Don’t Dread the Dissertation: An Interview with Valerie H. Myers
Jeni Matthews, MS, Student SIG Chair and Sandra Soto, MPH, Student SIG Annual Meeting Coordinator
The Student SIG interviewed Valerie H. Myers, PhD, Senior Scientist at Klein Buendel, Inc. and member of the ETCD Council. They talked with Dr. Myers about how to get the most out of your dissertation and her responses are summarized below.
Student SIG: What tips do you have on choosing a dissertation committee (assuming chair is selected)?
Myers: Get feedback from your chair. They typically work closely with other faculty members and can provide a good “first pass”. Recognize the difference between a difficult and a challenging committee member. A challenging member will challenge your excellence and attempt to get the best research out of you. Do not shy away from “challenging” faculty.
Interview potential committee members. Give them a general concept of your idea to see their interest in participating on your committee. Do not assume that they want to be on your committee- invite them. Interview fellow students who have gone through this process. Talk with them about committee members regarding their accessibility, timeliness, feedback, expectations, and work environment.
Student SIG: How early should a student start developing dissertation ideas?
Myers: You should always be thinking about research ideas. Typically, around your third year you should have an “idea board”. Meet with your chair and discuss what works for them and their research, the lab, and available resources (these are the key players to be successful).
Student SIG: What should students do to prepare for the proposal?
Myers: Prepare to be frustrated and know its not always going to go your way. Meet with your chair and ask them about the successful approaches of their previous students.
Give committee members plenty of time to read your manuscript before the proposal. It is ok to ask members if they’ve read the manuscript and if they see any major concerns. Don’t take things personally! Keep an open mind.
Student SIG: What are some common mistakes that students make when conducting their dissertation work?
Myers: Procrastination is the #1 killer of the dissertation. Having unrealistic deadlines and writing “in order” can be problematic. Don’t forgo work-life balance. Make sure you are eating balanced meals, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising. Students also don't need to write everyday- stay actively engaged and schedule time daily for your dissertation. Also, when you are in a writing session and you get stuck, don’t walk away. Maybe you need to read or write down bullet points to come back to later.
Student SIG: What should be considered when it comes to writing the dissertation?
Myers: Don’t compare yourself to others! Evaluate your progress based on feedback from your chair.
Remember that your first draft is only a draft. Don’t get stuck in trying to turn in a perfectly polished first draft. I don’t believe you need to write everyday. I believe that you need to think and be actively engaged in your project daily (e.g., reading, writing, outlining, or making bullet points).
Don’t drive yourself crazy with trying to read everything in the literature. Read until you find the “one” article that you can use as template or a model. You might find multiple articles that you want to model each section of your paper off of. Be sure to write down and synthesize what you have read so you don’t keep reading just to read. Reading can be its own form of procrastination. Being exhaustive doesn’t mean include everything. It means including all the concepts.
Student SIG: What to consider when conducting research for your dissertation?
Myers: Choose something that you like, not love. If you love and you are passionate about it, it will never be good enough. Take an idea close to what you love and that you have resources for in a protective environment. There is too much stress looking for a brilliant idea. You don't want to set yourself up on a concept that is too complex.
Student SIG: What should students do to prepare for the dissertation defense?
Myers: Be confident, justify your study, articulate it well, recognize the limitations and highlight future directions. Make sure you have your stats right. You don’t want to give unnecessary ammo to committee. Be prepared to answer questions related to the next steps/future directions. No one knows the project better than you!
Student SIG: Do you have any other general tips and/or suggestions?
Myers: Take advice with a grain of salt. After the proposal, as soon as you can, go back to your lab and take one hour to put the entire methodology into past tense. If it’s in past tense then it’s already in defense style and that gets you in the mindset that you are almost there.