The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending your Dissertation


Carol M. Roberts

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Quests and Questions

    Part II: Preparing for the Climb

    Part III: Beginning the Climb

    Part IV: Climbing to Base Camp

    Part V: Final Preparations for the Peak

    Part VI: Final Ascent and View from the Top and Beyond

  • Copyright

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    When I completed reading The Dissertation Journey by Carol Roberts, my first reaction was, “Where was this book 20 years ago when I started directing dissertations?” My second reaction was, “Heck, where was this book even before then when I wrote my own dissertation?” My third reaction was, “Every doctoral student in our department needs to read this book.” And my fourth reaction was, “So does every faculty member.”

    Dr. Roberts's book provides insight into every aspect of developing and writing a dissertation. From selecting a topic, to choosing a committee, to deciding what research approach to use, to the actual writing and defense of the dissertation, Dr. Roberts provides clear and comprehensive directions for any student faced with the challenge of writing a dissertation. I particularly appreciate how she methodically takes students through each chapter that will comprise the dissertation, not only providing an overview of what each should contain but also offering helpful suggestions and checklists to reinforce what constitutes a good dissertation.

    A really appealing component of The Dissertation Journey is the information provided to doctoral students on how to use technology to support development of a dissertation. Not only does Dr. Roberts offer good suggestions on how to use the computer in writing a dissertation, she provides a listing of electronic and Internet sources students can use to access research materials and articles.

    Furthermore, the section that Dr. Roberts provides on the ethics of writing a dissertation is a must read for any doctoral student. She reminds the reader of copyright laws, clearly defines plagiarism and how to avoid it, and highlights the importance of understanding and observing the rules governing research on human subjects.

    Finally, Dr. Roberts provides a great concluding section that focuses on students’ responsibilities once the dissertation is done and they have graduated. She not only encourages them to share their research findings broadly but also challenges the students to use their experience to mentor others undertaking the rigors of a doctoral degree.

    Returning to my initial comments, I found The Dissertation Journey to be a wonderfully useful tool to assist both doctoral students and graduate faculty through the dissertation development process. The work is very clearly written and addresses every aspect of dissertation writing. It is so good that I plan to have all of my doctoral students purchase and read the work. It will save them, as well as me, a lot of lost time, gnashing of teeth, and heartache.

    Dr. Roberts is to be congratulated for adding this important work to the field. There is no doubt that, if doctoral students and their advisors will use this composition as a guide in developing dissertations, the quality of research in higher education across the country will be immensely enhanced.

    Kenneth R.Stevenson Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Policies University of South Carolina

    New to this Edition

    I am very pleased to have the opportunity to write a second edition of my book, The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation. This updated and expanded edition includes not only new information that is vital to navigating the dissertation process, it also includes an expansion of previous topics for greater clarity and utility.

    New features added to this second edition include the following:

    • A new chapter titled “What Are the Ethical Considerations in Research?” In this chapter, I discuss the central ethical issues involved in conducting research relative to human rights, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, respect for the research site, writing, and disseminating the research.
    • New information about the process, importance, and purpose of developing a theoretical or conceptual framework. It includes responses to questions such as, “What is a conceptual or theoretical framework?” “How does a conceptual framework differ from a theoretical framework?” “Why do you need a conceptual or theoretical framework?” and “How do you find a conceptual or theoretical framework?” Also provided are examples from dissertations for greater understanding.
    • A completely revised and updated chapter titled “Using the Internet and Technology to Conduct Research.” Since more and more researchers use the Internet and technology for all phases of dissertation writing, I incorporated in this second edition new web-based technologies. New information about search engines, evaluating websites, and social networking on the web is also included.
    • A completely revised and expanded chapter on reviewing the literature. I expanded the steps in conducting a literature review from four to eight and added considerably more detail to the process. An updated list of secondary sources and style manuals widely used in the social sciences is incorporated.
    • A thorough update of all websites and references, including new editions of works.


    Today, colleges and universities offer master's and doctoral degrees in increasing numbers. Many students enroll in these programs, and in many cases, they do not receive appropriate guidance and support in conceptualizing, conducting, and writing an original research study. This is evidenced by an estimated 40% to 50% of doctoral students nationwide who complete their course work but not the final act of writing their dissertation. They become ABDs (all-but-dissertation). This represents a tremendous waste of time, money, and energy.

    In reviewing the literature, I discovered very few useful, comprehensive books that guide master's or doctoral students through the formidable and demanding process of crafting a high-quality research study. This book offers the practical guidance often lacking in doctoral programs and in the literature about planning, writing, and defending a dissertation. Doctoral students need to (1) get a clear picture of what it takes to write a high-quality research study and see it as doable; (2) understand it as a psychological and human relations venture as much as a research exercise; (3) feel encouraged and supported in their efforts; (4) experience the process as a satisfying, rewarding, and exciting journey; and (5) finish!

    I wrote this book to satisfy the existing need for a clear, concise, cut-to-the-chase guidebook for completing a doctoral dissertation. The Dissertation Journey provides a step-by-step guide on how to plan, write, and defend a dissertation. Its structure parallels the dissertation process and presents detailed information about the content and process from conceptualizing a topic to publishing the results. It addresses the psychological and emotional barriers students confront and provides up-to-date information on using the computer and the Internet in the various stages of dissertating. The style is personal, informal, and conversational—much like a coach talking one-on-one with a student. To enhance learning and clarify concepts, I included a myriad of examples together with helpful hints, checklists, and quotations. Since writing a dissertation can be a bewildering and overwhelming experience for students, I use the metaphor of climbing a mountain for inspiration and to maintain interest and motivation to persevere in spite of obstacles.

    For the past 22 years, I have had the opportunity to teach doctoral students at the University of La Verne—a premier doctoral program in California known for its innovative approach to educating leaders. The faculty provides a relevant, practical, and high-quality program focused on helping students succeed in completing their dissertation. The one-to-one coaching, group tutorials, videos, online discussions, webinars, and research seminars are exemplary techniques for teaching the dissertation process. As a result, our students’ graduation rate is 81%—almost twice that of the national average.

    The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation incorporates many approaches and techniques taught in the University of La Verne's doctoral program. These techniques, plus the insights and knowledge I gained from years of experience teaching and guiding dissertation students, serve as a valuable road map for the dissertation journey and, hopefully, make the task more understandable, easier, more enjoyable, and less time-consuming. This is not a complete work on writing dissertations, nor could it be; the scope would be overwhelming. The book does not include detailed information on certain aspects of academic research, such as design and methodology, data analysis techniques, or writing style and mechanics. I reference appropriate books that concentrate on these technical areas.

    This book is geared toward the specific needs and concerns of doctoral students as they proceed through each step of the dissertation process. It focuses primarily on the social sciences; however, graduate students in most academic disciplines desiring to complete a research study should find the book's content useful and applicable. Generally, the steps for writing a thesis and a dissertation are much the same regardless of the topic or discipline; they vary primarily in scope and complexity. Graduate faculty involved with student research should also find the book's ideas and suggestions beneficial. It eliminates the need to answer over and over again those questions that students routinely ask. Universities vary considerably in their dissertation requirements and procedures. In addition, there is considerable diversity among the preferences of advisors and departments within a university. The suggestions offered in this book should not be considered final, nor should they preempt the judgment and opinions of research advisors and committees.

    Researching and writing a thesis or dissertation should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience—one students can comprehend and most of all complete. There is a better way than letting half or more of our nation's doctoral students become ABDs. It is my hope that this book, with its straight talk, step-by-step guidance, and practical advice, will make the journey to “doctor” smoother and, in the process, help beat the overwhelming odds of ABDism.

    A Note to Doctoral Candidates

    Greetings! You are embarking on a new and exciting journey—obtaining a doctoral degree. This journey requires completing a dissertation, the pinnacle of academic achievement. In many ways, the journey is like climbing a high mountain; it is a long and arduous trek—not for the fainthearted. It is fraught with hazards and obstacles along the path that can dampen your spirit. However, it also offers incomparable opportunities for personal and professional growth.

    Reaching the summit of a mountain symbolizes the process you go through to complete your dissertation. The climb tests your mettle and challenges your resolve, but once you complete it and experience the magnificent view from the top, you realize the rewards far outweigh the effort. The exhilaration and pride of accomplishment, the fulfillment that results from contribution, a deeper self-awareness, and greater confidence in yourself as a scholar are just a few of the rewards that await you.

    I remember well the experience of seeing my own dissertation as a looming mountain before me—massive and awesome—with the accompanying feelings of doubt and apprehension. I learned, as you will, that journeying to the peak is more than an intellectual pilgrimage, it is also an emotional and psychological one. It requires commitment, perseverance, stamina, and mental toughness—more than you ever thought you had.

    Completing a dissertation changes your life. I discovered that my primary reward was not so much the exhilaration of standing on top of the mountain at journey's end, but rather who I became as a result of the climb. Only by taking yourself to the limit can you know what you're made of. “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” (Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest).

    I wrote this book to help make your journey to the summit a satisfying and rewarding one. In these pages, I speak to you informally as an advisor and friend about the entire dissertation process. Plus, I speak about those critical issues related to the personal and social side of dissertating (organization, time management, human relations, etc.).

    The material presented in this book represents years spent guiding dissertation students, dialoguing with faculty colleagues, and researching the literature on this topic. Please remember that the ideas and recommendations provided should be used only as a guide. Your advisor and committee are the ultimate sources of information and opinion about your dissertation.

    It is my hope that you catch summit fever and become utterly motivated to reach the top. Do bring a spirit of adventure to this journey, and by all means, enjoy the climb! Warmest regards and good luck!


    No one climbs a high mountain alone. Experience and expertise, support and encouragement are all needed. I am indebted to many people who provided these necessities, which helped make this book a reality. I am most appreciative of the assistance and contributions of my professional colleagues in the University of La Verne's Doctoral Program in Organizational Leadership, with whom I have worked for the past 22 years. They freely share their wisdom and knowledge, from which I learn so much.

    I would like to acknowledge and thank Drs. William Bearley, Donald Clague, James Cox, Thomas Harvey, William Paulo, and Barbara Peterson. Through their insightful presentations at doctoral seminars, faculty exchanges, and personal coaching, they provided foundational information on preparing the core chapters of the dissertation (Chapters 1 through 5). Many of the ideas expressed in these five sections of the book encapsulate the collective wisdom of these talented individuals, who, over the years, contributed greatly to the quality of our doctoral program and to my own intellectual growth and development.

    I also give special thanks to Mary Townsend, Donna Bentley, Clive Houston Brown, Donald Hays, and Larry Kemper, who provided feedback and constructive suggestions for improving this work. For the second edition, I wish to thank Donna Bentley, Librarian at the University of La Verne, for her valuable help in revising and updating the Internet and technology resources. I also appreciate the support and encouragement to pursue this project given by Drs. Barbara Poling, Department Chair, and Leonard Pellicer, Dean of the College of Education and Organizational Leadership at the University of La Verne.

    I also want to thank those doctoral students whom I have had the privilege of instructing—and particularly those who invited me to chair their dissertations and serve on their committees. They helped me understand the unique challenges associated with conducting high-quality research and provided many helpful comments and suggestions that are incorporated in this book.

    My greatest debt is to my husband, Edward, who gives me the love and confidence to leave “base camp” for the many physical and inward climbs I choose to make.

    The contributions of the following reviewers are gratefully acknowledged.

    Martha A. Alcock

    Professor of Education

    Capital University

    Columbus, OH

    Betty J. Alford

    Associate Professor

    Stephen F. Austin State University

    Nacogdoches, TX

    Jim Allen

    Professor of Educational Psychology

    Thelma P. Lally School of Education

    The College of Saint Rose

    Albany, NY

    Robert B. Amenta

    Director of Education Administration

    California Lutheran University

    Thousand Oaks, CA

    Sharon Toomey Clark

    Educational Consultant

    Clark & Associates

    Claremont, CA

    Michelle Collay

    School Coach

    Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools

    Oakland, CA

    Larry E. Decker

    C. S. Mott Professor of Community Education

    Florida Atlantic University

    Boca Raton, FL

    Roxana DellaVecchia

    Assistant Dean

    College of Education, Towson

    Towson, MD

    Sarah Edwards

    Assistant Professor

    Teacher Education Department

    University of Nebraska at Omaha

    Omaha, NE

    Douglas Fisher

    Associate Professor

    San Diego State University

    San Diego, CA

    Margaret A. (Peggie) Price

    Assistant Professor in Curriculum and Instruction

    Texas Tech University

    Lubbock, TX

    About the Author

    Carol M. Roberts is a professor in the University of La Verne's Doctoral Program in Organizational Leadership, where she advises doctoral students, chairs dissertations, and teaches research plus a variety of courses focused on leading organizations. Carol is a speaker, consultant, and seminar leader specializing in organizational and team development, strategic planning, conflict resolution, coaching, and personal mastery. She has been a trainer for the California School Leadership Academy and the California School Boards Association. She received her doctoral degree in planning, policy, and administration from the University of Southern California. Carol served on the Executive Board for the Southern Counties Women in Educational Management and was awarded its Woman of the Year award.

  • Parting Thoughts

    I hope you found the suggestions and approaches offered in this book useful and valuable on your journey to complete the dissertation. I also hope your journey is an enjoyable one and results in one of the most rewarding personal experiences of your life. I leave you with two simple but powerful thoughts.

    Be positive! A positive mental attitude, more than any other factor, will determine whether you complete your dissertation or not. View obstacles as plateaus on the way to the summit and find ways to surmount them. Persistence and determination are what it takes to finish. Don't give up no matter how much it starts to hurt—just shift gears and keep going. Nothing great comes without a price.

    Get it done! Don't wait for inspiration. Develop a sense of urgency about completing your dissertation. No matter how brilliant or talented you are, if you don't have a sense of urgency, develop it now. Tomorrow is not a day of the week.

    Good luck and God bless!

    Appendix A: Sample Dissertation Timeline—Gantt Chart

    Appendix B: Source of Data Chart

    Sample: A source of data chart was developed prior to the field test to assist with the comprehensive and efficient process of data collection. Each variable was explored through one or more of the following: interviews of students, teachers, administrators, and parents; archival document reviews; or classroom and school setting observations (Melendrez, 1991, p. 79).

    INT = Interview

    ARC = Archival documents

    OB = Observation

    SOURCE = Source of data

    C = Central/district/county office person

    A = Administrator/counselor/public relations person

    T = Teacher

    S = Student

    P = Parent

    H = Arts area chairperson

    V = Visit or tour of facility

    Appendix C: Sample Participant Letter and Questionnaire

    Appendix D: Sample Table—Presenting the Results

    Number and Percentage of Teachers and Principals Reporting the Presence of Risk-Taking Norms According to Three Categories of School Restructuring

    Appendix E: Dissertation Content Checklist

    Following are some questions to be considered when evaluating the quality and completeness of your own or others’ dissertation document. Not all of the questions are appropriate for all studies, and some of the items within chapters may vary somewhat based on the preferences of the dissertation advisor.

    Statement of the Problem
    • Is the background of the problem clearly presented?
    • Is adequate background presented for all the variables or concepts under study?
    • Is adequate information presented for an understanding of the problem?
    • Is the problem clearly stated?
    • Is there a need to know?
    • Is it clear how this study will add to the body of knowledge (theory or practice)?
    • Is the theoretical base for the study clear and appropriate?
    • Is there an appropriate amount of literature cited?
    • Is there an indication of what's known and what's not known about the variables under investigation?
    • Is there a description and an analysis of what has already been done related to the problem?
    • Is the relationship of the problem to previous research made clear?
    • Is there a logical sequence of exposition that leads directly to the purpose statement?
    • Is the writing clear and readable?
    • Does the chapter move from the general to the specific?
    Purpose Statement
    • Is the purpose of the study stated clearly and succinctly?
    • Is the purpose related to the problem statement?
    Research Questions
    • Are the research questions well stated?
      • Clear variables
      • No how or why questions
      • “Thing” words clarified (success, factors, achievement, etc.)
    • Is the kind of measurement obvious? (description, differences, or relationship)
    Delimitations: The Boundaries of the Study
    • Are delimitations well defined? (timeframe, location, sample, criterion, etc.)
    • Are the author's assumptions made clear?
    Significance of the Study: So What?
    • Is there an explanation of how the study will be useful to knowledge, practitioners, or policy makers?
    Definition of Terms: Terms Used in the Study That Do Not Have Commonly Known Meanings
    • Are the terms used in the study adequately defined so that their usage is understood?
    Review of the Literature
    • Is the review of the literature comprehensive? (i.e., Does it cover the major points of the topic?)
    • Is there a balanced coverage of all variables or concepts in the study?
    • Have the majority of references been published within the past five years?
    • Does the bibliography contain at least 40 to 60 references?
    • Is the review well organized? Does it flow logically?
    • Are authors who make the same point combined in the citation?
    • Does the author critically analyze the literature rather than string together a series of citations?
    • Is there a summary at the end of each major section as well as at the end of the chapter?
    • Is there an organizing principle evident in the review? A story line? (e.g., “Four schools of thought …” “Six themes that emerge …” “Acorn to oak”)
    • Do the direct quotations detract from the readability of the chapter?
    • Is there an overabundance of paraphrasing or direct quotations?
    Kind of Research
    • Is the kind of research and research design described fully? (case study, descriptive, experimental, etc.)
    • Are the variables clearly described?
    • Is the design appropriate for testing the research questions of the study?
    • Is the methodology reported in sufficient detail that you could replicate the study without further information?
    • If case study was the methodology used, were criteria for selecting the cases clearly stated?
    Sample and Population
    • Was the entire population studied? Was a sample selected?
    • Was the kind of sampling used described adequately? (simple random, stratified random, cluster sampling, purposive sampling, etc.)
    • Was the sample size large enough?
    • Are the size and major characteristics of the sample described adequately?
    • Are the procedures for selecting a sample clearly described?
    • Are criteria for selecting the sample stated?
    • Is a rationale given for the selection of the instruments used?
    • Is each instrument described in terms of purpose and content?
    • Are the instruments appropriate for measuring the variables?
    • If an instrument was developed specifically for the study, are the procedures involved in its development and validation described?
    • If an instrument was developed specifically for the study, are the administration, scoring, and interpretation procedures fully described?
    • Is instrument validity discussed? Validity = the degree to which the instrument consistently measures what it purports to measure.
    • Are reliability procedures discussed? Reliability = the degree to which the instrument consistently measures something from one time to another. If measured again, would you find the same results?
    • If interviews were used to collect data, were procedures described for detecting interviewer bias?
    • Were interobserver or interrater reliability assessed? Was satisfactory interrater reliability found?
    Data Collection and Procedures
    • Are procedures for collecting data described in sufficient detail to permit them to be replicated by another researcher?
    • Was a pilot study conducted?
    • If a pilot study was conducted, are its execution and results described?
    • Are the following data collection procedures described?
      • Statement of how and when data were collected?
      • Follow-up procedures?
      • Timeline?
      • Computer support?
    • If the study was qualitative, were internal validity strategies described? (triangulation, member checks, peer examination, etc.)
    Data Analysis
    • Were the statistics appropriate for the study?
    • Are the appropriate statistics reported for each test?
    • For statistical tests, are enough statistics (mean, standard deviation, etc.) presented?
    • In a qualitative study, are the themes and patterns appropriately labeled?
    Limitations: Weaknesses of the Study
    • Are the limitations of the study clearly delineated?
    • Are methodological weaknesses of the study discussed?
    • Are the findings presented clearly?
    • Are the findings presented in relation to the research questions?
    • Are tables, figures, and so on, if used, well organized and easy to understand?
    • Does each table, if used, stand on its own, clear and self-explanatory?
    • Are the notable data in each table and figure described in the text?
    • Is this section free of interpretation? (Note: In historical, case study, or ethnographic studies, factual and interpretive material is sometimes interwoven to sustain interest.)
    • Within the themes and patterns of a qualitative study, is there a balance of direct quotations and description to enhance the meaning of the themes and patterns?
    • Is there a summary of the key findings?
    Summary, Conclusions, and Recommendations
    • Is there a brief summary of the problem, the methodology, and the findings?
    Conclusions: What Does It Mean?
    • Are conclusions clearly stated?
    • Are conclusions derived from the findings?
    • Are conclusions mere restatements of the findings?
    • Are conclusions discussed within the framework of previous studies, theory, and the literature base?
    • Are generalizations made that are not warranted by the findings?
    • Are generalizations confined to the population from which the sample was drawn?
    Recommendations: What Should be Done?
    • Are recommendations for action stated? (e.g., practical suggestions for practitioners, theory, or policy makers)
    • Are suggestions for action made that are not justified by the data?
    • Are recommendations for future research made?


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    Helpful Websites

    Dissertation Doctor:

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    The Elements of Style by William Strunk:

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