The Study Dude – Dissertation Journey, Part II

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to know not just how to write a dissertation upon your acceptance into graduate studies, but also how to apply the principles to your undergraduate essay writings in the meantime.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

The third part of the critical thinking Study Dude series is being interrupted for a two (err, maybe three) part series on a book dealing with dissertations: The Dissertation Journey by Carol M. Roberts. This book is indispensable for anyone with plans to venture into graduate studies and should be mandated as required reading. It will surely streamline your thesis dissertation into a polished product from the outset.

Advice on Passive Versus Active Voice and Prepositions (p. 116)
Want a simple way to edit your essays to strengthen the use of active voice? When I was in graduate studies, my use of passive voice was way overdone. I had a supervisor who harped on me repetitively to turn all incidences of the passive voice into the active voice, although he, as positive as he may be, never clearly defined what the active voice entailed. Further to this, the advice to eliminate all incidences of the passive voice wasn’t even the most beneficial; sometimes the passive voice is better.

Yet you can really strengthen your writing by incorporating some simple tips to recognize the passive voice and rewrite as many of them as you possibly can. Carol M. Roberts’ (2010) book The Dissertation Journey is perhaps the most highly rated on for effective dissertation writing tips, and her discussion on passive versus active voice in addition to prepositional over-usage is at least as remarkable as the rest of her content. After reading her section on active/passive voice, for the first time, I understand?and I want all of you to understand, too:

– Circle your prepositions (words like “on”, “of”, “above”, “with”) in each sentence. If you have five or more in a sentence, then rewrite the sentence with stronger verbs to eliminate the prepositional frequency.
– Whenever you see any variant of “to be” (which includes “was”, “is”, “were”, “been”, “being”, “am”, “will be”, etc.) in addition to variants of “to have” (which include “has”, “have”, “had”, “has had”, etc.) circle those little tyrants?and eliminate 3/4 of them from the page. They almost always (if I’m correct) implicate the passive voice. If that same sentence contains the word “by” in it, or if you could add the word “by” at the end of it, such as “the book was read by me” or “the book was read”, you know that the “me” needs to be placed as the subject at the beginning of the sentence to make it active. Another occurrence is when you see a passive verb (the “to be” or “to have” variant) placed beside a verb that could be truncated into a stronger more succinct verb. For example, “I was hesitant to eat the sushi,” could be shortened to “I hesitated to eat the sushi.” Here the subject is in the right place, but the passive voice arises with the weak verb combination. Once changed, it becomes the active voice.
– Sometimes the passive voice is correct, such as when you want to de-emphasize the writer or place the onus of responsibility on no-one in particular. For example “The people were led to the wrong conclusion” has no-one in particular named as the one(s) who did the leading. It is also used when the subject is not known or inconsequential.
(Roberts, 2010)

Literature Review Tips (p. 107)
When the Study Dude ventured into writing the literature review, there was little to no guidance on how to go about it?just criticism. My method of using cue cards was not approved by my initial supervisor, so I abandoned a highly effective means of collecting quotes for writing papers and, of course, the dissertation. That is part of the reason why I’m writing these Study Dude articles, to unveil what the proper study techniques are and to share them with my beloved friends, namely all of you.

Also, I tended to use a lot of direct quotations in my writing, stringing them together with my introductory texts for each piece of quoted material, but, when using way too many quotation marks, paraphrasing is the better way to go. I never knew that, though, and thought that direct quotations strengthened my argument.

Here are some tips for writing either your literature review or your undergraduate essay:

– At the beginning of each paragraph, first state your own ideas and thoughts pertaining to the subject, and then use quotes as follow-up to further cement your point-of-view. This gives you an air of authority.
– Use comparison and contrast of different points of view in the literature and talk about the major themes that you identify across the literature.
– Insert actual quotations sparingly. Prefer to paraphrase when citing other authors. Too many actual quotes linked together makes for hard-to-read writing.
– Don’t cite others materials at length in one quotation. Instead, introduce the sentence with your own thoughts and follow it up with a paraphrase or direct quotation.
– Incorporate as many primary sources as possible.
(Roberts, 2010)

I scratch my head at what a primary source is exactly. So, to streamline the beloved reader’s understanding, here is a short list of what constitutes a primary source: memoirs, autobiographies, a newspaper article written during the time of the event, government documents (census data, regulations, debate minutes, etc)–as they represent the government’s voice, diaries, photographs, maps, audiovisual materials (such as videos and mp3s), email correspondences, maps, war memorabilia, jewelry, board games, photographs, sculpture, music scores, interviews, (retrieved from These materials are “first-hand testimony or direct evidence… created by witness or recorders who experienced the vents or conditions being documented” (retrieved from

How to Synthesize the Literature (p. 100)
Have you ever been told to synthesize the literature, and nodded your head agreeably, all the while not fully understanding what synthesis means? It’s easy to hear the words compare and contrast, but until you either get your feet wet or look at examples, the structures can be a bit muddling at first. Here are some one or two word descriptions of what it means to synthesize material: compare, contrast, explain relationships, find themes, find key ideas, find patterns, unveil contradictions, expose inconsistencies, generalize, discuss changes (over time), and make connections (Roberts, 2010). The important thing is that you should go beyond what any particular author on the subject has to say about the matter (Roberts, 2010).

If you didn’t necessarily understand how you could put the above in practice, don’t worry, you are not alone. (The Study Dude is right beside you on that one.) Yet, the following section on matrices will give you a better clue on how to synthesize the material in a handy-dandy chart form.

Use a Matrix (p. 97)
This is the Study Dude’s favourite part of the book: the matrices. My cue card system was one definite positive approach to gathering, synthesizing, and organizing researched quotes, but there are a number of other very positive systems for making the process streamlined.

When I was first an undergraduate and had been assigned the task of analyzing a philosophy excerpt, I would read that excerpt at least once through, take that excerpt and write every sentence on a unique cue card, and then I’d write the main topic of the sentence on the cue card on the back of the card–in the form of a single or double keyword, such as “love”, “anarchy”, euphoria”, etcetera. I would then notice when multiple topics would reappear, and sometimes would condense topics into tighter categories (such as integrating the connections between love and euphoria).

Yet, writing a paper?with multiple sources?would be even easier with the following system in place: the matrices. If you write a paper of any kind, consider using a matrix system (a matrix can be viewed as basically a simple table) for the collection and organization of your data. They are especially effective if you want to write a book, so don’t be afraid to flex your literary muscles and write with high efficiency to your beautiful heart’s content. You can make all kinds of tables, and Roberts (2010) has plenty of table examples for you to explore and integrate into your study routine.

Here is the one table for synthesizing materials, taken directly from her book. The source is Nevills (as cited in Roberts, 2010, p. 97):

The total is a tally of how frequently the articles appear under each alphabetical letter, and each alphabetical letter represents a keyword that you encode with the table.

For instance: “A = adult learners; B = Self-directing; C = Practical, relevant; D = Involved in planning…” (Nevills, as cited in Roberts, 2010, p. 97). See? Each alphabetical letter represents a keyword or phrase that you see reappear through your research. Ah?the joys of study.

The Study Dude has to let you in on a secret: If you are going into graduate studies, or have plans to do so, The Dissertation Journey by Carol M. Roberts is the one book that you must consider investing in and reading in full prior to enrolment (whoa! More than four prepositions in that last sentence! Rewrite!) It is rated at five stars on Amazon. I cannot stress how brilliant this book is for divulging the very best of the best tidbits of knowledge on how to manage a graduate program.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Roberts, Carol M. (2010). The Dissertation Journey. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin.

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