6 Important Things to Know About Writing Your Dissertation

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An effective doctoral dissertation comes from long hours of demanding work and intensive research. If you have already begun a PhD program, you may be anxious to hit your next milestone and work closer to the end of this rewarding and rigorous process. While finishing your dissertation may be satisfying, your work is not yet complete. You will to deliver an oral defense of your work.

In North American colleges, the oral defense is attended by all the members on your dissertation committee. These committee members are sometimes called “examiners.” In the United Kingdom and Europe, it is more common to have examiners from outside institutions, although this may be done in the U.S. As you prepare for your oral defense, there are some key things that you should know about your work.

1. The Introduction Is More Important Than You Might Think

The introduction is the first section which examiners read, but the last one you will finish writing. Although you will likely write a draft of the introduction early in the dissertation process, you will not be able to finish it until your research is complete. Many PhD students rush through the introduction, assuming that the body of the dissertation is more important.

However, a strong dissertation needs a thoughtful introduction. The introduction must capture the attention of the examiners, justify your contribution to the field, explain the problem or question you have solved and then explore your findings. Your dissertation introduction should intrigue the reader enough to continue reading.

2. Poor Grammar and Typos Detract From Your Work

Your dissertation should not have any typos or serious grammar mistakes. They serve to distract the internal and external examiners, and they suggest that you did not try to polish the paper. Since a typical dissertation is quite long, it is best to break up your editing and proofreading time. Focus on one section at a time before moving on. Later, go back to each section you proofread for a second look.

Avoid proofreading a section right after you have written it. This causes you to approach your work and read comfortably rather than critically. Wait at least a day before you proofread any given section, and then wait another day or so to proofread a second time with fresh eyes.

3. The Use of Superlatives Weakens the Argument

It is best to avoid or minimize the use of superlatives in your dissertation. Superlatives are vague descriptors such as “sizable” and “biggest” that do little to strengthen your argument. In fact, they can sometimes make your argument seem weak.

Consider this sentence: “The sizable auto industry in Japan has by far been the biggest contributor toward post-war economic recovery.” The problem with this sentence is its subjectivity and lack of specificity. Any dissertation examiner reading it will expect objective and specific writing. An improved sentence might read: “The auto industry in Japan has been a significant contributor to economic recovery following World War II.”

Note that it is acceptable to use vague descriptors when they are commonly accepted clinical terms. For example, if you are an aspiring psychologist writing about bipolar disorder, it is acceptable to write, “extreme mood swings” because this is a widely recognized characteristic of a clinical condition.

4. Graphics Should Be Used Carefully

Tables and diagrams are excellent tools for presenting large volumes of numbers. However, try to avoid arranging one visual tool right after the other. Instead, look for ways to compile multiple visuals into one visual. You should always reference visual elements within the text.  Do not assume that the PhD examiners will automatically know how the chart or table should fit into the narrative. Explain it and be specific. Lastly, triple-check your units of measurement to make sure you have used the correct ones.

5. Sections Should Not Be Excessively Long

Your dissertation should make effective use of sections and subsections. It is best to avoid sections that are overly long, as these can detract from the reading experience. However, you should also avoid noticeably short sections because this can create the impression that you did not explore an idea thoroughly.

6. Quotations Should Be Used Conservatively

When examiners read your work, they expect that all or most of it will be your own words. Only include quotes from experts in your field if they truly enrich the narrative or help you explore your research findings. When you do need to quote an expert, use proper formatting.

The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University offers flexible learning opportunities for active professionals who wish to pursue career advancement. Doctoral programs in healthcare, psychology and business are available via convenient online and evening courses. All students at GCU have access to extensive support services designed to encourage success, such as the Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching (CIRT). To learn more about the programs offered by the College of Doctoral Studies, such as the DBA in Management, click on the Request Info button on this page.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.