The Psychology Dissertation: It’s the looming, black cloud over all of our graduate school careers. It’s the one thing we all want to get off of our plates, but also the one thing we do everything in our power to avoid. But there is an underrated, sometimes-forgotten way to prevent a lot of dissertation pain.

My Story

I was fortunate with my dissertation. My first year of graduate school, the grant that would fund my dissertation research was just coming through. I joined a lab of only two other people, had ‘dibs’ on my topic, and was involved in data collection almost immediately.

I realize this is not the norm. The majority of my friends hit huge, unavoidable dissertation roadblocks that negatively impacted their progress at no fault of their own.

My dissertation proposal was accepted immediately following a 30-minute presentation by me and a collective five questions from my entire committee. The reason I was able to accomplish this was because of one simple thing that I did, a thing that many people do not.

This one thing is the absolute, number one way that I stayed sane while writing my dissertation and avoided mountains of revisions after my proposal.

Here’s how I managed it:

I discussed my proposal with committee members prior to proposing.

Why Discuss Your Dissertation with Committee Members Prior to Proposing?

Most committees are diverse. My school, for example, requires five committee members. One is our advisor, three of them can be from our university, but at least one has to be from outside the university. For me, it was a statistician from a different university.

Your advisor is the easy one. You can collaborate with him or her for months (or for a year or more) prior to your proposal. This is the one person who will have your back during your presentation, and the one person who already has approved your work and thinks it’s good to go.

The other members of your committee are the “wild cards”. They don’t know anything about your research. You have to convince them that what you are proposing is relevant and that you are approaching it in the best way. Plus, they likely all have a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., which means they are smart, capable, and have tons of research ideas and suggestions just waiting for a “home”.

If that “home” becomes your dissertation, however, you will be left doing a lot of extra work to what you feel is already a sufficient research proposal. That’s not to say that all of the proposed edits are unnecessary. I had some amazing suggestions PRIOR to my proposal that I never would have thought of and was able to incorporate into my final product. However, we have all heard the horror stories of the complete overhaul of dissertation projects by committees.

How I Did It

So in order to keep my sanity during this process, I met with multiple committee members before my proposal to discuss areas that I knew were typical ‘problem areas’ for fellow students as well as areas that I knew my committee would be most likely to challenge.

For example, my committee consisted of multiple statisticians. Because of this, I met with each one prior to my proposal and got their suggestions on ways to approach my aims.

Not only did this give me the opportunity to tell them about my research beforehand, but it also helped me to avoid redoing my statistics later. I honestly did not run any of my statistics prior to meeting with them.

Instead of fixing something retroactively, I was proactive. Ultimately, each of the committee members suggested slightly different ways to examine my data. I chose what I thought would work best. Then, to cover all of my bases, I met with each of them AGAIN to make sure they were OK with my chosen method. This helped me avoid difficult statistics questions during my proposal and it also helped me avoid changing ANY of my stats.

This will by no means ensure that you go through the proposal process without any snags. There are always surprises. However, using this strategy greatly increases your chances of a painless proposal.

Bonus Tip: If you have already completed your proposal successfully, this is still a very important strategy to employ, especially if your program requires a formal defense. Following my proposal, I worked with one of the statisticians on my committee. She helped me run and interpret all of my stats, because I used SAS instead of SPSS, which I had not worked with before.

The bottom line is: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people are more than willing to take some time to work with you on your dissertation and doing so will save you so much time.

Why adjust it after the fact when you can do it in a way that satisfies everyone the first time?

Tarra Combs