Are you writing your dissertation or dissertation proposal and finding it difficult to get started? This is a common problem plaguing graduate students who are trying to finish their Master’s or PhD’s. Many students find that because the scope of their research topic is so broad it is difficult to know where to start, how much information is adequate, and how to structure their paper.
Here are some tips for outlining and completing your dissertation without letting the plethora of academic papers slow you down.
Do not waste your time reading tons of small, short, highly specific papers on the topic of your choosing. Instead, focus on chapters, review papers, and meta-analyses and that describe a number of related studies and theories all in one document. This will give you a good sense of which information on your dissertation topic is absolutely essential, what has been written about a great deal before, and what the overall trends are in academic papers on the topic.
When reading these review papers, take meticulous notes. Copy the the overall structure or outline of the papers you like (though don’t copy them word-for-word, of course!). If you find a paper that follows a nice, coherent structure that makes the topic easier to grasp and summarizes a lot of research, consider using it as a template.
It is better to read more recent research on your topic than to get bogged down in the history. If you begin by reading older, landmark studies, you may find yourself going down a rabbit hole of research and citing papers that are no longer relevant, or which have already been disproven. Reading more recent articles will also show you how the topic is currently talked about, which terminology is used, and what the current, most vexing questions are in the literature.
Using the review articles you have read as a template, write a summary outline to use for your own dissertation. Focus on the elements that are most relevant to your topic. Remember, the point of the dissertation is to describe and support your own research. You do not need to describe everything you know about the topic.
Begin the paper with a broad, general introduction to the topic, and get more specific to your own research question as the paper goes on (imagine a funnel, with the top representing the beginning of the paper and the small spigot representing the end of the paper). Once you have an outline, do not conduct any additional research. Just fill in the blanks in the outline and pay attention to your own work! If you focus your own writing in this manner, you will be able to complete your dissertation quickly and without getting bogged down.
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