usually the introduction of a thesis or dissertation is derived from the actual prospectus the writer submitted. Since most academic units have specific guidelines for the thesis or dissertation proposal (often referred to as a prospectus by some academic departments), it is important to get a sample document to see what type of format is expected. Some academic units may even have packets of information related to the thesis and dissertation process. It is also recommended to get a copy of this materials from the external reviewer’s department as well because there may be differences. Knowing how the external reviewer’s department conducts thesis and dissertation reviews can prove helpful in understanding the comments that this reviewer ma make related to format of your chapters. It is also important to meet with the chair of the committee for any additional requirements such as an annotated bibliography or book list.

Tools for the Project

To organize the project, it is highly recommended to get several three ring binders for each section of the thesis or dissertation to keep the materials of the literature review and all papers. Use one notebook for the introduction and conclusion, one notebook for each of the sections of your project, and one resource notebook. The resource notebook should contain all information related to deadlines, forms, department handouts and email sent by committee members. Keeping this material together is very useful for easier access. As graduate students begin their research, they can place articles and other reference materials that coincide with each chapter. I have recommended to my students that they make a photocopy of the book information from which they are citing materials as well as the pages they are citing and include it in the chapter notebook in which this material will be used. Highlight the quoted text and list the page number where it appears in the thesis or dissertation. Some people prefer to scan their articles and materials into electronic folders of similar merit, but the traditional notebooks prove very reliable in terms of access and storing information.

By keeping a record of this material in this format, it serves several purposes. First of all, it keeps a record of all cited material. Sometimes graduate students may have to return interlibrary loan materials and instead of trying to re-request materials over and over again, copying the pages that are needed in this format saves time. Placing the pages in this format is also helpful when editing the chapter because it prevents omission of citations. Even though there are many software applications such as RefWorks that help keep a record of citations, it is easy to forget to submit electronic entries. Immediately making hard copies of all the cited material prevents such omissions. This practice also is useful for gathering information for seeking publisher permissions. Some publishing companies want copies of the pages being used. Keeping this material in this format makes it easier to re-copy all of the pages from the book if you have to send the pages out to the publisher or editor if the document is going to be published. Finally, it keeps a good record of the research used in the thesis and dissertation should it be needed again for a follow-up project. In addition to including this information, it is useful to copy all the bibliography pages of the books being used for additional literature review resources should additional materials are needed. Not all bibliographic listings are available in electronic format and many bibliographies often list primary resources not available on the web. In addition, whenever you are working on one of the chapters of your project, you have all of your resources in one notebook.

Another useful tool that students should consider is a bibliographic software application such as EndNote or RefWorks. Most universities and colleges have licenses for these tools and graduate students should take the time to attend a workshop to learn how to use these tools in the preparation of their thesis or dissertation. It is also recommended to set up an appointment with academic support individuals such as the subject area reference librarian and the IT department to seek support and assistance for the project. The student may enlist the subject librarian for research support in locating hard to find materials and interlibrary loan and the IT contact for setting up tools to back up materials and expand space on the network for storing materials. If the IT department provides a service to clean and update one’s PC and assist with PC maintenance, it may be wise to take the computer into the department to evaluate for its use. It is also important to discuss with the IT staff ways to prevent the accidental deletion of materials and prevention of malware attacks. Graduates students should purchase an external hard drive to back up all of their files on their PC as a safeguard for their work. It is a worthwhile investment. This time is also good to attend workshops on learning how to use the editing and bibliographic features of word processing applications. Doing can save time in formatting documents that have been edited.

Finding Resources

When students begin their research most rely upon books and scholarly articles for their literature review, but it is very important to consider several other resources to find useful and valuable information. One of the most underutilized resources for scholarly research is government documents. There are a vast number of resources available in government document databases and depositories that are readily accessible and available for research. Many government agencies have extensive access to primary resources that are organized to make locating specific information very easy. The Library of Congress has links to letter collections, photographs, manuscripts, author’s collections, and numerous materials supportive of research in the humanities. Access to historical documents, research depositories, and primary source documents can be located through electronic archival sites sponsored by government agencies. Each government agency also has an electronic library of archived historical resources related to the topics covered by the agency. Many of these resource link to primary research materials that could prove useful since it offers access to current white papers and other ongoing research in the field. Examination of such documents can help students identify key researchers in the field of study related to the thesis or dissertation topic and keep students aware of the most current research occurring on the topic. This information is very useful for the literature review.

Another less used resource involves digital media collections which contain audio, visual, and social media resources that often provide relevant primary resources. Videos presentations can offer an organization format that students can follow to organize their chapters on a given topic and link to valuable resources that are often not found in traditional print resources. Recorded oral histories, interviews, and documentaries offer extensive materials that can build upon existing resources and offer point-counterpoint presentations on a given topic that helps identify areas that may be challenged in the pursuit of the specific research topic. Social media resources can also lead to location of primary and secondary reference materials that can assist the graduate student with locating different types of information required for the project. Posting inquiry questions on social media sites such as Twitter and Pinterest can link to articles, web sites, contacts, and a multitude of other materials that can benefit locating current information. Setting up a Twitter list or a google group for thesis and dissertation research can be used to connect to other individuals doing similar work and foster collaborative support for locating hard to find references and other materials. It is also useful to consult library resources such as George Eberhardt’s The Librarian’s Book of Lists which provides several lists of library, subject, and news sources blogs that list links to current information not readily available in electronic databases.

The Writing Process

Graduate students should schedule writing time for their work rather than attempt to write a chapter in a weekend. Even though an individual may not want to write during this time, it is best to schedule in a few hours a week devoted entirely to writing and editing. All too often graduate students procrastinate the actual writing of the research they have gathered. By working on each chapter a few hours a week, it lessens the burden of being pressured to hurry through the writing of a given section to meet a chair’s deadline. It is highly recommended to map out a management plan for the completion of the project much in the same manner that a project management team approaches an assignment. During this time, a graduate student can also write to publishers to secure permissions for copyrighted materials. Even of the thesis or dissertation may not immediately need these permissions, should the student wish to publish material from the research or the dissertation as a book, the publisher of the manuscript will require it. Doing this while one is writing also motivates a completed project. If graduate students are investing so much time in producing this manuscript, they should consider making it a publishable document. There are many free mobile apps that one can use to develop a project based management plan.

The management plan that the graduate student creates should include ongoing meetings with members of the thesis or dissertation committee. Although some chairs want the graduate students to send manuscript drafts to them, it is important to keep in contact with all the members of the committee throughout the writing process and share drafts with all members of the group. In this manner, the dedicated faculty members on the committee will make revisions as the student submits materials. Students who only submit a final draft sometimes are shocked when a committee member sends them numerous edits and revisions that could have been addressed early on in the process. Such interactions also build a relationship of “research understanding” in which the graduate student gains a focus of the committee’s ideas about the topic. This interaction can prove useful when answering the questions posed by these individuals during the defense. Faculty members tend to discuss a graduate student’s research through the perspectives of their own work. Interacting with committee members throughout the process of writing helps a graduate student understand these perspectives.

Getting Ready for the Defense

To prepare for the defense, take some time to get a copy of the research (books or recent articles) that your dissertation committee members have published. It is important to understand what the committee members have been doing most recently because in most cases, these individuals will attempt to link their recent research to the thesis or dissertation. It is also important to look over the curriculum vitae of each committee member as well because it is possible to determine the most common areas of research the committee members have done. Knowing the research the committee members helps understand the perspectives they will bring to the questions they ask at the defense. For example, in my own defense, my external member was a faculty member actively involved with women’s issues in public policy. Since I wrote on male authors, I anticipated that she would mostly inquire why I had not written on any women writers. And she did. Her question was easy to answer because I expected it.

In most cases, the chair of the committee will coordinate the schedule of the defense. Take some time to prepare an outline of the presentation of the thesis or dissertation. The presentation provides the committee an introduction to what you have written, what you learned, and how this work contributes to the existing scholarship. Tell them why what you have done is important and smile as you discuss with them the process of what has been accomplished. It is important to realize that you will not be able to answer every question. Tell the committee the truth. If you are asked a question, just redirect the committee by telling them that you have not examined that aspect, but may do so in future work. Simple. Do not complicate the response by trying to falsify your knowledge.

It is important to bring a friend to attend the defense. Ask the friend to type the questions that the committee asks during the defense. It is important to have these questions in case you need to revise sections before the final submission of the paper for publication. It is also a memorable event and milestone. Having the list of questions offers a snapshot of the defense. It is a record of this event.

Once the defense is successful, it is important to pursue avenues to publish the work you have written. It is important to share your research and find ways to go back to your study to generate further inquiry and additional research. A good project can “seed” several articles and even a book length project. All too often graduate students choose not to pursue additional publication opportunities with their work. Do not shelf your dissertation. Find ways to extend its life through article or book publication. Keep in contact with your committee members if you plan on transitioning your work for book press. Your committee can serve as great editors.

Finally, after you have completed your work, volunteer to mentor others in your department going through the process. One of the most rewarding experiences you can share is helping someone else.

Mary Hricko is a Professor, University Libraries at Kent State University where she serves as the Library Director at KSU Geauga Campus and Regional Academic Center. She teaches courses in Education and English. She has written numerous books, articles, and papers on online education, assessment, and faculty development.