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Add the Finishing Touches to Your Essay

You have now completed all of the paragraphs of your essay. Before you can consider this a finished product, however, you must give some thought to the formatting of your paper.

Check the order of your paragraphs.

Look at your paragraphs. Which one is the strongest? You might want to start with the strongest paragraph, end with the second strongest, and put the weakest in the middle. Whatever order you decide on, be sure it makes sense. If your paper is describing a process, you will probably need to stick to the order in which the steps must be completed.
Check the instructions for the assignment.

When you prepare a final draft, you must be sure to follow all of the instructions you have been given.

  • Are your margins correct?
  • Have you titled it as directed?
  • What other information (name, date, etc.) must you include?
  • Did you double-space your lines?

Check your writing.

Nothing can substitute for revision of your work. By reviewing what you have done, you can improve weak points that otherwise would be missed. Read and reread your paper.

  • Does it make logical sense?
  • Leave it for a few hours and then read it again. Does it still make logical sense?
  • Do the sentences flow smoothly from one another?

If not, try to add some words and phrases to help connect them. Transition words, such as “therefore” or “however,” sometimes help. Also, you might refer in one sentence to a thought in the previous sentence. This is especially useful when you move from one paragraph to another.

Have you run a spell checker or a grammar checker?

These aids cannot catch every error, but they might catch errors that you have missed.

How to Finish a Major Paper in One Night

Planning on finishing that essay in one night? Don’t. Already stuck with that situation? Well, you’d better read on.

A Sticky Situation

A party here, an outing there, a few rounds of games with friends everywhere… yep, in all that fun you’ve managed to completely forget that important paper you had to write for school. You’ve barely even started, and the thing is due tomorrow.

Cause for alarm? Oh yes.

You have two courses of action here. The first is to simply shrug, continue with your procrastination and receive that zero you’ve so thoroughly earned. The second, of course, is to buckle down and try to write the paper in one night. Not a great idea, and not advisable under most circumstances, but you don’t have much choice at this point – so how do you go about writing a paper in one night?

It’s tough. Really tough. You’ll probably be awake into the wee hours. You need to get it done, though, so brew yourself some coffee and get writing. You’ll need to take the following steps to have a hope of success.
Remedies for the Problem

- First, you need an idea for your paper. If you’ve only gotten that far and already have one, great. Otherwise you’ll need to narrow down a topic, and do so quickly. Having an affection for the subject is a good idea as you’ll find the writing easier, but at this point you can’t be picky. If the teacher supplied a list of ideas, all the better – go with one of those and don’t look back.

- Next you need research materials, and that probably means books. Lots and lots of books. Head to the campus library and drudge up every last piece of info you can find on your given topic. Even if the book only has a page or two on your topic, it’s still better than nothing – and may prove sufficient for a quote. Remember, once that library is closed, you’re cut off from info, save from the Internet – and its sources are dubious at best – so get everything you need NOW.

- Start reading as quickly as you can. Take notes so you don’t need to go back to pages too often. Be as efficient as you can and document everything. The less time you waste hunting down that same quote over and over, the better. A listing of pages that are most valuable to your paper is ideal. You should also create a bibliography as you go, so you don’t have to worry about it later.

- Assault the glossary relentlessly. You don’t have time to look at every little thing in a book. Track down the salient points and skip the chaff that won’t help you.

- Plan your paper. Create a quick, point form sketch of the thing, outlining where each of your points are to go. Writing blindly will give you a huge mess; planning even just a little bit, on the other hand, will result in a far superior end product. Make sure to keep your most compelling evidence until the end to leave the reader with the best impression possible.

- Start writing. You can’t put this off for too long. Get the thing dashed out as quickly as you can. Once you have, start to edit assiduously and mercilessly. Follow your instincts: if you re-read something and wonder if it might not be appropriate, cut it out immediately. You need to make strict decisions, not hem and haw over every little detail.

- Edit. Force yourself awake and stare at your essay. Then do it again in the morning. And again, before the class, to make sure you didn’t mess up anywhere. It’s quite easy to completely miss a typo when it’s 3 am and your eyes are filled with sleep. This is all easier to achieve if the essay is due later the next day – though at any rate you NEVER want to stop writing until you’ve finished the thing. Do so and you may not pick up where you left off the next morning.
Learned Your Lesson?

With any luck you’ll have something to hand in at this point, and it may even please your teacher. Rushed work is sometimes the stuff of geniuses. Hopefully not, however, for then you won’t learn an important lesson: do your work ahead of time. You may have scraped by this time, but your luck can’t hold out forever.

Preparing the Proposal – Part Two

It’s important that your research proposal be organized around a set of questions that will guide your research. When selecting these guiding questions try to write them so that they frame your research and put it into perspective with other research. These questions must serve to establish the link between your research and other research that has preceded you. Your research questions should clearly show the relationship of your research to your field of study. Don’t be carried away at this point and make your questions too narrow. You must start with broad relational questions.

A good question:

Do adult learners in a rural adult education setting have characteristics that are similar to adult learners in general ?

A poor question:

What are the characteristics of rural adult learners in an adult education program? (too narrow)

A poor question:

How can the XYZ Agency better serve rural adult learners? (not generalizable)

Now here are a few more ideas regarding the defining of your research project through your proposal.

Make sure that you will be benefitting those who are participating in the research. Don’t only see the subjects as sources of data for you to analyze. Make sure you treat them as participants in the research. They have the right to understand what you are doing and you have a responsibility to share the findings with them for their reaction. Your research should not only empower you with new understandings but it should also empower those who are participating with you.

Choose your methodology wisely. Don’t be too quick in running away from using a quantitative methodology because you fear the use of statistics. A qualitative approach to research can yield new and exciting understandings, but it should not be undertaken because of a fear of quantitative research. A well designed quantitative research study can often be accomplished in very clear and direct ways. A similar study of a qualitative nature usually requires considerably more time and a tremendous burden to create new paths for analysis where previously no path had existed. Choose your methodology wisely!

Sometimes a combined methodology makes the most sense. You can combine a qualitative preliminary study (to define your population more clearly, to develop your instrumentation more specifically or to establish hypotheses for investigation) with a quantitative main study to yield a research project that works well.

Deciding on where you will conduct the research is a major decision. If you are from another area of the country or a different country there is often an expectation that you will return to your “home” to conduct the research. This may yield more meaningful results, but it will also most likely create a situation whereby you are expected to fulfill other obligations while you are home. For many students the opportunity to conduct a research project away from home is an important one since they are able to better control many of the intervening variables that they can not control at home. Think carefully regarding your own situation before you make your decision.

What if you have the opportunity for conducting your research in conjunction with another agency or project that is working in related areas. Should you do it? Sometimes this works well, but most often the dissertation researcher gives up valuable freedom to conduct the research project in conjunction with something else. Make sure the trade-offs are in your favor. It can be very disastrous to have the other project suddenly get off schedule and to find your own research project temporarily delayed. Or, you had tripled the size of your sample since the agency was willing to pay the cost of postage. They paid for the postage for the pre-questionnaire. Now they are unable to assist with postage for the post-questionnaire. What happens to your research? I usually find that the cost of conducting dissertation research is not prohibitive and the trade-offs to work in conjunction with another agency are not in favor of the researcher. Think twice before altering your project to accommodate someone else. Enjoy the power and the freedom to make your own decisions (and mistakes!) — this is the way we learn!

Selecting and preparing your advisory committee to respond to your proposal should not be taken lightly. If you do your “homework” well your advisory committee can be most helpful to you. Try these ideas:

If you are given the opportunity to select your dissertation committee do it wisely. Don’t only focus on content experts. Make sure you have selected faculty for your committee who are supportive of you and are willing to assist you in successfully completing your research. You want a committee that you can ask for help and know that they will provide it for you. Don’t forget, you can always access content experts who are not on your committee at any time during your research project.

Your major professor/adviser/chairperson is your ally. When you go to the committee for reactions to your proposal make sure your major professor is fully supportive of you. Spend time with him/her before the meeting so that your plans are clear and you know you have full support. The proposal meeting should be seen as an opportunity for you and your major professor to seek the advice of the committee. Don’t ever go into the proposal meeting with the feeling that it is you against them!

Provide the committee members with a well-written proposal well in advance of the meeting. Make sure they have ample time to read the proposal.

Plan the proposal meeting well. If graphic presentations are necessary to help the committee with understandings make sure you prepare them so they look good. A well planned meeting will help your committee understand that you are prepared to move forward with well planned research. Your presentation style at the meeting should not belittle your committee members (make it sound like you know they have read your proposal) but you should not assume too much (go through each of the details with an assumption that maybe one of the members skipped over that section).

Preparing the Proposal

Assuming you’ve done a good job of “thinking about” your research project, you’re ready to actually prepare the proposal. A word of caution – those students who tend to have a problem in coming up with a viable proposal often are the ones that have tried to rush through the “thinking about it” part and move too quickly to trying to write the proposal. Here’s a final check. Do each of these statements describe you? If they do you’re ready to prepare your research proposal.

I am familiar with other research that has been conducted in areas related to my research project.
(___Yes, it’s me)
( ___No, not me)

I have a clear understanding of the steps that I will use in conducting my research.
(___Yes, it’s me)
( ___No, not me)

I feel that I have the ability to get through each of the steps necessary to complete my research project.
(___Yes, it’s me)
( ___No, not me)

I know that I am motivated and have the drive to get through all of the steps in the research project.
(___Yes, it’s me)
( ___No, not me)

Okay, you’re ready to write your research proposal. Here are some ideas to help with the task:

Read through someone else’s research proposal. Very often a real stumbling block is that we don’t have an image in our mind of what the finished research proposal should look like. How has the other proposal been organized? What are the headings that have been used? Does the other proposal seem clear? Does it seem to suggest that the writer knows the subject area? Can I model my proposal after one of the ones that I’ve seen? If you can’t readily find a proposal or two to look at, ask your adviser to see some. Chances are your adviser has a file drawer filled with them.

Make sure your proposal has a comprehensive review of the literature included. Now this idea, at first thought, may not seem to make sense. I have heard many students tell me that “This is only the proposal. I’ll do a complete literature search for the dissertation. I don’t want to waste the time now.” But, this is the time to do it. The rationale behind the literature review consists of an argument with two lines of analysis: 1) this research is needed, and 2) the methodology I have chosen is most appropriate for the question that is being asked. Now, why would you want to wait? Now is the time to get informed and to learn from others who have preceded you! If you wait until you are writing the dissertation it is too late. You’ve got to do it some time so you might as well get on with it and do it now. Plus, you will probably want to add to the literature review when you’re writing the final dissertation. (Thanks to a website visitor from Mobile, Alabama who helped to clarify this point.)

With the ready availability of photocopy machines you should be able to bypass many of the hardships that previous dissertation researchers had to deal with in developing their literature review. When you read something that is important to your study, photocopy the relevant article or section. Keep your photocopies organized according to categories and sections. And, most importantly, photocopy the bibliographic citation so that you can easily reference the material in your bibliography. Then, when you decide to sit down and actually write the literature review, bring out your photocopied sections, put them into logical and sequential order, and then begin your writing.

What is a proposal anyway? A good proposal should consist of the first three chapters of the dissertation. It should begin with a statement of the problem/background information (typically Chapter I of the dissertation), then move on to a review of the literature (Chapter 2), and conclude with a defining of the research methodology (Chapter 3). Of course, it should be written in a future tense since it is a proposal. To turn a good proposal into the first three chapters of the dissertation consists of changing the tense from future tense to past tense (from “This is what I would like to do” to “This is what I did”) and making any changes based on the way you actually carried out the research when compared to how you proposed to do it. Often the intentions we state in our proposal turn out different in reality and we then have to make appropriate editorial changes to move it from proposal to dissertation.

Focus your research very specifically. Don’t try to have your research cover too broad an area. Now you may think that this will distort what you want to do. This may be the case, but you will be able to do the project if it is narrowly defined. Usually a broadly defined project is not do-able. By defining too broadly it may sound better to you, but there is a great chance that it will be unmanageable as a research project. When you complete your research project it is important that you have something specific and definitive to say. This can be accommodated and enhanced by narrowly defining your project. Otherwise you may have only broadly based things to say about large areas that really provide little guidance to others that may follow you. Often the researcher finds that what he/she originally thought to be a good research project turns out to really be a group of research projects. Do one project for your dissertation and save the other projects for later in your career. Don’t try to solve all of the problems in this one research project.

Include a title on your proposal. I’m amazed at how often the title is left for the end of the student’s writing and then somehow forgotten when the proposal is prepared for the committee. A good proposal has a good title and it is the first thing to help the reader begin to understand the nature of your work. Use it wisely! Work on your title early in the process and revisit it often. It’s easy for a reader to identify those proposals where the title has been focused upon by the student. Preparing a good title means:

…having the most important words appear toward the beginning of your title,

…limiting the use of ambiguous or confusing words,

..breaking your title up into a title and subtitle when you have too many words, and

…including key words that will help researchers in the future find your work.

Paragraph Length in Essays and Dissertations

There is no set length for a paragraph. It is possible, however, to have your paragraphs too long or too short. There are some guiding principles that will help you to get your paragraphs right.

The entire paragraph should concern itself with a single focus. If it begins with a one focus or major point of discussion, it should not end with another or wander within different ideas. This is one reason why paragraphs can become over-long. More will be said later about maintaining focus in your writing.

A paragraph should usually begin with an introductory sentence, which sets out the subject of that paragraph. The remainder of the paragraph should go on to explain and ‘unpack’ that initial sentence. If you find that you are writing about something different from your initial sentence, your paragraph is probably too long and your focus has wandered.

If you find that your paragraphs are too long:

Consider splitting a single long paragraph into two shorter ones. It is perfectly acceptable to begin a paragraph with a sentence connecting it to the previous paragraph.

Try to organise your writing so that your ideas are developed logically and sequentially. If you find that a paragraph contains more than one idea, you may need to reorganise your essay so that your ideas are developed more logically.

Look at the other paragraphs in your essay. Paragraphs should all be of roughly similar length. If you find that you have one or two paragraphs that are much longer than all the others, read them carefully and try to find out why.

If a paragraph is too short, it may be because the initial idea has not been developed sufficiently. To some extent, the level of development is dependent on the writer’s purpose and the overall length of the essay. However, you should beware of paragraphs of only two or three sentences. Read them carefully and consider if your idea has been sufficiently developed.

If you think that an idea requires further development, consider some of the following strategies:

Use examples and illustrations

Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)

Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)

Use an anecdote or story

Define terms in the paragraph

Compare and contrast

Evaluate causes and reasons

Examine effects and consequences.

What Goes Into a Dissertation?

A typical thesis will motivate why a new idea is needed, present the cool new idea, convince the reader that it’s cool and new and might apply to the reader’s own problems, and evaluate how well it worked. Just like a paper!

The result must be a substantial, original contribution to scientific knowledge. It signals your official entrance into the community of scholars. Treat it as an chance to make a mark, not as a 900-page-tall memorial to your graduate student life.
Beyond stapling

The cynical view is that if you’ve written several related papers, you staple them together to get a dissertation. That’s a good first-order approximation — you should incorporate ideas and text from your papers. But what is it missing?

First, a thesis should cohere — ideally, it should feel like one long paper. Second, it should provide added value: there should be people who would prefer reading it to simply reading your papers. Otherwise writing it would be a meaningless exercise.

Here’s what to do after stapling:

integrate the pieces

  • craft a substantial introductory chapter that ties the work together and highlights the novel contributions
  • reorganize the remaining presentation into a series of chapters that support and develop your story from the introduction
  • write a (brief) concluding chapter that recapitulates your story and summarizes what was learned
  • make the notation, terminology, and style consistent throughout
  • do keep good ideas, text, and results from your previous papers (giving credit to any co-authors)

expand the text

  • make the text clearer, more tutorial, and more thoughtful
  • add more examples and intuitions to help the reader
  • add new experiments/theorems/significance tests to leave no stone unturned
  • consider counterarguments, variations, and alternative explanations
  • give enough details to allow a reader to replicate the work or apply it in new settings

contextualize the ideas

  • open the thesis with a page or two that sells the work to a general audience (e.g., a science reporter)
  • mention all obviously related work and explain how it relates to yours
  • discuss alternative solutions that you rejected or are leaving to future work
  • point out connections to other areas, including other possible applications of your ideas
  • describe possible generalizations (and try them if possible)
  • lay out future work for yourself or others

acknowledge help (usually in a preface)

  • acknowledge any collaborators on this work, such as your advisor
  • acknowledge financial support on this work, and perhaps also other financial support you’ve received as a grad student
  • thank other people who have helped you technically, administratively, socially, or emotionally over your grad student career
  • state which parts of the thesis text (if any) have appeared in your previous publications; get permission to republish if you are no longer the copyright holder of those works, or if you had co-authors

Taking Responsibility

Don’t expect your advisor to be your co-author. It’s your Ph.D.: you are sole author this time and the responsibility is on your shoulders. If your prose is turgid or thoughtless, misspelled or ungrammatical, oblivious or rude to related research, you’re the one who looks bad.

You can do it! Your advisor and committee are basically on your side — they’re probably willing to make suggestions about content and style — but they are not obligated to fix problems for you. They may send your dissertation back and tell you to fix it.

In the following sections, I’ll start with advice about the thesis as a whole, and work downward, eventually reaching small details such as typography and citations.

Writing the Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose should convince readers– the faculty on the selection committee– that you have solid achievements behind you that show promise for your success in graduate study. Think of the statement of purpose as a composition with four different parts.

Part 1: Introduce yourself, your interests and motivations

Tell them what you’re interested in, and perhaps, what sparked your desire for graduate study. This should be short and to the point; don’t spend a great deal of time on autobiography.

Part 2: Summarize your undergraduate and previous graduate career

a) Research you conducted. Indicate with whom, the title of the project, what your responsibilities were, and the outcome. Write technically, or in the style of your discipline. Professors are the people who read these statements.

b) Important paper or thesis project you completed, as well as anything scholarly beyond your curricular requirements.

c) Work experience, especially if you had any kind of responsibility for testing, designing, researching or interning in an area similar to what you wish to study in graduate school.

Part 3: Discuss the relevance of your recent and current activities

If you graduated and worked prior to returning to grad school, indicate what you’ve been doing: company or non-profit, your work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned. You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your graduate studies.

Part 4: Elaborate on your academic interests

Here you indicate what you would like to study in graduate school in enough detail to convince the faculty that you understand the scope of research in their discipline, and are engaged with current research themes.

a) Indicate the area of your interests. Ideally, pose a question, define a problem, or indicate a theme that you would like to address, and questions that arise from contemporary research. This should be an ample paragraph!

b) Look on the web for information about departments you’re interested in, including professors and their research. Are there professors whose research interests parallel yours? If so, indicate this. Check the specific program; many may require you to name a professor or professors with whom you might work.

c) End your statement in a positive manner, indicating your excitement and readiness for the challenges ahead of you.
Essential Tips

1. What the admissions committee will read between the lines: self-motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student.

2. Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive voice.

3. Demonstrate everything by example; don’t say directly that you’re a persistent person, show it.

4. If there is something important that happened to you that affected your grades, such as poverty, illness, or excessive work, state it. Write it affirmatively, showing your perseverance despite obstacles. You can elaborate more in your personal statement.

5. Make sure everything is linked with continuity and focus.

6. Unless the specific program says otherwise, be concise; an ideal essay should say everything it needs to with brevity. Approximately 500 to 1000 well-selected words (1-2 single space pages in 12 point font) is better than more words with less clarity and poor organization.