Dissertation Wisdom: Research, Notes, and Themes, Oh My… Presented by Dr. Michelle Whitman

Our trusted and esteemed webinar host, Dr. Heather Frederick, invited Aspen University’s Dr. Michelle Whitman on this episode of the 2022 Doctoral Student Support Webinar Series to present effective strategies doctoral students can implement to find success at the beginning of their doctoral program and throughout.

Dissertation Wisdom: Research, Notes, and Themes, Oh My… Presented by Dr. Michelle Whitman - a picture of a female student studying.

Dr. Whitman has worked as an educator for 27 years in both the k-12 sector and higher education. She earned her EdD from Grand Canyon University with an emphasis on Leadership in Higher Education. She is passionate about facilitating her students’ success through teaching and her ability to instill the love of learning into others. 

Dr. Whitman joins the 2022 Doctoral Student Support Webinar Series to share strategies that will help you find success on your doctoral journey. These strategies include concepts like effective organizational tools for research, effective ways to “read” research to determine if it is appropriate for your potential topic/discipline, note-taking ideas to facilitate theme development, identification of possible gaps in previous studies, and how this will help develop and focus your dissertation study.


Presenter challenge: while reading or listening, ask yourself why this information is important and how this information will lead you down a path to success. And remember: the information contained in today’s episode can facilitate success no matter where you are in your doctoral journey. 

Listen to the whole episode here.

Doctoral wisdom

Dr. Whitman says that the doctoral journey is like one giant puzzle you’ve just taken out of the box, with jumbled pieces lying everywhere. It’s natural and common to ask yourself, “where do I start?” “Which piece should I lay first?” “What does the final product look like?” “How will I know if I’m doing this right?”.

Dr. Whitman says the key to completing your puzzle is finding the edge pieces first. The edge pieces represent the foundational pieces that create the framework for your puzzle and, by extension, your doctoral journey. 

Edge puzzle pieces

  1. Topic Selection/Searching the Library/Collecting Gold
  2. Secrets to Reading Research
  3. Note-taking and Themes
  4. Success Tips from Graduates

Dissertation Wisdom: Research, Notes, and Themes, Oh My… Presented by Dr. Michelle Whitman - a picture of a female student highlighting a book.









1. Topic Selection/Searching the Library/Collecting Gold

Selecting a topic can be the toughest part of the dissertation journey for many students but remain focused, diligent, and positive with an open mind, and your topic will eventually come to you. Here are some tips for selecting the right topic for you. 

  • Select a topic that is personally interesting and professionally meaningful (see link below)
  • Use the university library as a resource (see the link below)
  • Keep everything organized (research, citations, etc.)! And select a program you will use to organize the massive amounts of research you will be collecting.

Ask yourself these questions to force yourself to dig deeper into your topic selection:

  • Why do I want to know this?
  • What am I trying to understand? 
  • What prior research exists in this area?
  • What gap exists in the research that I could address? 

2. Secrets to reading research

Completing your doctoral journey and successfully defending your dissertation or project requires finding appropriate and relevant research, or “gold”, as Dr. Whitman calls it. Not only will you need to know how to compile that gold, but also what to do with that gold – how will you use your research in a meaningful way in relation to your problem statement?

  • Step 1 – Determine if you will read the article by first reading the abstract, noting keywords and the year of publication (remember, about 80-85% of your references need to be within the last five years, except for your theoretical framework and other seminal articles).
  • Step 2 – find the focus/purpose of the study and decide if it is relevant to your topic, including the methodology, design, and target population.
  • Step 3 – move to the theoretical framework and instrumentation and gather ideas by skimming these sections.
  • Step 4 – move to the findings and recommendations for future research (this is where you can find ideas for YOUR dissertation).
  • Once you go through these steps, you can determine whether this article is a YES, NO, or MAYBE.

If you find a gap in the research, you can dig deeper into that opportunity by asking yourself these questions: 

  • How does the research I’m reading connect to my topic? 
  • What does prior research say about the problem? 
  • Where does prior research lead future researchers?
  • Why is there a gap in the research? 

3. Note-taking and themes

Note-taking and organization of those notes are key predictors of how successful you will be in your dissertation or doctoral project. You will need to become the expert on your topic. It is your responsibility to stay informed and aware of what the leaders in the field are saying and researching, including how it connects to not only previous studies, but also to your topic. 

  • Use an organizational system (there is no one-size-fits-all, explore and pick one that resonates with you)
  • File articles in appropriate files organized by themes
  • Take notes! (see link below)
  • Consider mind mapping

4. Success tips from recent graduates

  • Ask yourself lots of questions (like, “Why do I want to know this?” And “where is the gap in the research?”)
  • Keeping everything organized is a non-negotiable MUST!
  • Make a timeline and break it down into smaller pieces
  • Remember that your thoughts and opinions must have an empirical grounding in doctoral-level work
  • Knowing when you are most productive is important and take advantage of these times
  • Ask questions!

Dissertation Wisdom: Research, Notes, and Themes, Oh My… Presented by Dr. Michelle Whitman - a picture of a students studying together in the library.









Bottom line

The doctoral journey is an adventure with challenges at every turn. Those who are successful are able to maximize their resources, seek guidance when appropriate, and utilize strategies to keep them on track and organized. Remember, the library will always be a top resource to utilize, along with your professors – don’t be afraid to ask for help at any step of your doctoral journey. Certainly, following these strategies will also help you find success in your doctoral program. 

Be sure to tune in for next week’s episode, IRB: Friend or Foe? Presented by our host Heather Frederick. She will discuss the role the IRB (international review board) plays in the doctoral journey.

If you want to advance your career, consider Aspen University’s online DNP or ED.D doctoral programs with start dates every two weeks and tuition starting at $375 per month!

More resources 

Links referenced in this video:

You may also want to check out the following past webinar episodes:

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