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Dissertation Mistakes: How You Can Survive and Avoid Them | Issue 186

Summary & Contents


The Bulletproof Scholar: How to immunize yourself from the fear of making mistakes by giving yourself permission to screw up—and by making fewer elementary faux pas in qualitative research.


1. Editor's Note: The Bulletproof Scholar: Immunize Yourself against Mistakes


2. Words from the Wise: On Surviving Mistakes


3. Feature Article: 7 Common Pitfalls in Qualitative Dissertations: How to Recognize and Avoid Them

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Bullet-Proof Yourself against Mistakes: Give Yourself Permission to Screw Up


"Thinking, not for the first time, that life should come with a trapdoor. Just a little exit hatch you could disappear through when you'd utterly and completely mortified yourself." —Michele Jaffe


You just bungled something important regarding your dissertation. How will you react?


Do you turn fifty shades of red? Feel like screaming or kicking yourself? Do you pray the ground will swallow you up? Or maybe start worrying that you are too incompetent to earn a doctorate?


Face it. As the dissertation process is unfamiliar territory, you are bound to screw up before you earn that doctoral hood and title. How can you best prepare yourself to face the slew of academic challenges bravely—rather than cringing with fear of making a mistake?


The answer may surprise you:


"Give yourself permission to screw up."


So says goals researcher Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., who asserts that you can approach a task with one of two mindsets. She calls the first the "Be-Good" mindset, where your focus is on proving your considerable expertise and competence. The second is labeled the "Get-Better" mindset, where your focus is on developing ability.


In short, you are either trying to prove yourself or improve yourself. But only one of these strategies leads to sustainable success.


When difficult tasks arise, the "Be-Good" mindset provokes anxiety about making mistakes—which undermines performance and innovation and makes mistakes more likely, Halvorson explains. To bulletproof yourself against blunders, she recommends the "Get-Better" mindset. Whether you are in first grade or headed into your doctoral defense, as long as you focus on learning, you stay motivated despite mistakes and setbacks. Be prepared for a bonus: You will find it much easier to let go of anxiety and embarrassment.


How can you hone your own "Get-Better" mindset? Halvorson says that you need to acknowledge that you are still developing your skills, seek help to overcome obstacles, and stop comparing yourself to others.


In short, make doing better your goal as you move through the dissertation process.


Of course you can avoid some common mistakes through preparation. For example, if you plan to do qualitative research, you won't want to miss our feature article by Mary Jalongo, Ph.D. As a dissertation chair and journal editor, Dr. Jalongo has long been tasked with catching mistakes of newbies and experienced researchers.


Here's to learning from mistakes—and finishing your doctorate,

Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.




WORDS FROM THE WISE: On Surviving Mistakes


"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." - James Joyce


"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." - Oscar Wilde


"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." - George Bernard Shaw


"I think making mistakes and discovering them for yourself is of great value, but to have someone else to point out your mistakes is a shortcut of the process." - Shelby Foote


"The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate." - Douglas Engelbart


"The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing." - Henry Ford




7 Common Pitfalls in Qualitative Dissertations: How to Recognize and Avoid Them


By Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D.


"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." - Albert Einstein


During my first year as a doctoral candidate, a classmate and I traveled to the University of Wisconsin for a major conference in curriculum and instruction. We were eager to hear presentations by featured speakers—many of whom had authored the very textbooks assigned to us in our courses.


After the first panel discussion, we wondered aloud if we could ever hope to become as articulate and knowledgeable. "If they had called upon me to speak," my friend confided, "I would have felt like brown shoes in a room full of tuxedos."


Just as the fashion conscious fret about committing faux paus such as wearing the wrong shoes, doctoral candidates worry about making embarrassing academic blunders that suggest they are ignorant or ill-prepared.


As a dissertation advisor and journal editor, I've witnessed my fair share of missteps as students learn to talk about and design research, especially qualitative. If you are considering proposing a qualitative study, you will want to avoid the following seven common faux pas as you move ahead.


1. Misunderstandings about rigor in qualitative research.


Unlike quantitative research that depends on statistical precision, the rigor of qualitative research relies on depth, duration, and triangulation. So, if interviews are conducted, the researcher might plan for long interviews (depth), use Irving Seidman's (1991) three interview series over a period of time (duration), and examine relevant artifacts/documents or other data sources (triangulation).


As a journal editor, I find that some submitted manuscripts promise to deliver "qualitative research" when they would be more accurately described as faculty members doing their jobs.


For example, a supervisor of student teachers conducts a quick interview with them, or a professor with four sections of a course evaluates the students' assignments. I call this reflective practice or teacher research—but not qualitative research—because it lacks the necessary rigor.


2. Neglecting the rationale for each method.


One of the challenges in quantitative study is making sure that the statistical method matches the type of data (e.g., nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio, etc.). What is frequently overlooked is that the selection of a particular method is no less important in qualitative research. Qualitative researchers need to provide a justification for the selection of that method from the literature on qualitative research methods.


So, if you are conducting focus groups, how does that mesh with your research question? Focus groups capitalize on social interaction and get a chorus of opinion on the issue under discussion.


On the other hand, if you are seeking the independent thinking of the individual, uninfluenced by others, then personal interviews are more appropriate.


Group interviews also are not the best choice for very sensitive topics because participants might be reluctant to be candid in the company of peers.


In our recent study of ideas about writing for professional publication, for example, we conducted focus group interviews in the United States, Canada, and Australia with doctoral candidates at different stages of program completion. Focus groups were selected because the dialogue amongst the students was viewed as an asset (Jalongo, Ebbeck & Boyer, 2014).


3. Avoiding anything numerical.


Qualitative research relies on words rather than numbers—however, this does not mean that you never count anything. How many observations did you make? What was the duration of those observations? Over what period of time? These are things that can be counted but that does not mean that they are at odds with qualitative methods.

Furthermore, researchers are increasingly designing mixed method studies that combine quantitative and qualitative approaches.


Survey research is a good example. Qualitative can occur before quantitative (e.g., conducting interviews to arrive at good survey questions), concurrently (e.g., conducting observations while survey data are coming in), or after (e.g., following up a survey with individual interviews).


Enlightened researchers do not feel a need to rail against qual or quan; they accept that high-quality research of either type has the potential to make a contribution and advance thinking in the field and sometimes, quite deliberately, combine the two.


4. Discussing your participants in quantitative terms.


Keep in mind that "sample" is quantitative term; in qualitative research, you have participants. For qualitative research, the group of participants does not have to be large, representative, or random—although all of those considerations do matter in quantitative studies in order to be able to generalize from a sample to the population.


Qualitative research uses key informants, e.g., counselors who have earned national recognition, first year teachers who exited the profession, or community college faculty who pursued the doctorate.


Too often, novices compose an unnecessary apologia from a quantitative perspective, stating that their sample was small, not proportionally allocated (e.g., urban, rural, suburban), or not representative because it relied on volunteers.


Qualitative research uses purposive sampling. So, if I want to study empathy development in prisoners who are participating in a service dog training program, I invite some inmates who have this experience and study the ones who consent to participate.


Your goal is not to argue that the people in the study are representative of the entire population of inmate/service dog trainers; rather, your goal in qualitative research is verisimilitude—to be credible, lifelike, and ring true—and accurately represent the "emic" or insider's perspective.


5. Failing to mine your data.


Qualitative study relies on "thick description" that results in large amounts of data—transcripts of interviews, collections of relevant documents/artifacts, and the like. The challenge is to accurately capture the essence of these data, so qualitative researchers have to pore over the data. They must revisit it again and again in order to arrive at themes that are supported by the raw data.


While participants speak for themselves, analysis requires interpretation on the part of the researcher. In other words, you can't simply append copies of your field notes and call this analysis; judgment is required.


One of my doctoral students provides a good example of mining and synthesizing large quantities of data. Her interest was in peer tutoring for college students at risk of academic failure. As the director of a learning support program at a state university, she had already implemented a successful peer tutoring program. For her dissertation study, she chose to visit several exemplary programs around the country to review their print materials, interview the program directors, and conduct focus group interviews with experienced peer tutors.


Her challenge became figuring out the best way to present her data. Ultimately, she chose to write up each program as an individual case, supported by participant observer field notes, analysis of documents and artifacts, and interview quotations from the directors. Additionally, she identified themes that cut across all of the focus group interviews. Finally, her summary included a table of these themes, supported by short quotations from transcripts.


6. Shunning computer analysis.


While a quantitative researcher wouldn't leave home without SPSS, qualitative researchers sometimes resist using computer software for understanding their data. Qualitative data analysis software, however, has come a long way and deserves serious consideration. There now are programs that can handle not only words but also photographs, drawings, diagrams, scanned historical documents, online downloads, and film clips.


Your university may already have a site license for a qualitative data analysis program—and, if so, watch YouTube videos about how to use the software. Many of these training videos are produced by the manufacturer and provide useful orientations.


You should also make arrangements to attend professional development sessions too, whether in the form of convenient online webinars or as small group face-to-face sessions on campus.


When I put away my highlighting pens of many colors and began to use NVivo, I was pleasantly surprised. It enabled me to look at my data in different ways. For example, with the touch of a button, I could generate a wordle—an image of the words most frequently used by my participants. A wordle is hierarchical: the words used most frequently appear in the biggest, boldest print while the words used the least are in the smallest, lightest print. So just by looking, you can get a preliminary "feel" for your data. Whereas SPSS relies on numbers to generate tables, NVivo relies on words and images.


7. Looking for shortcuts.


Writing well is no easier than doing mathematics; therefore, rigorously conducted qualitative research is no easier than high-quality quantitative research. Each tradition has its strengths; each tradition has its limitations.


When new doctoral students look at bound dissertations on a shelf, someone will observe that the qualitative ones appear to be longer—surely that is "harder." Someone else will flip through a quantitative study, notice a few mystifying statistical formulas, and decide that quantitative surely must be "harder" because it requires higher math.


Here's the simple truth: Every well conceptualized and rigorously conducted study is difficult to accomplish. Inevitably, there are obstacles, disappointments, numerous rewrites, and the occasional faux pas.


Abandon all hope that your dissertation will simultaneously be quick/easy and brilliant/publishable. Accept the sad truth about shortcuts: most of them are detours in disguise that may save a few seconds or minutes initially but come back to cost you countless hours later on.




I like to think of myself as an expert as defined by Werner Karl Heisenberg, Nobel Prize laureate and physicist: "An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them."


If you learn to maneuver around these seven common pitfalls when critiquing, proposing, or writing qualitative research you too can avoid the worst mistakes and attain expertise in qualitative research.


Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D., is the director of the Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A journal editor-in-chief since 1995, Dr. Jalongo also serves as a book series editor for Springer International. Her publications include over 25 textbooks and scholarly books as well as numerous articles.





Jalongo, M. R., Ebbeck, M., & Boyer, W. (2014). Writing for publication as "tacit" knowledge: A focus group study of doctoral students in education. Early Childhood Education Journal, 42, 241-250.


Seidman, I. (1991). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.



BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.


Dr. Scroggs is an executive, life and dissertation coach in the greater Chesapeake Bay area. She has helped hundreds of students and clients overcome procrastination, self-doubts, and other internal and external blocks in order to find the motivation and flow necessary to reach their academic, professional, and personal goals. Contact Dr. Scroggs with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at Enjoy additional free resources at



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