Thought Clearing

Dave Harris, Ph.D. Editor & Coach.

Document Submission Checklist

This is a basic and generic checklist for completing and submitting a dissertation or thesis.
When it comes time to finalize your work, be sure to find the official guidelines published by your department or university. This checklist presents the basic points most students need to consider, but cannot replace the official university guidelines.

To find your university guidelines, try a Google search for "Dissertation (or Thesis) style guidelines". Many universities have this information on line. If that doesn't work, try contacting the university registrar or the university graduate division or graduate dean's office. The university that doesn't have specific guidelines for the title page, at the least, is rare.

It may be intimidating to have to turn in a paper according to a specific set of style guidelines, but if you just follow a step-by-step process it's not all that difficult. Here's a basic checklist of the fundamental issues. It doesn't include all the information you need, but check this list against your style guidelines and you should be set. Style guidelines from universities run to thirty or forty pages; style manuals are hundreds of pages. But don't be intimidated. There's a lot of detail that you probably won't face.

  1. Font: I suggest Times New Roman 12pt. Many other fonts are acceptable, but if there is a restriction, Times New Roman 12pt is almost always accepted. It may not be the nicest or sexiest font but it is the safest. The more common the font, the more likely it will be accepted.
  2. Set up your margins. The size of margin needed varies depending on the project. Typically it will be one inch on all four sides, except for theses and dissertations which may be bound for a library, and will require a larger left margin (typically 1.5 inches). If you set your margins to the correct width early in the writing process, it may save you some hassles later (especially if you're using tables that might be affected by the width).
  3. Double space. Most papers in the humanities (MLA and Turabian style manuals) and social sciences (APA style manual) require this. This includes lengthy quotations that are set off from the rest of the text by indentation (double spacing required by APA, MLA; Turabian manual says quotations "may be single spaced"). Tables of contents, footnotes, and reference lists often have different linespacing requirements.
  4. Number your pages. Pagination rules vary from institution to institution.
  5. Page headers are often necessary.
  6. Title Page. Most style manuals have examples of proper title pages. But this is usually highly university specific.
  7. Front matter: this may include a signature page, a copyright notice, a dedication, and acknowledgments.
  8. Table of contents.
  9. Abstract. Keep it short and as simple as possible. Check your style manual for details. UMI Dissertation Publishing --the service that handles many or most dissertations in the U.S.--requires a 350-word limit on doctoral dissertation abstracts and a 150-word limit on master's theses. A good abstract is worth the effort. It's what people read first.
  10. The body of the text. You're not too likely to forget about this.
  11. Figures and images. Often it is most simple to include figures and images at the end of the text. If you are using images that are copyrighted, you will probably need to get permission for their use in your dissertation or thesis.
  12. List of references. Don't leave this for last! Your references in the text have to be consistent with the references on the reference list. Although most references will be done easily, don't get caught at the last minute scrambling to figure out how best to cite one of your references. Most style manuals have extensive lists of examples to help put references in the proper form.
  13. Paper. Typically schools require dissertations and theses to be printed on special paper (usually low-acid or acid-free). Check with your school for acceptable papers.

Getting it all right requires attention to detail and some effort, but it doesn't require any great intelligence. Don't be intimidated.

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Writing an abstract

Consider the aim of the abstract.
What is its purpose?
It is intended to tell a reader the basic, most important aspects of your work so that he or she can decide whether or not to read the rest of the paper.
So what do you need to tell a reader?

  1. what it is that you're talking about (the subject matter)
  2. why he/she should care (why the subject matter is important)
  3. what you found (or hope to find out) about the subject matter (what your research question or intention is)
  4. How you learned (or intend to learn) about the subject matter (the research methodology).
  5. what your conclusions were (when appropriate--conclusions don't belong in the abstract of a dissertation or thesis proposal).

If you think there's anything else the reader really needs to know about your study, you can try to fit it in. But keep it short. The accepted length for dissertation abstracts filed with UMI is 350 words, and it wouldn't hurt if you can keep it shorter. The point of the abstract is not to convey the full details and richness of your study--the point of the abstract is to convince someone reading the abstract that the study is worth reading. And to that end the points mentioned earlier are crucial--and all need to be addressed without getting bogged down into details or the complexity of the subject.

Certainly you, the author, might believe those complexities are crucial to the understanding of the subject matter--and you might be right--but you're not trying to teach the reader all about the subject matter--you're trying to show the reader what it is he or she would get if they were to read the paper.

The Abstract can be a great exercise: it helps one create a focus on the project as a whole--it forces one to think about the whole project and how it fits together--and how that project is relevant to the larger world around. It leads the author to step back from the details and to look at the larger strokes of the picture being painted. It helps one see the forest instead of the trees.

It's also a good exercise because you can do it in a short time. If you set yourself to work on the abstract for half an hour--and you commit to writing a whole 350 abstract, it can be done. Sure, it may not be perfect, but it's something--something that you can look at and revise, something that you can show to someone else and get feedback, and something that you finished--and it's good to get into the habit of finishing the different parts of the dissertation because that's the path to finishing the entire dissertation.

You should not try to write a perfect abstract. Instead try to write an abstract that touches on all the major points. Of course, as a general rule, with written projects, one should try to finish them instead of trying to make them perfect. If you have no trouble finishing your projects, then you can strive for perfection--but otherwise finishing is usually far more satisfying than striving for perfection.

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Working with your Committee

From one perspective, the task of writing a dissertation can be seen as nothing more than the task of getting the right three (or two or four) professors to sign the signature sheet. You have to get them to sign, and you don't have to do anything else. This perspective may seem cynical, but it is only practical. Without the signatures, there is no degree. Your committee, therefore, is crucial. But you knew that.

Of course every individual professor is different, so no specific strategy will fit every situation, but there are some useful ways to think about the committee, and using these perspectives will help you develop the right kind of interactions with your committee.

  • Professors sign the dissertation when they believe that your academic work is good enough. And you can accomplish that by letting them tell you what they expect and then doing what they have asked you. Ask them what they think constitutes a complete dissertation; make them state their needs and expectations as clearly as possible. If you do what you're told it will lead to getting the committee to approve your work.
  • This is not to suggest that one slavishly follow instructions or grovel. You should always be willing argue points that are important to you, but don't argue unless the point is important, and then try to present an argument for your position. Reducing conflict leads to increasing agreement, and that helps.
  • Try to stay on schedule: if you tell your committee you're going to submit a complete work on a certain date, submit the work on that date. That will make it easier to get good and timely feedback.
  • Try to submit complete pieces of work. This helps the committee assess where work needs to be done. There are other good reasons to submit complete work, but they're not a matter of handling the committee.
  • Recognize that your committee wants you to graduate. It looks good for them if their students graduate. It doesn't look good if students they work with don't graduate. This is a matter of prestige, a matter of self-image and possibly other factors. The data on students who complete their work, and who their committee is is not private. Your committee, for self-serving reasons, is motivated to help you.
  • Of course there are other reasons professors like to help students, too: they like teaching, they like working with ideas, and certainly a whole range of other human motivations, good and bad. It's easy to think of a committee as adversaries and judges. They will judge you and your work, and it's quite easy to create an adversarial atmosphere (or to work with a professor who believes in the importance of adversarial working conditions). But if you try to treat your committee as a resource there to assist you (and, as educators, that is their job), rather than as judges (which is also part of their job), it means approaching them with questions about your weaknesses rather than with defenses to cover your weaknesses. Which attitude do you think will get your professors to give you more helpful responses?
  • Rather than viewing the accomplishments of your professors as reason to be intimidated, view their accomplishments as a resource. You're not supposed to do work as good as your professors': that's why they're professors and you're not. You are, however, supposed to aspire to doing work as good as your professors', and to strive to learn to do work as good as your professors'. And that is part of the reason writing a dissertation or thesis is part of graduate programs: one learns to write well by writing. If you ask your professors, how many do you think would say that their dissertation is of equal quality with their best work?

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