Dissertating at APU

Make a Dissertation Plan

Basil Considine - Doctoral Writing Coach

Before you start work on your dissertation – before you write your proposal or prospectus, even – ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I want to write about? 
  • Why is this important to me?
  • Why is this important to other people? 
  • What new knowledge or insight will I bring to the topic? 
  • When will I start? When do I want to be done?
Once you've answered these questions, and discussed them with your dissertation chair, you can set about writing your dissertation plan.

Veni, Vidi, Vici

A famous quotation of Julius Caesar translates as "I came, I saw, I conquered." The equivalent for dissertation writing reads, "I planned, I wrote, I graduated." Crafting a dissertation plan will help you define, research, and write your dissertation in an effective and timely manner.

There's no one universal model for a dissertation plan, but this general outline will work well for starting most projects:
  • An informal statement of what it is you are writing about and why.
  • An informal statement on what has and hasn't been written on this topic.
  • A list of essential tasks.
  • A list of prerequisites for each task.
  • A list of sub-goals (e.g., winning a research fellowship) that are not necessary, but would help with each task.
  • A working timeline for completing the above tasks.
  • A brief outline of how you expect to organize your dissertation. 
Why write these out? 
  • If you have a prerequisite that will take a long time to meet (e.g., learning a new language, gaining access to unpublished data, etc.), you want to know this well in advance so that you can plan for it.
  • If you are pursuing a grant or fellowship to assist with your research or writing, this will help groom your activities towards that sub-goal.
  • You can share this information with professors and colleagues who can give you feedback and input early in the process. If your dissertation looks like too much or too little work, it's better to know sooner than later!

How Do You Back Up?

It's dissertation time! You might not have thought about it, but a question just as important as what you will write about is how you will back up your work?

There are many different tools out there that can be used to back up your work. Just remember that the best backup solution is automatic, easy, frequent, and redundant. 

Tools that can be used to backup your work include:
I wrote my dissertation in Microsoft Word and backed it up using Dropbox. I chose Dropbox because it was free and easy to use – anything that I saved in its folder was automatically saved on a cloud server. This came in very handy when my computer died mid-dissertation – I had set Microsoft to save an automatic backup to Dropbox every minute, so I didn't lose any work and all it took to get started again was a trip to the Apple Store and reinstalling Dropbox. - Basil Considine

My advisor told me that he used to keep a copy of his dissertation in the freezer so it would be safe in case of a fire! Luckily, we have much better options today. I used Google Drive, which lets you store up to 15GB of data for free and access it from anywhere. You can download Drive to your computer so that every time you save, it is on your hard drive and in the cloud. I also paid for Mozy, which does automatic backups of your whole hard drive as often as you want. And you can access your files from anywhere, even earlier versions. - Rebecca Cantor

Figures and Tables

Figures and tables are tools for presenting complex information in an easy-to-understand visual format. A well-used table or figure clarifies how information fits together or provides easy access to details that would be distracting in the body of your paper. On the other hand, a badly-used table or figure distracts readers by making them stop to try and figure out what they're seeing and if/how/why it's important. Discuss including tables with your dissertation chair. He or she can guide you on how many and what types of tables and figures are appropriate for your project and field.

What Makes a Good Table or Figure?
  • Descriptive title.
  • Clear labels and/or headings.
  • Selective use of colors and shading. (Tables in color must be printed in color in the final version.)
  • No extraneous details.
  • Legible size. Landscape if necessary. No smaller than 10 point, according to the handbook.
  • Referenced in the body of your paper.
What Makes a Bad Table or Figure?
  • A generic, unclear, or missing title.
  • No or unclear labels and/or headings.
  • Hard-to-read colors and shading.
  • Extraneous details.
  • Too small to read or see details.
  • Not referenced in the body table.
Make sure that your tables and figures fit within the standard page margins! For more on table formatting, check out page 12 of the handbook.

Dr. Basil Considine - Writing Coach!

Doctoral students at APU have the exciting opportunity to meet with Dr. Basil Considine, our lead Doctoral Coach, who is available online. 

Dr. Considine joins us from Boston University, where he was a senior graduate tutor and ESL specialist at BU's College of Arts and Sciences Writing Center. He brings with him more than a decade of experience working in distance education and writing instruction, a scholarly background in the social sciences and humanities, and special expertise in working with non-native English speakers and other non-traditional students.

In his words, "What we do at the Writing Center is help students to communicate clearly, convincingly, and effectively. It doesn't matter what you study, what your native language is, or whether you're looking for help at the very start of a writing project or near the end – just make an appointment and you'll be surprised at what can be done in 60 minutes." 

Dr. Considine is available to work with any enrolled doctoral student, including students who might require assistance in developmental or foundational writing. 

You can work with Dr. Considine online in real time or by submitting a paper and receiving feedback via email. Doctoral students interested in making appointments with Basil should call the Writing Center at (626) 815-6000 ext. 3141 or email writingcenterstaff@apu.edu

Timed Writing

The best tip we can give to any dissertator is simply this: Time your writing. 

All you have to do is find a simple timer. It can be an egg timer, but we prefer downloading an app to your desktop like one of these. Don't use your cell phone! In fact, try to keep your phone off and in the other room to avoid distractions. Set your timer for 30 to 45 minutes. Open your document, start your timer, and write. Write! Write like the wind! 

Stay in your document until the timer goes off. Don't leave the page for anything. Can't think of the date that the atom was discovered? Put in a big blank space, or write DATE THAT THE ATOM WAS DISCOVERED in all caps and keep going. (Dr. Diana Glyer calls this using space holders.) When the timer goes off, stop!

If you've only scheduled 45 minutes of writing today, go on with your day and feel good about yourself. If this is a longer session, set your timer for ten to fifteen minutes and take a stroll or get a snack (of course, your ideas will still be brewing during this time, but you'll avoid muscle atrophy.) When the timer goes off, set it again, and get back into your document. 

For many, this technique is a God-send, a way to plop down large, messy clumps of clay, which you will later come back and revise. Or a way to stay focused on one task, like editing your introduction, for a solid period. Try it! And let us know what you think on the comments page.

Formatting Your Dissertation

Before you get too involved in formatting your
dissertation, allow us to introduce Janice Baskin, Director of Library Publications. All doctoral publications are book-bound and cataloged for the University Libraries and most also are published in the ProQuest Database for Dissertations and Theses.  It is truly a testament to your global academic reputation.  Ms. Baskin is in charge of making sure that your dissertation is up to publishing standards for APU according to the APU Style and Format Handbook for Doctoral Publications as well as ProQuest publishing standards, and she is available to guide you through the process.  Her services are part of your academic experience here at APU (there’s no additional charge), so be sure to contact Ms. Baskin at jbaskin@apu.edu or (626) 815-6000, ext. 3274 and set up an appointment!

In addition, according to the handbook, after your work is released by the dissertation committee and before it can be reviewed by the University Libraries for binding, it must be read by an APU-approved reader, who copyedits your dissertation for clarity of expression, consistency in organization, grammar, syntax, formatting, and references, as well as APA formatting (or Turabian if you’re in D.Min). Your degree can’t post until your dissertation is bound. Be sure you understand this stage of the dissertation process early on so that you can avoid unnecessary delays and finish your degree requirements on time.

Abstract Writing

The abstract is an ultra-compact distillation of your dissertation. It has much in common with a thirty-second elevator speech: it leaves out many important details, but should highlight enough interesting parts to intrigue a reader/listener. A good abstract tells the reader what sort of things they will find in the dissertation, including why the topic is interesting and important in the first place.

Every discipline has its own conventions about the contents of an abstract, but these general rules apply:
  • Be concise.
  • Give only the most essential background information – just enough for the readers to understand what it is you're investigating and why.
  • State clearly and directly what it is you set out to do and what you found/proved/discovered.
  • Avoid jargon – abstracts should be readable by experts from your discipline and by people outside your discipline.

Dissertation Boost Camps

The Writing Center is excited to announce our next Dissertation Boost Camp! It will be Saturday, December 5th from 9-6 for EdD students in Educational Leadership.

The Dissertation Boost Camp gives you the opportunity and space to (re)focus on your writing. We provide breakfast, lunch, snacks, structured breaks, and optional writing appointments and workshops.

Getting Feedback

Rebecca Cantor - Director of the Writing Center

When I was writing my dissertation, I came up with a timeline and feedback rotation that kept me from getting stuck. I hope my system inspires you to develop your own! Once you have a plan, put it in writing, and discuss it with your dissertation chair to make sure it's feasible.

For each chapter, I allowed one month for research and one month for drafting. Then I sent my very rough draft to my first source of feedback: my sister. (Of course, your first step can be anyone who cares about your progress and will offer you helpful questions and suggestions.)

While my sister had my draft of chapter two, I started my month of researching chapter three. At the end of the month, I would revise chapter two based in-part on my sister's comments and questions. 

During this first major revision, I would focus primarily on the organization of my argument and supporting evidence. Of course, I would make sentence-level changes as well, but they were secondary.

I would then spend a month drafting chapter three, send it to my sister, and then meet with a Writing Center coach who offered new questions and suggestions. I would then revise again, this time shifting my focus slightly toward sentence-level concerns, and send the chapter to my dissertation advisor in hard copy.

Are you seeing a pattern? When my draft came back from my advisor, I would go through several more drafts--revising to cement organization, reading aloud and editing to make my sentences read better, and finally proofreading. And it was done!

Here are the two keys to the feedback rotation:

  1. Time away from each chapter so that you can return to the draft with fresh eyes.
  2. Shamelessness. You can't worry what others will think of your early drafts. Their questions and comments will spur you on.
Don't sit in isolation. Develop a timeline and seek feedback regularly! But don't wait to have your drafts returned to you. Start working on your next chapter right away. You can do this!


Did you know that APU has an institutional subscription to EndNote X6? You can use it for free!

EndNote allows you to easily collect references from electronic and traditional sources, organize your references for your research topics and papers, and create a formatted bibliography for your paper or cite references while you write.

To download the EndNote software for free, go to CItation Guides, then click on Download EndNote software (APU NetID and password required).

We recommend these YouTube videos for guidance on getting started and all that EndNote can do for you and your writing process:
Be sure to look at this LibGuide for instructions specific to APU: How To Export Database Records Into EndNote from the APU Libraries.

Background Noise

Looking for a way to drown out the distractions and annoyances at home while you work on chapter two? Is the library TOO quiet for you to think? Try coffitivity.com, which streams the sounds of a coffee shop, bustling lunch hub, or even a "campus cafe" straight to your work space! It's important to think about your work environment and what works best for you and your personal productivity.