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  • Kevin Hylton

Common Mistakes During the Dissertation Process

As a dissertation coach, I have encountered hundreds of doctoral students who were in a difficult but common position. They were struggling with writing their dissertations for months and needed a redirection with the help of an experienced coach. Not only do most dissertation writers have to deal with technical issues associated with structuring arguments, finding a voice, and integrating theory and evidence, they often deal with emotional issues such as procrastination, distraction and anxiety. If this sounds like a familiar problem in your dissertation-writing process, you’re not alone. Here are some common mistakes, both big and small, that dissertation writers commonly make, and strategies on how to avoid them.


Small Mistakes


1. Tense. When writing your dissertation, make sure that you are using the past tense when discussing literature that has already been published. Use the past tense when describing the current results and the methods of the dissertation.


2. Voice. The dissertation should be written in the active voice, rather than the passive voice. In the active voice, the subject is acted upon directly by the verb. The active voice demonstrates agency and strength. This makes the language much more straightforward rather than murky.


3. Language. Use simple language to make the dissertation as clear as possible. Although the topic of the writing may be complex, the word usage need not be. Also, remember to use formal language, meaning abbreviations like “don’t” should be avoided.


Big Mistakes


4. Selecting an Advisor. If you have the ability to choose your own advisor, create a list of characteristics that you need in an advisor. You should keep in mind that one needs not only technical support, but emotional support as well. It is wise to choose an advisor who can offer support in multiple areas because the dissertation writing process is very demanding, time consuming, lonely, and draining.


As far as the advisor’s academic interests, choose someone who has experience with your topic – ensuring that topics align. It is a good idea to make sure that person you choose has a good reputation at the school. Avoid selecting an advisor who doesn’t get along with other members in the department who are likely to be on your committee.


Have an honest and open conversation with your advisor to discuss your and the advisor’s expectations and timelines. Once these goals are set, everyone is on the same page and can update their schedules to ensure that they have the time to work on the students’ documents and provide feedback.


5. The Proposal. One important factor to keep in mind when selecting your proposal/dissertation topic is that you will be using a lot of previously published empirical research in examining what has already been done in your area of interest while highlighting the gaps in knowledge and how your research topic will address same. The acceptance of your proposal is like an informal contract that lays out what is expected of you as a writer and researcher. If you follow the plan set out in your proposals, your dissertation advisor will be less likely to request additional work. The proposal should be feasible and appropriate for the qualification of your degree. The good news is that the proposal is not set in stone, so some ideas initially proposed may change once data collection/analysis occurs.


6. Not Writing Often. When you’re writing your dissertation, you’re not just increasing the word count- you’re thinking and challenging yourself. Many dissertation writers expect to have a “genius moment” that gives way to a solution after long hours of musing on a subject. However, in my experience, the best ideas appear through the writing process itself, often when you’ve come to the end of your wits and desperately want to quit. A good starting point for writing consistently is to try to complete at least one paragraph per day. Aiming for one paragraph may not seem like a lot but thinking about much you will accomplish in a month or in a year if you do so. This highlights the importance of commitment and consistency over the idea of genius in the dissertation writing process.


7. Avoiding Discomfort. One of the biggest mistakes dissertation writers make is the tendency to avoid negative feelings associated with the struggles of the writing process. Often times you’ll doubt the success of what you have written, while other days you’ll find that the ideas just flow out. However, some writers become stuck on the bad days of writing, which can often cause frustration. One strategy to avoid this pitfall is to accept the inherent discomfort of dissertation writing, and accept that perhaps you will write a few bad drafts. Discomfort is something you will become familiar with through the feelings of frustration, confusion, and exhaustion. However, when you continue to write regardless of the discomfort, there are many opportunities to work through complex arguments and find solutions.


When it comes to avoiding common mistakes in dissertation writing, there are several strategies you can implement to prevent your dissertation from becoming a major struggle. However, if you’ve already started your dissertation and have encountered challenges in producing acceptable writing, it is a great idea to consider working with a dissertation coach. Often doctoral students will receive what looks like a labyrinth of feedback and requested revisions by their dissertation advisors. If this is a problem you’ve encountered, a dissertation coach can help you produce high quality drafts based on your specific research question. With a coach, you can expect a less stressful writing experience, a support system, and a faster pace of completion for your dissertation.


If you have struggled writing your dissertation, it is important to know that there are a variety of strategies available that you can implement to help you avoid common mistakes. Avoiding these mistakes will ensure that your advisor will approve of your work, and will speed up the writing process. Another strategy for success is to recruit the help of an experienced dissertation coach to correct these common mistakes.




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