Preparing to defend your thesis is the final step of the doctoral program. Although this might be an exciting time, it may also be intimidating and stressful. To assuage some of the anxiety and to enhance transparency relating to this process, in this month’s article, we interviewed three SPSP members about their experience.
Dr. Heidi Vuletich received her doctoral degree in 2020 from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Kori Krueger completed her doctoral degree in 2020 at the University of Pittsburgh. Julian Scheffer, from Pennsylvania State University, will be defending his thesis in 2021. We asked them the following questions.
How long did you spend on the written dissertation?
- Heidi: About 5 months.
- Kori: A long time, but I spent a lot of time writing the introduction of my dissertation proposal so that I wouldn’t have to be stressed about it for the final dissertation. That’s always one option or you could write a shorter introduction in the proposal document and do an overhaul for the final document. I hoped (and achieved) to do a lot of the work upfront so that my committee could see the introduction before the proposal meeting and it would just take small changes to get it ready for the final document. I probably spent 4-5 months writing up the proposal (which is probably more time than most but again, I put more effort in upfront than later) and then 2 months finalizing the final document.
- Julian: I would invest typically one or two hours per weekday as I could, and on some days, I might invest slightly more time if there was something that would benefit from more investment time to finalizing (e.g., data cleaning and analyses). The writing process took me roughly 4-5 months, but this varied in time per day as well as whether I continued to write on weekends.
How long did you spend preparing for the oral dissertation?
- Heidi: I maybe spent three weeks in total preparing my slides, writing the talk, incorporating feedback, and practicing.
- Kori: After putting together my presentation, I probably spent 2-3 hours brainstorming possible questions the committee might ask and getting supplemental resources together. I also ran through my presentation several times which took several hours.
- Julian: The oral presentation is still to come, but I imagine I will spend roughly two weeks readying a brief presentation and considering potential questions that I may be asked during the defense. In terms of day-to-day, I could imagine this taking up maybe an hour or two each day depending on how much I need to ready for visualizations and reviewing my submitted document to my committee.
Did you have a specific plan / process when you wrote your dissertation?
- Heidi: The introduction for my dissertation was mostly derived from my proposal. I made edits, but it remained largely the same. The same was true of the method section. For the results and discussion, I wrote them as I would a manuscript for publication.
- Kori: Yes. I wrote the method/results of all the studies included in the dissertation first because I think those are the easiest parts of a paper to write. I wrote a small discussion for each study and made a note of the most important points from those that I wanted to reiterate in general discussion. Then, I tackled the introduction. This was the most time consuming and required the most back-and-forth with my advisor. I like to outline the introduction with major sections first and begin to write each section. I tried to write every day or spend time finding additional articles necessary to cite with the goal of working on my dissertation 3 out of 5 days of the week. After I made significant progress in the introduction, I would again make an outline of it with specific paragraph purposes to make sure that the structure was still the way that I wanted it and that it flowed nicely. I ended up changing the structure several times. Outlining really helped improve clarity, especially since the introduction was so long and included so many different literatures. Once the introduction was mostly finalized, I wrote the general discussion. I also kept a running file of ideas/notes for the project as I would think of or talk about with my advisor regarding future directions, limitations, implications, etc. that was quite helpful as I wrote.
- Julian: Yes, I was aiming to invest roughly one or two hours per day into the write-up of my dissertation. The proposal provided the bulk of my introduction, but I did need to invest time carefully writing up my methods and results for my studies, consulting with my committee for any deviations from my proposal (e.g., mixed data showing partial support of hypotheses), and consulting with my advisor to ensure I could efficiently collect and analyze studies.
What was the most difficult part of the writing process for you and why?
- Heidi: The most difficult aspect of the writing process was the time pressure, intensiveness, and feeling a little bit isolated while doing it. I would have liked to have joined a dissertation writing group, but virtual groups were not a thing at the time, and I had recently moved to a different city. Now, I feel like there are many options for writing groups.
- Kori: I think the most difficult process is just getting started. The dissertation process feels overwhelming because it is such a huge milestone. For me, carving out time designated for writing and tackling one subsection of a paper section made it much more manageable. Then I would go back to create transitions between subsections and make a new outline to check the structure.
- Julian: Though the dissertation is important, I did have conflicting priorities that would require my attention week-to-week, such as ensuring I met my teaching priorities, making meetings, mentoring my undergraduates, being a good collaborator on other projects, and keeping on top of service commitments for which others were relying on me for. I was also facing the COVID-19 pandemic, so I was mostly writing from my home office without much change of scenery. I used to enjoy writing from coffee shops, my department office, or other locations. However, all my writing has been done at home which can be a bit stale. Further, I was unable to take too many fun breaks as I was working to abide by public health measures, so I had to be creative with my breaks and try to get outside my apartment safely when I could (e.g., early morning walks).
How did you prepare for the oral defense?
- Heidi: I practiced a lot. I was nervous for the question and answer period, but one of my strategies was to ask many questions myself and have prepared answers. For example, a committee member would ask a question, and I would respond plus add, “I have also wondered why X,Y,Z (related topic). One explanation is…” This allowed me to feel more in control, and it made the defense feel more like a stimulating intellectual conversation in which I was partaking as a peer.
- Kori: I prepared for the oral defense by practicing my presentation many times with other people so that I could see the kinds of questions that arose from those practice talks. I also met with my advisor to discuss the kinds of questions that were likely to come up with the committee and come up with thoughtful responses. It was also helpful to run some supplemental analyses about things I thought might come up as questions and to have some “secret slides” ready to address topics I thought might arise. I think the best tip that worked for me is just remembering that you are the expert in the room and that you have so much knowledge about this topic. You don’t have to answer as fast as possible to questions that are asked of you. Take a breath and answer as best as you can. If you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend to, but use your knowledge to give a thoughtful response and start a conversation about it.
- Julian: I am aiming to prepare slides that will have all my data in presentable formats that my committee would hopefully follow along with. I will also be prepared to lay out my proposal, my deviations from my proposal with justifications, and future directions for my dissertation line of research. I think coming in knowing what your data is, what it shows, the strength of your methods and practices, and any implications and important takeaways of your project and your data is important. Additionally, coming in knowing the strength of your research, being open about any shortcomings of your methods or data, and any thoughts about how to improve these are all important.
Did you encounter any unexpected challenges during this process? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?
- Heidi: My biggest challenge was that I wasn’t expecting it to be a challenge. I had thought about the dissertation as a last-step formality and was surprised when suddenly I found myself stressed and somewhat insecure. I relied a lot on my awesome cohort for moral support and would frequently text them cries for help, which they would graciously always respond to with lots of encouragement. I also found it helpful to find a place where I could work uninterrupted and comfortably. Certain coffee shops became my designated “dissertation only” workplaces where I didn’t allow myself to check email, social media, or any other dissertation unrelated work.
- Kori: I think the hardest thing was to choose the topic. For me, it was really helpful to draw a map of my existing projects and links between projects and to highlight keywords that were commonly used across projects. Then, I evaluated those keywords against what research identity I wanted to have going forward if I were to have my own lab. Another challenge is staying motivated. The dissertation process is quite long from beginning to end so make sure that you don’t burn yourself out—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself, make a timeline, and make sure that you don’t solely focus on the dissertation for the entirety of that time. Put effort into other projects as well and keep as much balance in your life with friends, family, hobbies, etc.
- Julian: Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic was a big one, and not really having the in-person access of my mentors was a bit harder. Though mentors made themselves available for me when I needed them, it did feel isolating to write from my home office and try to keep engaged. I think making as much of a routine, amongst the chaos, was helpful. I also think taking good breaks is important, whether that be finding time to take walks outside, be in nature, and remain physically active, is important. I also ensured I provided myself with plenty of time to collect data, write, and then revise my dissertation document. Also, my data did not always support all my hypotheses to maintain progressing in my original proposed study sequence (Studies 1-3), so I had to be ready to shift my planned progression in the sequence and present those changes to my committee along the way. Obtaining data that comes out mixed can be a bit demoralizing but finding ways to regroup and maintain focus on important takeaways is a crucial part of this process.
Finally, do you have any general tips for those who are preparing their dissertation?
- Heidi: Join a dissertation writing group, find supportive colleagues or friends who can provide moral support throughout the process, keep a stash of healthy snacks and take regular walking breaks, and remember that you are capable, you’ve gotten this far, and you can do it!
- Kori: Pitt recently changed the structure of the dissertation process and suggests that students collect initial data before the proposal and the build on that data for their dissertation (hopefully increasing the likelihood that dissertation data works as expected). I really appreciate that I did this because it made the process much less stressful because I was able to plan out a series of studies in my proposal based on promising initial data and could build my full argument for my idea out in the proposal stage which allowed me to get really detailed feedback from my committee early in the dissertation process.
- Julian: I would say invest in a project that you are genuinely curious to explore. I was excited about my dissertation, and though the results may be mixed at times, the findings are still noteworthy for me personally. I can also take time to really interrogate my findings further to see if they can motivate any follow-ups. But honestly, take this as a time to really carve out your research identity, and do something unique that also meshes well with directions of your lab and your graduate mentor. Make sure you and your mentor are on the same page and hopefully both of you are excited about the project and collecting data. Additionally, look out for dissertation grants or awards that could help supplement your participant recruitment. Lastly, consider good samples and recruitment tools to help you with your project. I was able to collect political data around the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, and though I could not obtain in-person voting data due to COVID-19 similar to some of my prior work, I had to adapt and find representative data around the election online as best as possible.
We thank Julian Scheffer and Drs. Heidi Vuletich and Kori Krueger for their contribution to this article.