So let’s start walking. Some of you may be waiting for that inevitable day when you have to start writing your proposal. You may feel you have a paucity of ideas with the best one being that you have no clue where to begin. Others may know your topic, the question(s) you want to answer, and even know the research methodology which best fits the question(s). Wherever you are in the process – there is no wrong place. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” How true this is for your doctoral experience! The following are actions which hopefully you will find useful. I also encourage anyone to share what they have found helpful along their journey.
Lay the groundwork early. Coursework, papers, and conferences – these are all avenues where you can start researching and writing on a topic of interest. Dissertation research can begin as early as your first course of study and, ideally, will continue throughout each subsequent semester. The idea is that, by the end of your coursework, you will have a substantial amount of research from which to pull from. You will also be able to think about the literature more analytically. This is mainly because you understand it – almost like a story – and can follow along. On the other hand, if you don’t have a topic of interest no worries! Just start writing some down. I have one friend who wrote down different ideas and put them in a shoe box. When the time to choose a topic came around she decided to start thinking “inside the box!” Okay, bad joke…
Get to know people. Find faculty and/or other counseling professionals who are interested in or have expertise in your topic area. In addition to thinking about who you would want on your committee, affiliate with professors who are familiar with your topic. This includes publications, presentations, current research and practical application. For example, my general topic is disaster mental health (DMH). By finding out who, both at my university and within my community, is interested in DMH I have been able to see how these individuals practically apply their interest. This includes volunteering with national and local disaster response organizations, attendance at DMH conferences and symposiums, and involvement in research and curriculum development which supports the development and training of DMH professionals.
Talk to the experts. No – not the subject matter experts – your peers. Take a look at what they are doing. Students at all phases of dissertation can teach you a great deal about what (and what not) to do. Inquire about lessons learned. Only the peers at your institution are going to know specifics such as the “personality” of your IRB or what it is like to collaborate with faculty. Recently I sat down with a fellow student who was inquiring about what it was like to work with one of my committee members. This is an excellent way to share information about your faculty’s current research endeavors, areas of expertise and supervisory styles.
Seek out a dissertation cohort. This may be different from your class cohort – a dissertation cohort is a group of individuals who are either on your same timeline or interested in your topic. I have a friend of mine who hasn't even started her proposal, yet our shared interest in the subject matter makes her vital to my brainstorming efforts. These folks are also a wonderful source of support when you are feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes we lift and sometimes we lean.
Don’t worry if you’ve done none of the above. When it came time to write my prospectus I had spent years studying one topic – integrating spirituality and/or religion into counseling. However after writing, presenting, and researching this topic extensively I still couldn’t conceptualize an original dissertation study that I was passionate about. I basically started from scratch and whereas I don’t recommend this – the lit review is quite grueling – it has helped me form a research agenda. In addition to my dissertation topic I now have another area of expertise from which to draw upon. I think about this frequently when I get questions from my chair like “So how’s Chapter 2 going?” Ugh.
I welcome your comments, thoughts and experiences about beginning a dissertation or thesis. With that I have one last thought for those who may still feel overwhelmed. In the end, all you really have to do is outlast your doctoral committee! Good luck wearing them down though – they have LOTS of experience with us.
Stephanie Dailey is a counselor, adjunct faculty and doctoral candidate at Argosy University-Washington, D.C.