So you are ready to attend graduate school. You plan to take on the world as you master your field and prepare to conquer the problems afflicting those around you. You go through your courses elegantly, completing assignments, writing posts, acing quizzes, and collaborating with peer students. You are so close to graduating and excelling in your field. You swallow hard and shake off the jitters that flood your body as you begin the final phase. Many call this last step the dissertation phase.
Completing the dissertation portion of graduate school is mandatory. There is no way around it. There is no way to cheat it, no way to take shortcuts, and no way to graduate without the approval of your dissertation. Dissertation approval is the final step you dream of at night. Dissertation approval is the opportunity to showcase your contributions to the field you love and spends much time working to improve. Completing the dissertation phase shows you have grit, distinction, persistence, patience, innovation, creativity, heart, compassion, and vision. Completing your dissertation places you at the highest level of integrity and credibility necessary to forge new paths as a visionary leader in your field.
I will not sugarcoat this experience and tell you it comes without challenges. I learned many lessons during the 40-plus weeks working on my dissertation. As a colleague, academic scholar, and someone who completed my dissertation 15 weeks ahead of schedule, I aim to bring you hope and provide insight into my challenges and lessons to help you move forward. Before I provide you with the challenges I experienced, let me share the best advice I can offer. This advice is necessary from the beginning and must remain at the forefront of your soul through the entire process. The advice is relatively simple; however, I watched classmates struggle with this concept, causing them frustration and pain. A dissertation is mandatory; if you do not move through it, all your hard work does not culminate in a terminal degree. I don't want that for you! Please take this advice seriously and embrace it. Write this down and place it where you will see it every day. Say these words in your head and out loud. Live by these words, and you will come out in the end with a dissertation you will be proud of and one that the committee and school love.
I am telling you the barriers and struggles I had to say to you that you are not alone, prevent silly mistakes in advance, and encourage you to get through them.
Barrier #1: Before you begin writing your dissertation, review the manual dissertation guidelines. Read it from beginning to end. You want to fully understand all components before diving into the nitty-gritty. Focus on topic approval, study design, data, data analysis, literature search criteria, and conclusion. Plan a strategy that obtains quantitative data if your program requires quantitative data. The recommendation here is to know the guidelines and follow them. Failure to understand the requirements and a lack of referring to the guidelines frequently can take you to the path of disapproval.
Barrier #2: Thinking of a topic is painful. Narrowing down a subject to complete a study within a time frame seems impossible. Procrastination will sneak up on you and give you every excuse not to think hard about what you want to study. Some of the best ideas come to people in the strangest of places. My topic popped into my head while I was exercising. I had a general idea but could not narrow it down to a question I could study. Open your mind and let the problems you see, hear, and watch come in. Keep this portion simple and ask, "Does X impact Y?" as problems arise. Your job is to prove or disprove an issue using data and help others in your industry move forward. My dissertation topic started broad and is based on 26 years of nursing and workforce management experience. To put it bluntly, I wanted to figure out how to fix RN staffing. The most significant barrier for me was where do I start?
Barrier #3: Stay calm as you review the literature. I wanted to change my topic and ideas and study every 15-20 peer-reviewed articles I read. The literature provides the door that you can walk through. Let the literature take you to new places. Do not skim the literature and think you understand what each article is offering. Take the time and read articles and understand the study design, data, and conclusions. As you read articles, you will begin to notice gaps. Overcoming this barrier takes patience, persistence, grit, and an open mind. Do not force this. You need to understand the direction the literature points you in. My advice is, "Just Keep Reading."
Barrier #4: Things I wish I knew before taking specific steps in my journey are barriers that held up my progress. Copyright issues can be barriers if you take action after the fact. For example, if you plan to use a validated survey instrument or theoretical framework concept, seek permission from the author(s) or copyright agent first. I made the painful mistake of seeking IRB approval and was asked to show proof of permission. This delayed me three weeks as I reached out to the authors of the tools I wanted to use. As I waited for the last author, I rewrote version two of my study and planned on a new tool for that I obtained permission. At the last minute, the author provided me permission, and I submitted and received IRB approval.
Barrier #5: The big picture of completing a dissertation is overwhelming. The big picture creates emotions that you must learn to move past. Time management is a monster barrier you must figure out how to control. My advice is to take this into small sections. Make goals to complete an area and send it to your mentor or committee for feedback. Keep an open mind as you receive feedback and make your adjustments. This is a back-and-forth process that you must acknowledge. Like an author writing a book, you are still determining where this journey will take you. The more literature you read, the more you converse with your academic team, and the more open your mind, this barrier will become a small ant hill. Enjoy the process, and let the love of your work guide your motivation.
My Capstone (Dissertation) Journey
I started my Capstone (Dissertation) 25 weeks ago. During research and preparatory dissertation courses, I started thinking about my topic over a year ago. I wrote a preliminary introduction and literature review using an approved methodology. The methodology process was under consideration and changed when I entered my dissertation courses. This was when I learned to pivot and take a different approach to my topic. I spent many hours after work researching, reading literature reviews, and visioning what gaps in my topic area I could fill with new knowledge. I spent 20-30 hours a week focused on topic approval and what question I could answer. This phase was the most complex and required commitment and avoidance of activities I loved doing. Instead of going out to ski after work, I locked myself in my office and spent hours reading, writing, tweaking, and going back and forth until I found the question I wanted to answer. Reflecting, this was the most joy I had in the entire process. I entered this process with the mindset of "What can I fix and contribute that will make me proud?" The motivation and vision of feeling this accomplishment drove me. I talked to everyone about my topic. I lived and breathed my topic. I wrote about my topic. I realized that I needed to know how this study would end. I was obsessed with this research.
I paced myself to complete small sections at a time. Once I had the vision and question I wanted to answer solid, I wrote, tweaked, and followed the manuscript guidelines as if I was putting together a complicated piece of furniture. You know, the ones where screw A must go board C and lock X. Of course, you go ahead and put together parts you want to first, to go back and have to start over. I learned quickly to keep the guidelines open at all times. At this point, I can rewrite them without looking. I worked and met with my mentor on a routine basis. This I can't stress enough. Let others into your world who have completed this. They can empathize with you and keep you going. The result is exhilarating and like nothing, you have ever experienced. Remember why you are doing this and how your work is needed.
Once I had the topic approved, understood the question I needed to answer, and formulated a solid basis of what the literature told me, I was ready to create my study. I wanted to make a study that caused leaders in my industry to ask more questions and seek more answers. Assumptions in the world of RN staffing are costly mistakes. We need data, understand what drives nurses, and keep exploring to satisfy the necessary solutions to ensure nurses are at the bedside. Without nurses, patients die, which was the factor that stuck in my head throughout the journey. I read the research, I read current articles, read about hospital closures and nurse strikes, and discovered all the assumptions and anecdotes made. I was determined to prove or disprove a simple phenomenon that money is the ultimate driver to job satisfaction and staying at the job. This obsession was the motivation you need to keep moving forward. As a researcher and expert, you must answer the burning question people assume they understand. It is not magic or some superpower. You can find ways to ask the questions you need to answer the question. This involved finding specific research tools that tested and proven credible to seek the data I needed. I remember the feeling that flooded me once I discovered the survey instruments I wanted to use. The dark tunnel I had been in for the past months opened, and I saw the study.
I was astonished that I could use two survey instruments past scholars tested to prove satisfaction in the areas I wanted to test. I was determined to see if a relationship existed. This relationship assumption creates noise and misconceptions detrimental to hospital care delivery. The survey and the specific niche of nurses I wanted to test came to me as I walked through my home one evening after a conversation with my mentor. "John, think like a doctor," I repeated this phrase repeatedly. I went outside and talked with my partner and her friend. The conversation took me to the revelation of testing this phenomenon between settings. I needed to know if there was a variance between rural and urban settings. A multiple regression analysis to understand pay satisfaction and the intention to leave the job based on workplace setting was the project that told me I was thinking like a Doctor.
I was in a rhythm of reading, writing, and visioning. Once I had a clear path of how I would answer the question, it was like I followed my instruction guide. I learned how to set up a survey in SurveyMonkey and reach the exact audience I needed based on statistical powers of correlation. I learned how to extract the data, use statistical software like SPSS and then show the data to the reader that would explain what I discovered. I spend weeks looking at the data. At first, I wanted the data to show me what I thought it should. I was discouraged that the data needed to have established a relationship. I felt like a failure who sought to prove something and did not. I talked to my mentor, friends, family, and colleagues. Their help and support opened my eyes to the fact that my research showed something exciting and new. My research proved that the driver to why nurses are leaving is based on something other than pay. This excited me as I reflected on the literature and how healthcare comes full circle. I concluded that while compensation is necessary, the other variables that impact a person's decision to leave their job are alive and at the forefront of critical reasoning. The noise that has flooded healthcare, the value of workers, and what motivates them created a false perception of the truth. My dissertation proved that money is not the motivator for acute care hospital nurses, regardless of the setting. The data demonstrated that even when nurses are satisfied with their pay, they consider quitting their job.
The final portion of this journey was exhilarating for me. I had to find this revelation. This is not a process that tells you the ending. As a researcher, you must pave the way. Undergraduate work relies on you to synthesize research to make a recommendation. Step away from this concept and understand that you are creating a future study that others will use. You have yet to do what your analysis will show. This mindset prevents you from thinking, "I am not doing this right" or "is this how this should look" attitudes. You are the creator. Follow the guidelines and let the study take you on the journey. You will be as shocked as I am when you come out in the end! Enjoy the ride, and keep moving forward.
I finished and obtained approval from my mentor, the committee, and the dean of students on February 1, 2023. I was shocked at how fast this last phase took. It reminded me that the initial work of getting it right, following directions, reading the guidelines, and collaborating with others had on the final process. By the time I made it to a completed research dissertation, I had made many edits based on comments and feedback. I did not rush the process, but I did keep the process at the front of my daily life. My advice to you is to keep it alive and fresh every day. Talk to others about your project if you don't write for a few days. Keep the motivation high, the conversation alive, and the ideas flowing. IT IS WORTH IT IN THE END!
It is hard to tell you exactly how you will complete your dissertation. We all have unique circumstances, but I will tell you that you are not alone if how you feel right now. Be grateful for the things you have in your life right now. Create a temporary routine that allows ample time to work on your dissertation 4-6 days a week. Pace yourself and time breaks. Go outdoors and take walks with a particular person or your dog. Make small goals and celebrate them when you achieve them. In terms of writing and technical aspects of the dissertation, know your resources and keep them handy. As I write this post, my copy of "The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, &th Edition" is on my desk next to me. It is open, and on the pages, I need the most. Frankly, APA is not my strength! I purchased software called RECITE WORKS. After completing a section, I load my paper and look for APA in cite and reference errors. I did not wait until the last minute. My work has over 150 references. I checked my connections constantly using the software. Grammarly (the application) is open and ready to check my spelling, punctuation, verb tense, etc. Feel free to use tools that help. My advice is to write a paragraph and then check it. Rewrite it without looking at a reference and continue to cite it. You are using the idea but in your own words. You want to refrain from rewriting it after you turn it in for plagiarism. Read your entire dissertation frequently. It turns into a series. If too much time goes by, you need to remember what happened in episode 4, or else episode 5 makes no sense. Read your work and edit your work as you go. When writing conclusion statements, look back at what you promised the reader you would tell them. Know the deliverables and then deliver them to your reader.
The key is to take small steps forward until you walk the miles necessary to complete your dissertation. Pace yourself. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. You must breathe, drink water, accept cheers from the crowd, and train for a marathon. This is true for your dissertation. Prepare for months of hard work, and you will cross the finish line. I assure you that when you cross the finish line, you will feel more accomplished than you ever imagined. Once you cross the finish line, let your mind, body, and soul accept the accomplishment as it embraces you. You deserve to be proud of your new accomplishment, title, credentials, and level of expertise. This driver will keep your tank full as you make this long trip. Pull over now and then and experience the beauty of the journey, so the destination is appealing. I believe in you; if I can do it, you can do it!Best Wishes!
Dr. John Green, DHA, MSN, RN