Mastering the Dissertation:
It Takes a Village

Written by Judy Tierney

It can be the most intimidating, but also the most rewarding, part of a doctoral or PhD program: the doctoral dissertation. Rigorous, time-consuming, challenging, torturous and humbling are just a few of the words that NCU graduates have used to describe the doctoral dissertation process.

Dr. Melinda Riccitelli Melinda Riccitelli

In the first part of their doctoral studies, students focus on expanding their knowledge in scholarly writing, improving research skills and enhancing their understanding of their specialization of choice. The final few years are focused on the preparation of their doctoral dissertation or thesis.

Getting a doctoral degree is not for everyone, but for those who take the journey, the opportunity to become an expert in an area they are passionate about can be life-changing. Dr. Melinda Riccitelli, NCU’s 2016 Dissertation of the Year Award winner, spent five years balancing career, family and studies to earn her degree and complete her dissertation, “Science Identity’s Influence on Community College Students’ Engagement, Persistence and Performance in Biology.”

As a community college biology teacher – in the trenches of collegiate science education – Riccitelli witnessed first-hand students struggling with the subject she loves. “What I became an expert on was that a science identity is simply not available to many community college students,” she explained. “Without this identity, biology learning becomes challenging - even threatening - to students. Understanding how identity intersects with student achievement outcomes might offer some solutions to the problems of student apathy and success in science.”

With a strong background in science, Riccitelli said, “I thought it was going to be a breeze. Boy, was I proven wrong!” Riccitelli reflected on her experiences and shared lessons she learned during the dissertation process:

“Learning is a process that happens at the border of the unknown, and failure is an option at this border crossing.”

Melinda Riccitelli

1. Doctoral work is not for the faint of heart.
Online learning takes perseverance, organizational skills and internal fortitude. Completing a doctoral degree is a solitary pursuit and no one can relieve you of the burden of becoming a scholar. It’s solely up to you to read the literature, uncover the problem of study, ask the questions, design and conduct the investigation that will answer your questions, and defend your work to your dissertation committee. No one can do it for you.

“Degrees are earned, not given,” said Riccitelli, “but I can say the sweet feeling of achievement when it is all done is well worth it!”

2. It’s important to ask for, and accept, help.
While completing a doctoral degree is a solitary process, asking for help is crucial. It’s important to lean on, and trust, the people in your circle. For Riccitelli, her family, work colleagues and NCU mentors provided the support she needed. “My husband cooked plenty of dinners and did plenty of grocery shopping in the past five years,” she said.

Riccitelli also credits her dissertation chair, committee and academic advisor. “With her patience, knowledge of the process and empathy, Dr. Julia Watkins talked me ‘off the ledge’ on more than one occasion,” she said of her dissertation chair. “She also set up a ‘Scholars Club’ where the students she was mentoring could get together and talk about their research, struggles, challenges and achievements. This really helped relieve the isolation aspect of online learning.”

Key to finishing a dissertation is understanding that while the dissertation is your burden, it takes a village to complete it.

3. Embrace the fears of becoming a scholar.
Every student must acknowledge the self-doubts that go hand in hand with research. “Learning is a process that happens at the border of the unknown, and failure is an option at this border crossing,” she explained. Instead of ignoring the realities of this space, Riccitelli recommends “owning them.”

“It is important to develop coping mechanisms – crying, screaming at the computer, pounding your desk, taking a walk, going to sleep, talking to a friend, whatever you need – to beat back the unknown, the self-doubt, the fear and keep going when you don’t think you can,” she said. “Turn the weaknesses into the strengths you need to finish.”

4. Keep your perspective.
Focusing on your long-term goals can help you be successful. Although Riccitelli preaches this philosophy to her students in her introductory lecture each semester, she says she did not fully comprehend how difficult staying focused was until she started the program. “Staying focused on the goal is no easy task,” she said, “but it is a necessary one and part of the reality of completing a dissertation.”

"Key to finishing a dissertation is understanding that while the dissertation is your burden, it takes a village to complete it."

Now that her dissertation is complete, Riccitelli said she is a better instructor because of her work, and that makes her happy. She now has a better appreciation not only of how students approach science learning, but also for ways to structure science classrooms to enhance learning. While she continues to study the science identity of community college students and how this impacts their learning outcomes, she is also working with colleagues on a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) center at her college, collaborating with other science identity researchers and helping to plan two science education conferences (PKAL and SABER) in southern California in 2017.

“This turned out to be much more challenging and rewarding than I thought it would be,” Riccitelli said of her program at NCU. “The old adage ‘Nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved without pain’ is certainly true, but it is also true that hardships and challenges force growth and allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

At this year’s graduation, Riccitelli told fellow graduates that she feels an obligation to the science education community to continue what she began in her dissertation research. “I can do this by publishing, through dialogue on my campus and with other local community colleges about best practices in science education, and on a larger stage with science educators and researchers through conferences, seminars and workshops.”

“It is important for me that the expertise I now own makes a difference,” she said in her graduation speech to her classmates. “I respectfully suggest to you all that your work is also not done with the completion of your degree. I believe it is our responsibility, with the hard-earned knowledge we have assembled through this process, to reach into our communities, wherever and whatever that happen to be, to make them better through our continued energies.”