Dissertation in a Nutshell: From Topic to Defense

By: Lauren Frances Guerra
October 19, 2017

I wanted to pick a dissertation topic that not only made an academic contribution but one that voiced the needs of my community of accountability.

To reach candidacy or become “ABD” is an exciting milestone in the doctoral journey. You’ve officially made it through years of coursework and passed your comprehensive exams. Now, in my opinion, you are moving into the last and perhaps most challenging stage of your formation as a scholar: the dissertation. To think about sitting down to write a book is quite frankly overwhelming. However, completing the dissertation is akin to running a marathon. Persistence, consistency, and determination will see you through to the finish line. As a recent graduate, I want to share three important tips that helped me successfully complete my dissertation and graduate on time.

1. Listen to your heart and let it lead you to your burning research question.

The primary purpose of the dissertation is to demonstrate your research and writing capabilities. The dissertation is the space where you show your committee the depth and breadth of your knowledge as well as your ability to make an original contribution to the field. While the task of picking a topic can seem daunting at first, it is actually a very exciting opportunity for creativity.

I wanted to pick a dissertation topic that not only made an academic contribution but one that voiced the needs of my community of accountability. As I moved through the doctoral program and further into academia, finding ways to stay connected to the community which raised me became increasingly more difficult. This tension has come up in multiple conversations over the years, particularly amongst students of color who are the first in their family to attend graduate school. How does one stay true to one’s roots while navigating the (often) foreign territory of the academy? Most importantly, I needed my theological project to reflect the lived experience of the Latinx community and reflect who I am as a scholar. In the end, my project embodied an interdisciplinary approach to theology by putting Systematic Theology, Theological Aesthetics, and Chicana/o Studies in conversation. To this day, I love the research on pneumatology and community murals that I began in the dissertation.

2. Writing your dissertation is like getting your driver’s license—it allows you to go where you need to go.

I have to give credit to FTE mentor Dr. Anne Joh for this pearl of wisdom. You may have heard other folks say, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” These metaphors are meant to relieve a bit of the pressure and anxiety that can come with dissertation writing. For anyone struggling with imposter syndrome, simply getting started is often the hardest part. Take a deep breath and write every day. The dissertation can seem like an insurmountable task but it can only be tackled page-by-page and chapter-by-chapter. Your chapters don’t have to be perfect the first time around… that is exactly what the editing process is for. Writing is magical in that way because language is alive. It can always be refined, improved, and tightened. Again, this practice of writing every day is a common piece of advice given to doctoral students and I echo it wholeheartedly. Writing is a practice and getting into the habit of writing every day will serve you well not only in the doctoral program but in the future.

3. The Defense Can Be Fun

Yes, I know it sounds crazy but hear me out. After months of writing, this is the moment you have been waiting for. The defense is one of the few times in your academic life in which when you will receive critical feedback on your research project from seasoned faculty members. They have read your work and will give you advice on how the project can be strengthened or other research avenues to consider. Typically, the dissertation itself will be a “scratching of the surface” and should open up numerous paths for future research. I was blessed with a really supportive committee who worked well together and had a very positive defense experience. Their advice at the defense has been invaluable. Yes, there are horror stories of doctoral students getting caught in between bickering faculty members or getting stuck in the revision process. You must choose your committee wisely. Having a good working relationship with your advisor is also critical. Be sure to check early on with your department and find out what the protocol is for the day of defense. Doctoral students in my graduate program always defend their dissertation in front of their committee and no one else. This is not the case in every seminary or graduate program. I have colleagues who had a public defense in which friends and family could attend. Regardless, the defense should be a time of celebration of all your hard work. You did it!

I hope that these tips are as useful for you as they were for me.

Are you a recent graduate and do you have any tips you would like to share? Please leave them in the comments section below.

Tags: Thinking Out Loud


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