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When the Going Gets Tough

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Kevin Schwandt
By Kevin Schwandt, Dissertation Editor

I recently suffered a personal tragedy; my aunt, who taught me some of my earliest music lessons, passed away.  As a gift to her and to my family generally, I am in the process of writing music for her memorial service.  This may seem an odd way to begin a post about doctoral writing, but the experience does, indeed, resonate with capstone writing in surprising ways.

Not unlike—though for different reasons—my memory of writing my own PhD dissertation, writing this music feels overwhelmingly daunting.  In the case of the memorial composition, my progress is impeded by the intense emotions always accompanying grief; in the case of the dissertation, I remember being periodically rendered utterly unproductive by the burden of producing such a substantial document.

Original research and original art are both creative tasks.  They both require the drive and perseverance to create something that, while drawing upon work of the past, is truly new and unique.  Regardless of the circumstances, both can be stymied by the reality that humans’ capacities, whether in terms of emotional endurance, responsibility, time, or energy, are limited.

The means to conquer such obstacles are deceptively simple: remember the basics, break a task into its constituent parts, and address each item in its own turn.  My current musical project became clearer and less impossible when I stopped experimenting with ideas and simply started writing them down, remembering what criteria each component—melody, harmony, structure, etc.—needed to meet to accomplish my goals.  My dissertation became clearer and less impossible when I stopped letting the ideas swirl about in my head and began inserting them into an outline and articulating them in prose.  In both cases, forcing myself to stop swimming in obsessive emotions, accomplishing nothing more than making the water more turbulent, and finding solid solutions by organizing and evaluating my thoughts rather than letting them direct me, made a remarkable difference. 

At Walden, students are given a number of solid solutions to make their capstone processes less turbulent.  Most significantly, the research center provides the rubrics by which capstones are evaluated.  If you have begun to write a capstone proposal before reviewing the rubric for your program, you have fallen into the water while a long, stable dock is there for you to walk upon.  The rubrics give you the steps and the criteria.  Follow them.

Walden also provides a dissertation/doctoral study template at the writing center.  This document is formatted according to Walden standards and provides guidance for setting up a table of contents, as well as some APA pointers.  In other words, you don’t have to worry about every last one of these items while you are designing and implementing your study. 

Doing something like doctoral research is daunting.  Don’t be daunted.  Instead, understand the criteria upon which you will be evaluated, find resources, and proceed—one step at a time.

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