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Graduate students gear up for dissertations

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Allison Thompson

Graduation is just around the corner. Many undergraduates will be embarking on their last set of final exams, and graduate students pursuing their doctorates will be putting the finishing touches on their dissertations.

All Ph.D. programs require students to complete dissertations. They are designed for students to participate in research in the specific field in which they are studying and to become an expert in that field.

To complete the dissertation, students must add something new to research in their area of study.

"Dissertations are somewhat different from discipline to discipline, but they all have in common the attribute of being cutting edge in terms of being new and unique contributions to the discipline," said Joe Pittman, graduate student adviser for human development and family studies.

Students may only undertake a dissertation if they show they have mastered their area of study by first taking written and oral exams. Different programs approach these exams differently, but a student can never receive a doctorate without passing them.

While students perform their research, they also work on an extensive essay divided into chapters on their work.

"It is something like a technical book," Pittman said. "It explains the problem or puzzle that needs to be addressed, what is new about it and what is important."

The dissertation also explains background information necessary for understanding the research, tells about the experiments and discusses the significance of the results.

Graduate student adviser for biological sciences Mary Mendonca said dissertation essays can range from 50 pages to more than 400 pages depending on the discipline and topic. However, as long as all the questions are answered, quality is more important than quantity.

A dissertation committee from the student's college, as well as an outside reader, provides feedback along the way and judges the student's final work.

The last step of the dissertation process is a seminar where students must defend their work.

"If you pass the exams as well as your final dissertation seminar, and the committee is willing to sign off on your dissertation, you become a doctor," Mendonca said. "If you don't, you go home very depressed."

Mendonca said it is rare for a student not to pass, though. By the time the student is defending his or her dissertation, he or she has put in countless hours of hard work and has presented research bit by bit throughout the process.

"If things were going wrong, someone would say so," Mendonca said.

Auburn offers more than 200 master's and doctoral programs with different studies ranging from sciences to engineering to history.

The Alternative Energy Initiative and the Detection and Food Safety Center are two programs with which Auburn graduate students have participated in research and made an impact.

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Undertaking a dissertation is a long and strenuous process. Graduate history professor David Carter said it is common for it to take some students seven or more years to finish.

"Having been a graduate student in the 1990's, I can remember feeling a lot of frustration at my inability to explain to people outside of academia just how much work and time were required to produce a satisfying dissertation," Carter said. "It's a process measured in years, not months."

Learning all there is to know about something should take years, Carter said. The point of earning a doctorate is not just to learn a few things about an interesting topic, but to become an expert on it.

"People who achieve the degree are expected to purse the area in depth," Pittman said. "It is common for new PhDs to know more about their area of specialization than anyone else in the world."

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