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How do I choose a dissertation topic?
Ah...the long and often frustrating process of finding a topic. Here are some general tips from the PhinisheD archives.

An interesting thread on starting the process of finding a topic: How do I select a dissertation topic? by Gary Brian.

Another interesting thread on starting the process of finding a topic: Need thesis ideas by Jennifer.

How do I shape a dissertation prospectus/proposal?
The Berkeley Dissertation Proposal Workshop is a great site on how to construct a dissertation proposal (targeted mainly at social sciences).

How do I shape a literature review?
Indiana, Arlene, and Erika describe their techniques for organizing and managing their literature reviews:

Organizing your literature review by Indiana Rhodes.

Terrorized by the literature: Tips to begin sorting/categorizing my articles by Arlene.

Outlining your lit review by Erika.

How long should a dissertation be?
In some disciplines, a dissertation under 200 pages is frowned upon. In others, 50 page dissertations are the norm. Probably the best way to determine "how big should mine be?" is to go weigh the dissertations in your department library.

Jason talks about the expectation of different lengths for the dissertation in different disciplines: Diss length in humanities vs science by Jason R.

How should my dissertation look?
Not a silly question, but an entire class of questions, including "How long should my dissertation be?," "How should my dissertation be structured?," "How many graphs or tables should I use?," "What goes in the appendix?," and a host of other related questions. Long-time PhinisheD pillar David always has the same response: Go to the library and look at the last three dissertations to come out of your advisor's lab. That is David's Rule, and you would be wise to heed it. Familiarizing yourself with work your advisor has already approved will benefit you in countless ways.

How do you manage references?/What bibliographic software do you use?
Many people at PhinisheD have asked about experiences with various bibliographic software.
  • Many PhinisheD users recommend EndNote to search online bibliographic databases, organize references, and create instant bibliographies. EndNote integrates well with Microsoft Word and Word Perfect (Windows and Mac, student $110, free trial version).
  • From the same company that makes Endnote, ProCite is another popular bibliographic program (Windows and Mac, student $110, free trial version).
  • Ibidem is part of an integrated academic package from Nota Bene (Windows, student pricing for Nota Bene Scholar's Workstation $249, free trial version).
  • Citation combines a bibliography and notecard program (Windows, academic $199, free trial version).
  • A free bibliographic option for Mac users is the limited version of Papyrus. This has all the features of the full version of Papyrus ($90), except each bibliography database is limited to 200 entries. Program is no longer being updated.
  • A free bibliographic program for Windows users is BiblioExpress. BiblioExpress can be run off of a single floppy disk, and is the freeware edition of the more extensive program BiblioScape (academic lite $50, academic standard (integrates with MS Word, $100, free trial version).
  • Another free Windows option is Scholar's Aid Lite. Main differences are lack of a spellchecker, and limitation to five files (tip from Claire: this can be circumvented using the "save as" feature). The full version is Scholar's Aid (student $75, free trial version).
The first post on a general discussion of bibliographic software: query about bibliographical software packages by David Mackinder.

Should I write my dissertation chapters consecutively?
Many dissertation writers find the task of organizing their dissertation work to be an unexpected challenge.

PhDyke's question on what to start writing her dissertation sparked some interesting responses: How to get from Zero Draft to Chapters? by PhDyke.

Tom describes why it is often best to do the first chapter last: Doing the lit review last by Tom.

Todd asks about writing chapters concurrently.

Chapter 1 is a special case: some say it should be written first, some say it should be written last. Lilac Wine and Marsha Kobre Anderson discuss Chapter 1 and when you should write it.

I've written my dissertation in Word and now the footnotes are messed up. What's going on?
This is a common problem for people writing long documents in Word for Windows and several Phinishees have shared solutions to this problem.

Mary asks why Word won't carry over footnotes after modifying and how to fix the problem: Microsoft Word 97 Footnote Question by Mary.

What David did to resolve the footnote problem: trouble with footnote separators -- possible solution by David Mackinder.

Kristine asks for help with MS Word and footnotes, and Karen R asks for help with MS Word and footnotes, and so does KristenP.

What should I know about last-minute dissertation formatting issues?
Most dissertation writers are surprised to find that to graduate, it is not important that their dissertation be good, but only that it be formatted correctly. And formatting to the university's satisfaction is no easy task....

Kharyssa deals with the format nazis: Dag nabbit! by kharyssa.

CarolC reiterates advice about formatting margins.

What can I expect at a dissertation proposal defense?
Jade gets some good advice about what to expect at the defense: Proposal defense by Jade.

What can I expect at a dissertation defense?
Anne gets great advice about preparing for her dissertation defense.

How do you take notes? / What notetaking software do you use?
Different notetaking styles work for different people. Some people produce written notes, some start out with written notes and then transfer to the computer, and some enter notes directly into the computer.

Notetaking Strategies

One favorite notetaking strategy is to use index cards and file in a rolodex or shoebox. Some people use a two-column ledger, with one column used for the source citation and the other used for the comments or quotations. One strategy for transferring information to the computer is to do focused freewriting on the notes, which are then transfered to a thesis binder. Claire describes the advantages and limitations of using a pen scanner to input text. Jade uses voice recognition software to input her notes. Another strategy is to use software designed for notetaking. Junebug's question on notetaking sparked a thread where PhinisheD Pholk shared their notetaking strategies. So did Rosamunde's question about note-taking and quotes.

Notetaking Software

Many bibliographic programs, such as EndNote, provide a searchable keyword and notes section. See the Bibliography FAQ for more suggestions on bibliographic software. See also the Software section of the Links for more ideas.

How do you manage your research materials?
The first rule of thumb is to always copy or back up original research material. Field data, transcript tapes, and other hard-won data should be reproduced, with one copy kept off-site, preferably in a fire-proof box. The cost of copying materials is small relative to the cost of redoing all of the original research!

There are two main systems for filing photocopied book chapters and journal papers. One is to organize by topic, which has the advantage of being able to quickly refresh your memory on a topic and good portability; the downside is that papers often fit into more than one topic, and it is easier to misfile and lose papers than with an alphabetical system. Another is to organize by alphabetical order (either first author or PI/group), which has the advantage of more robust organization but makes gathering together related papers more of a chore. GeoGal sets off a discussion on filing systems. Whichever filing system you choose, keywords in bibliographic software should help.


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