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Perhaps you or someone you know has contemplated working on a doctorate. Most people agree the dissertation part of the process is by far the biggest hurdle to get over. In this article I will explain a little about what I know from my own dissertation experience, which started by doing dissertation project research on what others had accomplished and completed as part of their candidacy.

If you do as I did, and complete some research to take a look at computer science dissertations that have been finished (I look at the ProQuest UMI dissertation database, available through the TAMUT library), you can bring up literally millions of dissertations over the last 50 years, in PDF files, and check their length and content get an idea of what is involved in writing a doctoral dissertation.

In my discipline of computer science type dissertations, the vast majority (about 65%) are 100 to 300 pages, some are less than 100 pages (that would be about 20%), and some over 300 pages (but not very many, usually about 15%). Some of the very longest dissertations are over 400 pages (that would be less than about 5%), and most of that information is in the form of the appendixes, such as source code or survey results, not anything really narrative written by the dissertation author.

Some of the very best dissertations that win school awards are less than 100 pages but have an extremely elegant and useful idea and are very well written. At my school one dissertation that won the best dissertation of the year award was on biometric retina scanning identification and was a short 85 pages, but had a novel identification concept that worked well.

As mentioned, the TAMUT library has the ProQuest UMI dissertation database available. The Texas A&M system dissertations are also included, which makes it very convenient in that you can check what other students have done at your school that have successfully graduated, what their formatting is like, how they write their dissertation, how they incorporate their figures and appendixes, and so forth.

Checking other dissertations not only in your subject area but in all subject areas will give you a good idea of what is expected for a dissertation and some ideas for how you would like to do yours. You can check dissertations from your own university, different schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and research work of such famous people as Buzz Aldrin who did his PhD dissertation at MIT on docking spacecraft together in orbit. That helped get him a job on the Apollo missions as an astronaut.

You would want to be reading and reviewing many dissertations before you start on your own. Give yourself a good idea of what you think constitutes a good dissertation, a lackluster dissertation, and what seems to be about average. There are many dissertations out there that are just based on doing a questionnaire or a case study that do not seem to be very substantial.

Here is just as a sample what you can call up in a few minutes on ProQuest UMI, I was able to bring up Buzz Aldrin's dissertation from MIT in January 1963. His degree was the Doctor of Science degree and his dissertation research was in the area of "line of sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous". This happened to be exactly what NASA needed at the time for docking of the Apollo spacecraft in orbit both around Earth and around the moon.

So he became a subject matter expert in this area. It is kind of foreboding that his dedication of his dissertation reads that "in hopes that this work may in some way contribute to their exploration of space it is dedicated to the crew members of this country's present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!" Which of course he later did on Apollo 11 which was the first of the Apollo missions to touch down on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin flew 66 combat missions and shot down two Mig-15 aircraft in Korea, so he was also a successful combat pilot. In the June 8, 1953 issue of Life Magazine featured gun camera photos taken by Buzz Aldrin of one of the Russian pilots that he had shot down ejecting from his damaged aircraft. Interesting you can actually bring up those photos and a couple minutes if you Google June 8, 1953 Life magazine, the entire issue is available online.

Some additional dissertation suggestions for those who aspire. Try to be systematic about your process manage it like a project wherever possible. Track yourself and your activities and plan to give yourself psychological encouragement when necessary as part of the process.

I recommend that you retain a dissertation copy editor and proofreader early on and have all your work reviewed before your advisor or anyone else sees it you can kind of rely on them to give you support that you can offload as much work as you can to let you concentrate on the research part. Specifically you would need a dissertation copy editor and proofreader that specializes in scientific research papers and dissertations. Some of the best ones that you will find will be retired college professors that are actually published authors in a scientific topic, and willing to work with you to get you through a dissertation. My dissertation copy editor was a 1955 for Harvard graduate with a PhD in physics, he was over 80 years old when he was helping me edit my dissertation.

Consider writing your dissertation in Open Office or Libre Office on Linux it may be a good opportunity to become familiar with this open source software of the future.

If possible acquire a mentor usually someone that is completed the dissertation perhaps a classmate that is ahead of you that would be invaluable. They can give you the right encouragement and advice at those difficult periods of time.

Be very organized and systematic about your document tracking process and archiving of all your work by date and content. You may have some false starts and need to backtrack into previous versions. The quality of your work will in large part be dictated by your ability to pull up facts and information quickly. Follow each suggestion or mention of an item that your dissertation advisor brings up. It is pretty much recognized as gospel that when you are working on a dissertation you really follow in lockstep everything that your advisor recommends or suggests, or you really run the risk of not being able to complete your work. One of the worst mistakes that you can make is to underestimate the difficulty of completing a PhD dissertation and graduate successfully.

For those deciding to work on a doctorate, prepare yourself psychologically for a big test and a bit of a challenging struggle. Usually the course work for a doctorate is pretty difficult already to begin with, and then once you start onto the dissertation, I think you will find that the difficulty increases once again. A lot of it has to do with the fact that you are working primarily independently, you have to be self motivated and self organized, which differs quite a bit from previous schooling experience for most people.

Dr. Michael J. Pelosi is an assistant professor of computer science at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.

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