Summary of Surviving Your Dissertation Guide

The Research Wheel illustration displays an iterative process with theory, hypothesis, observations of data, and patterns. On opposing sides are an upward arrow indicating induction, and a downward arrow indicating deduction.
Research is an iterative process.

The following is a summary of a book I read for class in preparation for my dissertation with my personal notes. I thought some readers might benefit from it who are going through their doctoral program or considering one.

(Source: Rudestam, K. E., & Newton, R. R. (2014). Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. Sage.)

Chapter 1: The Research Process

Rudestam and Newton (2014) described the basic elements for getting started on a dissertation: curiosity, dispassionate logic, parsimonious thinking, and an action plan. The proposal serves as a plan of action. It should include a timely and relevant literature review, problem statement with corresponding hypotheses, and method of data collection and analyses. They referenced the research wheel of iterative processes. Their pathway from the research question path forks into parallel pathways toward empirical observations>proposition and data collection> data analysis. Both lead to theory generation or a conceptual framework and then continue to formulation of more hypotheses. The authors also stated how the researcher’s paradigm (worldview) influences her research study from start to finish.

They suggested that doctoral students should first become familiar with the research literature on a given topic to identify a concept of interest. The type of dissertation that one does also depends on a student’s field of study and departmental practices. My department was open to the type of dissertations we choose. It could be theoretical, practical, combination of the two, or even an alternative “dissertation publication” of three interrelated articles.

Chapter 2: Selecting a Suitable Topic

The authors encouraged doctoral students to become very familiar with the general field of a construct. For example, I selected commercial massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) for second language acquisition (SLA) of vocabulary. I have a masters in second language teaching, so I was very familiar with that aspect. Therefore, I focused more on the literature on gaming for educational purposes for two years to select my topic. The authors go on to highlight the importance of discussing the literature with experts. Fortunately, I talked to gaming experts during my informal 2014 program evaluation of an educational game developed by the U.S. State Department in which I explicated a logic model. I also talked to expert game players, as part of my 2015 case study on gaming habits of English language learners. From this case study, I extracted emergent themes that paralleled current theories from the literature that suggest gaming as a useful tool for SLA.

The Library of Congress, as well as our university, will publish dissertations. Hence, dissertations become part of your publication history. The authors encouraged us to choose wisely. They encouraged us to be practical with our research interests and to select a topic that will contribute to the field. My dissertation extended a study on the use of MMORPGs for SLA. The study had very promising results, but it was only completed with a few students. My hope was to repeat the study and add more rigor to its validity and reliability by adding another factor (different levels of English language learners) and more subjects. The authors discussed the inclusion of a third variable to assist with better understanding the relationship between the primary variables. I controlled for the third variable of years studying English in an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) statistical test. I used a pretest-posttest control group design.

Chapter 3: Methods of Inquiry: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches

In this chapter, the authors acknowledged the varying definitions of knowledge. They described Freimuth’s three levels of knowledge: axiologic/epistemic, theoretical, and empirical. Interestingly, they omitted ontology, which is the nature of knowledge. According to Freimuth, axiology is the values, beliefs, and ethics that influence our understanding of knowledge, while epistemology is the actual study of knowledge.  Other researchers describe epistemology as the relationship between the knower and the known (e.g., Guba, Johnson). The theoretical level includes the models and theories. Models are explicit abstractions based in theory, while theories are pure abstractions that can be based on other theories or something innovative. The empirical level is based on experience and experimental findings. The researcher applies the theoretical level to the empirical one based on their paradigmatic worldview: ontology, axiology, epistemology, and methodology. 

The authors described the differences between quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative methods are based on empiricism such as statistical significance testing, Pearson’s Correlation Coefficient for identifying relationships, and power analyses for strength of finding. The empirical strength of quantitative methods relies on experimental designs with random assignment of participants to a control study. In some cases, it may not be feasible to conduct random assignment, in which case the study becomes quasi-experimental or non-experimental given the parameters of the research design. Conversely, qualitative research investigates phenomena in its natural environment and allows flexibility in its design. The five types of qualitative research are phenomenology, narrative, case study, grounded theory, and historical.

Chapter 4: Literature Review and Statements of the Problem

The authors described how to write the literature review and problem statement for a quantitative and qualitative dissertation. For both, a doctoral student should include an introduction to the purpose, problem, and rationale for her study. They forewarned us that this introduction will probably change after the completion of the study and will later need to be revised. The literature review should be extensive and include both broad and specific ties to the research topic. Its main purpose is to build an argument for the research study. Coherent arguments include the thoughts of experts in the field, as well as your own ideas. This is done by seeking the original sources of key articles and becoming familiar with them instead of relying on the interpretations of others on said articles. The authors suggested the following tips for writing your argument: thematic, limit direct quotes, concise reporting, inclusion of conflicting empirical studies, and your theoretical stance.

Evaluate the literature you tend to include in your dissertation on how it applies to your study. Include full critiques, not only the weaknesses. Identify the variable used in the studies; understand why they were selected; and who was involved in the study. For criticism, the authors provided a list of questions based on the following categories: conceptualization, theoretical framework, research design, results, and summary. The authors further suggested that our literature review include the background (long shot), descriptive details (medium shot), and critical examination (close-up) of phenomena. The latter is of upmost importance in detailing how the dissertation will move from that specific finding to generation of  something new and relevant in the field.

Chapter 5: The Method Chapter: Describing Your Research Plan

The authors suggested finding the topic of your dissertation and then deciding on the methodology. However, some topics are on methodology. The method chapter includes information on the participants, instruments, and procedures. First, describe your research design. Then, describe the participants in terms of demographics, location, context, and sampling. Include information on how the participants were asked to be involved in your study. The participant invites should be included in your appendices. Conduct and share the power analysis of the appropriate number of participants for your study. They mentioned the statistical software, G*Power, which I had used in the past to estimate the number of participants to supply sufficient strength to my research findings.

The instrumentation should also be described in detail. Include the appropriateness of selected instruments for your sampling such as readability level of tests and surveys. Describe the procedures for administering the measures. Include any information on the validity of said measure, necessary training, and pilot tests. Any modification to pre-existing measures should be noted. This will aid future researchers in the understanding and possible replication of your study.

Last, the procedures include the proposed data analysis techniques that you plan to use in your research study. The authors directed us to go beyond an initial statistical analysis and to verify our findings multiple times. Moreover, some variables may suppress the findings of others. Include how you will be flexible in controlling, removing, or otherwise reconfiguring some of the variables to seek the approximate truth of your findings. They also encouraged us to conduct path modeling to illustrate the relationship of the variables of study.

Chapter 10: Writing

The authors provided several useful tips for the writing process. They explained that most of us learned to distance ourselves from our writing and use the third person instead of the personal pronoun (I). They encouraged us to use our voice (or find it if it has been completely eradicated) in writing our dissertation and to avoid the impersonal third person if possible. Another tip included using a thematic approach to addressing the literature and telling our “story” of the research findings. They also suggested addressing one research hypothesis at a time like our professor said.

 I really appreciated knowing that it is alright to model our dissertation upon the excellent writing of others for I had found an excellent research study on the topic of educational gaming for educational purposes. My study was on a similar but distinctively different topic of commercial gaming for extracurricular activities to improve a specific language ability (vocabulary). I was intrigued by not only his excellent writing but innovative methods such as thought journals to gather gamers feelings on using gaming for educational purposes.

The authors shared some tips on overcoming writing block like making lists, clustering, writing as if it were a letter to a friend, and journalistic devices. I liked the idea about clustering because I had purchased the book by Rico on Writing the Natural Way (2010) that addressed it. I had used brainstorming techniques but not clustering. Most importantly, Rudestam and Newton encouraged us to be passionate about our topic; therefore, it behooves you to pick a topic that can sustain your enthusiasm over the long haul of producing a dissertation.

Sandra Annette Rogers, PhD

Instructional Design and Development

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