Some students start their doctoral program knowing (or thinking they know) exactly what they want their dissertation to be about.
But it is important to be open and not restrict yourself to a specific dissertation topic when you are just beginning. This can be liberating.
Your degree, from coursework through the exam-dissertation sequence is a
Journey of Discovery
You might be asked throughout your regular coursework to consider a dissertation topic, but this is simply to help you begin exploring and having something to use as you practice. Do not feel obligated to stick with that topic.
You will ultimately choose your dissertation research question during step three of the Exam-Dissertation Sequence – which is about two years after you start your program.
Just starting your Doctoral Program
Establish a Plan to Get Organized
The earlier you get organized, the happier you will be. But it is never to late, so start when you are ready. And it is okay if you determine that you need to adjust your approach as you go.
Identify Multiple Topics of Interest
We suggest that new doctoral students not feel constrained by a dissertation topic or idea. Let your coursework be a journey of discovery – both in content, but more importantly, your passions.
Instead, at this stage you want to consider questions you want answered. What do you want to learn more about?
Become Familiar with the Literature Review Genre and Academic Writing Principles
The Exam-Dissertation Sequence (EDS) requires students to write multiple literature reviews. However, during your regular coursework you will often be asked to a write a “paper”. For any assignments that ask for or include a literature review or a scholarly essay, begin practicing the literature review genre.
Action Item: Review the Literature Review Guidelines
- We do not formally teach academic writing in our courses. It is important to take advantage of the many resources available through the University or through various online platforms, such as Coursera.
- We don’t enforce the literature review genre during the regular courses, but it is enforced during the EDS
- The earlier you become familiar with the literature review guidelines, the more equipped you’ll be when you start the EDS
- The more you practice the literature review genre during your regular coursework, the quicker you’ll be able to complete your General Field literature review
We use the most current version of APA in our courses and for your exams and dissertation.
- Purchase the latest style guide (a spiral bound copy is recommended) – having a physical copy can make things easier to find
- View our Citations tips page, which includes some links to online resources
During each Regular Course
- If you haven’t completed the items in the “new students” section above, start now – it is never too late
- If you have started, great! Evaluate your approach regularly and adjust accordingly
- Maintain a database of your sources that you use for all of your papers or projects (Mendeley, Zotero, Endnote, etc.)
- Tag the sources with anything that you feel may be useful both now and in the future, including topics or themes, demographics, research site locations (ie. countries), theories, methodologies, or findings. It may also be useful to tag the source with the course# when you found the source
- Maintain an annotated bibliography and establish a good note-taking approach so that you can remind yourself about the articles and books you have read.
- Include a one to two sentence “context of the study” in your annotated bibliography so that can leverage that when drafting your literature review – this is also a literature review tip!
Explore Topics of Interest
If you feel you already know what you want to investigate for your dissertation, use your regular course assignments to broaden your knowledge of that field.
- Explore your topic more deeply than you may have in a previous course
- Each course has a purpose – examine how your topic is related to the themes of the course (which you should be doing anyway)
- Explore your topic from a different angle – ask a different question
- Consider different theories associated with your topic
- Seek out literature associated with your topic that included different demographic
If you are still exploring what you are interested in, that is a perfect purpose for the regular courses
- What do you want to learn more about?
- Was there something in a previous course that you want to keep investigating? (see above for some ideas on using the same topic, but in a different way)
- Have you read something recently that sparked your interest and you want to learn more about it?
- Is there a topic in your course materials that you want to dig deeper into?
- Have you implemented something at work that you want to examine or improve upon?
- Are there current trends that you are considering implementing, but want to examine the existing research first?
Evaluate your Passion and Consider your Potential Contributions
- Determine if you are passionate about the subject – it is better to determine this during your regular coursework before you arrive at the EDS. And it is okay if your passion changes over time. That is what the regular courses are for – a journey of discovery.
- Determine if you can make a contribution by exploring a particular topic. As you read the existing literature, it will become clear where there are gaps and where you might be able to address a particular gap.
Practice the Literature Review Genre
- Consider each paper you write or project you work on during your regular coursework to be an opportunity to improve your writing; strive to do a little better each time
- Identify at least one guideline that you want to master
- Take advantage of Literature Review workshops offered by the library and the LDL team
- Review the Literature Review rubrics and checklist. And while not enforced during the regular courses, it can be useful to do a self-assessment.
- Include a one to two sentence “context of the study” in your annotated bibliography so that can leverage that when drafting your literature review. You want your literature review to be evidence-based.
- Submit one to two paragraphs from your draft to Dr. Francis for feedback
- Consider submitting your regular coursework submissions to the Journal of Learning Design and Leadership (JLDL)
- Consider serving on the JLDL committee
Note that these reminders aren’t repeated in the subsequent sections
- Continue to self-assess your work against the latest APA style guide.
- We have listed the most common scenarios on the APA Citations page.
- Don’t forget about media citations
- Maintain a master references page somewhere outside of Scholar (Word, Google Docs, etc.) that is formatted properly that you can pull from at any time and also use as a reminder of proper formatting as you create new references
- Don’t always rely on the citation managers to produce correct references – you must still check your work against the latest APA style guide
- Don’t forget that when copying and pasting into Scholar, formatting doesn’t transfer (i.e. italics)
For PhD Students – Your Early Research Project
PhD students are required to complete an Early Research Project. This usually occurs after you have completed 6 courses, including at least two of your four methodology courses.
This exercise closely mirrors our Exam-Dissertation Sequence process, but at a much smaller scale (i.e. 2,000 word literature review). The turnaround is also much quicker, as this is meant to be a practice exercise with a manageable scope.
Nearly Finished with your Regular Coursework (1 or 2 courses remaining)
- Regarding your bibliographical database, determine if what you have been doing will still work for you during the EDS. And if you never started, it will be critical to start now.
- But more than just your sources, become familiar with the EDS portion of the website. Knowing where everything is and what the process requirements are will enhance your experience
Literature Review Genre
- Consider your final written works in whatever courses you still have left. What can you do to strengthen your academic writing ahead of the EDS?
Finished with your Regular Coursework and Ready to Begin the EDS
- Regarding your bibliographical database, determine if what you have been doing will still work for you. And if you never started, it will be critical to start now.
- But more than just your sources, become fa
You have now arrived at this stage where you can think about your actual dissertation – but kind of. What we mean is that when you are first starting the General Field, that needs to be your focus. However, having a tentative dissertation research question in mind is what helps you determine what your General Field will be.
- Do some initial reading on what you think your topic might be; if you haven’t been doing that already
- Determine a tentative dissertation research question
- From that tentative question, you can determine your general field of interest. The admin updates in the community will guide you through this process.
- Once you have selected your general field, we ask that you set this question aside – you are not trying to answer this yet.
You are not trying to solve a problem at this stage, you are aiming to demonstrate your deep investigation into your selected field. Your search of the literature must be broad enough to represent all perspectives of the field.
Literature Review Genre and Academic Writing
- If you have not reviewed the literature review guidelines yet, it is now critical to review them.
- Identify a recent literature review that you will submit for your first sample (see the General Field admin updates)
- Revise a short excerpt to align with the literature review genre guidelines and complete your self-assessment.
Depending on your academic writing skills, you may need to procure a copy editor prior to submitting works for review.
Theory and Methodology and your Preliminary Exam
Organization continues to play a critical role in your successful completion of your doctorate.
- If you followed the tips mentioned earlier, you should have several existing sources tagged with various theories and methodologies
- Once you select the theoretical foundation and methodology design for your study, rely on those sources as a starting point to draft Chapter 3. You may need to seek out additional sources, but continue to tag them accordingly
- The process is still important, including forms needed
Determining your Research Question(s)
As a part of your general and special fields (as a part of the EDS), you will have identified gaps in the literature and determined how you might be able to make a contribution. It is now time to select an actual dissertation question(s). But even these will evolve somewhat as you complete Chapter 3, so remain open until you submit your reserch proposal for your preliminary exam.
Literature Review Genre and Academic Writing
While Chapter 3 of your dissertation (Theory and Methodology chapter) is more in your voice, there will be parts that will rely on a search of the literature. Continue to apply the principles of voice of the literature and a synthesis of multiple sources. While you are not expected to elaborate on the context of the existing studies in Chapter 3, there may be occasions when you choose to include that.