Saturday, January 6, 2007

What the hell is a "Dissertation," anyway?

You may be asking, "What the hell is a dissertation (pronounced: "diss-uhr-TAY-shun") anyway, drsharna? You keep bitching and whining about it but we don't know what it is other than it sounds really big and scary." Well my little neuronerds in training, boiled down to its simplest essence, it is a book detailing a major, unique piece of research that a doctoral student has to conduct to become, well, a doctor. It is also the stuff of nightmares.

The book is usually broken down into four chapters, although your mileage may vary:

1) Introduction. The author states the nature and history of the issue to be pursued in the research, why it is important, what else has been written in the topic area (also called the literature review or lit review), and states the hypothesis (what the research is expected to discover).

2) Method. This chapter outlines how data is to be collected, the way subjects are recruited for the research project, what is done to the subjects (and how) and what statistical analyses (aka number crunching) will be conducted with the data..

3)Results. After all the numbers are crunched, this section lays out all the results. Most people kind of skip over this section when reading research, which is why in order to save space, a lot of publishers print this in a smaller font than the rest of the document.

4)Discussion. This is where everything comes together. The researcher explains what all the number crunching from the last chapter means and how the research may potentially impact the greater world at large, then areas for future research are suggested.

In the early stages of the process, the first 2 chapters together are called the "Proposal," because it outlines for the dissertation committee and the Institutional Review Board (IRB - these are the seeerious academics who decide whether the study meets ethical guidelines, etc.) and anybody else who might want to repeat the experiment later exactly what the researcher plans to do. Right now I'm revising my Proposal for my dissertation committee, who will review everything and tell me whether it meets their approval to send to the school's IRB who will tell me whether I have their approval to go ahead and do the project as is or not. When conducting research in a hospital setting there's yet another IRB approval to go through at the hospital before submitting it to the school IRB. MIght as well shoot myself before I stroke out.

If you've ever tried to get anything done by a single committee, you know how frustrating that can be. The dissertation process involves multiple committees - of academics. These folks rarely agree on anything, so it's a wonder anyone makes it out alive. After all this time, I've yet to hear of one dissertation experience that wasn't traumatic for the author. If you know of such a fairytale, would you please share it as a gesture of hope and inspiration? I could use a dose of both right now. Most of the time, raising my teenage daughter is easier. Sigh.

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