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Aiming for Excellence in the Dissertation

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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In short, your advisors and committee are reading your drafts and final version to determine whether your dissertation is at a level of quality that demonstrates your readiness to make the transition from student to professional. 



The posting below looks at what makes for outstanding, very good, and unacceptable disssertations in the social sciences.  It is from Chapter 3, Aiming for Excellence in the Dissertation, in the book, Developing Quality Dissertations in the Social Sciences: A Graduate Student's Guide to Achieving Excellence by Barbara E. Lovitts and Ellen L. Wert. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102 Copyright © 2009 By Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

NOTE: This book is one of three in a series that includes Developing Quality Dissertations in the Humanities and Developing Quality Dissertations in the Sciences.  To find out more go to:


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Aiming for Excellence in the Dissertation


You read the scholarship of others to learn. But in the process, you also make judgments about the quality of their work. In the same way that you make judgments about the scholarship of others, your advisor and committee members make holistic judgments about the quality of their students' dissertations.

However, your faculty advisors also read student work with another purpose: They read to teach. They must read carefully to see where they can suggest improvements in students' conceptualization of the topic, in their methods, in their presentation of results, and in their writing.

Moreover, your advisors and committee read to certify quality. That is, they must make sure their students' dissertations demonstrate professional competence and capacity for future professional-quality contributions.

In short, your advisors and committee are reading your drafts and final version to determine whether your dissertation is at a level of quality that demonstrates your readiness to make the transition from student to professional.

Degrees of Quality

Like published articles, completed dissertations have been written and rewritten. The ideas and presentation have been subjected to expert criticism and honed through repeated drafts, feedback, and editing. And, like published research articles and books, most dissertations are very good. A few dissertations are remarkable or outstanding in some aspect. On the other hand, some dissertations are, for a variety of reasons, just within the boundaries of the profession's standards of quality. They are good enough. In rare instances, some dissertations are unacceptable.

The faculty participating in the study provides descriptions of what makes a dissertation outstanding, very good, acceptable, or unacceptable. In the sections following, you will find summaries of what they said about quality at these different levels. Use these summaries as a way to start planning and, later, evaluating your own work. They are also useful guides as you discuss your project with your advisors and committee members: Am I making progress toward my goal for excellence? Where do I need to make a special effort to develop my dissertation? What might I do to improve the quality?


Outstanding dissertations are characterized by originality, high-quality writing, and compelling consequences. They show deep knowledge of a massive amount of complicated literature and mastery of the subject matter. They display a richness of thought and insight, and make an important breakthrough. The body of work in outstanding dissertations is deep and thorough. The student demonstrates a sophisticated grasp and use of theory. In experimental fields, the experiments are well designed and well executed. The quality and care put into the measurement techniques and analyses instill confidence in the results. The data are rich and come from multiple sources

Even though outstanding dissertations are rare -faculty see them once or twice a decade, if that often -the faculty in the study were able to proved a very consistent set of descriptors. They described an outstanding dissertation in the social sciences at the higher levels of originality or significance in that it

*    asks new questions;

*    addresses an important question or problem;

*    uses or develops new tools, methods, approaches, or new types of analyses;

*    pushes the discipline's boundaries and opens new areas for research;

*    has practical and policy implications;

*    is of interest to a larger community and changes the way people think.

They explained that in its execution, the outstanding dissertation

*    is very well written and very well organized;

*    exhibits mature, independent thinking;

*    displays deep understanding of a massive amount of complicated literature;

*    exhibits command and authority over the material;

*    challenges the literature and strongly held traditional views;

*    is thoroughly researches;

*    is synthetic and interdisciplinary;

*    clearly states the problem and explains why it is important

*    has a brilliant research design

*    has well-planned and well-performed experiments (if experimental);

*    is theoretically sophisticated and shows a deep understanding of theory;

*    has rich data from multiple sources

*    has a comprehensive, complete, sophisticated, and convincing analysis

The faculty also described the outstanding dissertation as having the potential to "illuminate an entire area," "startle the field," or "stimulate a lot of activity in the profession." Indeed, the results or conclusion of an outstanding dissertation push the discipline's boundaries and are publishable in the top-tier journals.

Along with offering new and significant knowledge, an outstanding dissertation is a pleasure to read. It has a point of view and a strong, confident, independent, and authoritative voice. Each part of the outstanding dissertation, from introduction to conclusion, is excellent, and the pieces are integrated seamlessly. The writing is clear and persuasive. The ideas are set out very clearly and concisely. The writer anticipates -and answers -the reader's questions.

Outstanding dissertations were described as "page turners," surprising and edifying the reader. Readers often react with, "Wow! Why didn't I think of that?" Other terms the faculty used to describe outstanding dissertations were "compelling," "concise," "counterintuitive," "creative," "elegant," "engaging," "exciting," "insightful," "surprising," and "thoughtful."

Very Good

The very good dissertation is very good indeed. It fulfills the purposes of the dissertation requirement and establishes the student as a capable social scientist. The majority of the dissertations that faculty see are very good, and this is the level that they expect of most graduate students.

The faculty in the study explained that a very good dissertation displays the student's mastery of the field, addresses a meaningful question or problem, and is executed competently. Although it might not hold the promise of altering the field, it has the potential to contribute to the field by expanding its knowledge and thinking. The dissertation contains material for two or three papers that could be published in top-tier professional journals.

More specifically, the faculty described a very good dissertation as "original or significant," making a "modest contribution to the field." A very good dissertation has a good question or problem. It shows understanding and mastery of the subject matter; uses appropriate, standard theory, methods, and techniques; includes well-executed research; demonstrates technical competence; presents solid, expected results/answers; and is well written and well organized.


A dissertation that meets the basic criteria for the award of the PhD is considered acceptable. Such a dissertation contains a sufficient amount of solid work to demonstrate that the student can do research. It might result in some conference papers, but it has little in the way of publishable material, and what is publishable is likely to be accepted by lower-tier journals.

The faculty in the study explained that an acceptable dissertation demonstrates technical competence and shows the student's ability to do research, use standard methods, and competently apply theory to a problem. However, they noted, a student might display a narrow understanding of the field. For instance, the student might present an uncritical review of the literature that does not show insight or understanding of what is important. The analysis might be unsophisticated or limited.

The acceptable dissertation shows little promise of adding much to the field. It is not very original or significant because it is narrow in scope. It typically focuses on a question or problem that is not interesting or has predictable results. It might be a highly derivative, small extension of someone else's work.

Sometimes a dissertation that is adequate may reflect circumstances. In some studies, the hypotheses turn out to be wrong or the results are not statistically significant, meaningful, or important. Sometimes an acceptable dissertation is the result of choices and compromises: The student has accepted a job or post-doc position and needs to sprint to finish. In such instances, the student has achieved a primary purpose of graduate education, which is getting a professional position.

More typically, however, an acceptable dissertation is the product of poor communication between student and advisor, or inadequate advising. Because much of this guidance should take place before you begin to write the dissertation, it is important to talk soon and in detail with your advisor and other faculty members about your topic, your research question or problem, your plan for researching it, the methods you will use to collect and analyze data, the results you are getting, and your interpretation of the results. Get early feedback on your plan for organizing your dissertation and presenting your results.

In addition, be sure to get feedback on the quality of your writing as soon as you begin to draft the chapters. Because strong skills in organizing and writing are a critical profession attribute, even if your dissertation is very good or even outstanding in other respects, it will be considered only acceptable if you cannot communicate your ideas clearly and effectively. Just as excellent writing enhances a solid piece of scholarship, weak writing undermines otherwise excellent ideas and research.


It is your responsibility to produce professional-quality work, and it is your advisor's responsibility to prevent unacceptable work from advancing.

As the faculty who participated in the study concurred, faculty advisors should provide the guidance necessary to ensure that the dissertation meets professional standards. The advisor should make sure that the student is working with a clearly defined question or problem and must make sure that the student is using proper methods. The advisor should also provide prompt and constructive feedback. It is also your responsibility to follow through on your advisor's and committee's advice and guidance.

Work that is poorly written and full of errors and mistakes or has other serious flaws is not of adequate quality. The faculty in the study were clear that they would turn back a draft if the question of problem is trivial, weak, or unoriginal. Work that does not demonstrate that the student understands the relevant literature and basic concepts and the key processes or conventions of the discipline is unacceptable when

*    the literature review is weak or missing;

*    methods are used inappropriately, or incorrect methods are used;

*    theory is missing, wrong, or not handled well;

*    hypotheses are inconsistent, do not flow from theory, or are missing;

*    the data are flawed, misrepresented, "fudged," or wrong;

*    the results presented are obvious, already known, unexplained, or misinterpreted;

*    the analysis is wrong, inappropriate, incoherent, or confused;

*    the conclusions drawn from the data are invalid or oversold.

The faculty also described the unacceptable dissertation in terms of its presentation: The organization is confusion and the writing is filled with spelling and grammatical errors. They said that a dissertation that violates standards of academic integrity through plagiarism, falsification of data, or misrepresentation of data is unacceptable.

These problems should be caught early. Use the criteria in this booklet as a starting point for identifying problems or as a way to plan improvements. If your advisor and other members of your dissertation committee ask you to revise and rewrite, make sure you understand specifically what you need to do to improve -and make the improvements.