Dissertations and theses from start to finish: Psychology and related fields (2nd ed.)

This book discusses the many challenges and details of writing a thesis or doctoral dissertation

Authors: Cone, John D. and L. Foster, Sharon 
Reviewed by Marla Pfenninger Saint Gilles, Michigan State University

Writing a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation can be one of the most confusing and overwhelming elements of a graduate school career. As you embark on your graduate school journey, what could be more sought after than a book designed to make your life more manageable? Dissertations and Theses From Start to Finish: Psychology and Related Fields (second edition), by John D. Cone and Sharon L. Foster, serves as a logistical, procedural and emotional roadmap to the core of every student’s graduate career: writing the master’s and/or doctoral thesis or dissertation. This second edition text reflects advances in research technology, ethical research standards, new style manuals and statistical texts produced since the first edition, written in 1993. Although no guide can provide a completely comprehensive review of every facet of the writing process, this book makes a solid attempt by covering everything from, “Why do a thesis or dissertation in the first place?,” to a checklist assessing students’ academic and emotional readiness, to chapters on choosing proper statistical analysis and disseminating your dissertation once it has been defended. This “nuts and bolts” guide is a necessary read for the psychology graduate student at any level.

Dissertations and Theses From Start to Finish is composed of 14 chapters arranged in a thesis/dissertation timeline from the beginning such as thinking about entering graduate school and writing a project proposal to the “end,” signified by defending a doctoral thesis and disseminating findings. Chapters are arranged by how the authors believe students will produce the best possible product in the most efficient way. For example, the chapter dealing with selecting statistics is strategically placed before chapter ten, “Collecting, Managing and Analyzing the Data,” so that students will avoid statistical nightmares, which could have been prevented by thinking about statistical analyses before completing their proposal and collecting data.

Chapter subsections further deal with organization and forethought. The second chapter “Starting Out: Assessing Your Preparation for the Task Ahead” begins with a “Research Readiness Checklist,” the first of many checklists readers encounter along the way. After all, before you begin writing, not midway through the process, is the best time to think about if you have taken a sufficient number of statistical courses (number eight on the “Research Readiness Checklist”), or if you have the agreement and support of family members and close friends (number 21). The authors suggest that in order to curb procrastination, students should set measureable goals including meeting regularly with an advisor, being task focused versus. time focused (e.g., reading four articles, , instead of working for two hours), and using the time management template provided in chapter three.

For a first-year graduate student, even the seemingly elementary tasks of developing a research question or conducting a literature review can be daunting. This guide makes these tasks manageable by breaking down even the most over-whelming tasks and giving concrete advice. When discussing writing the literature review, the authors suggest students search databases including PsycINFO, Dissertations Abstracts International, ERIC, and PsycSCANS. The book also includes many charts and tables to organize ideas and information, such as a flow chart to help students choose proper statistical analyses. However, if further assistance is necessary (which the authors assure it will be), each chapter provides a list of Supplemental Resources for more information. For example, Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference (Shadish et al., 2002) is a suggested read in the Research Methodology and Ethics chapter.

The more experienced graduate student will benefit from later chapters, which include software analysis suggestions, tips on how to collect data and present results effectively and a long list of “Common Problems to Avoid.” Although the authors note that it is impossible to foretell exactly how a dissertation defense will turn out, they devote two chapters to defending and presenting projects. The chapters include everything from strategies to reduce anxiety and Paul’s (1966) Timed Behavioral Checklist for Performance Anxiety to a list of possible questions that committee members may ask during an oral defense. The final chapter makes it clear that dissemination does not end with the oral defense, but should then continue with poster presentations followed by publication. A comprehensive Appendix (“Selected Ethical Standards Relevant to the Conduct of Research in Psychology”) is included.

The burgeoning graduate student may not believe it, but Dissertations and Theses From Start to Finish is a page-turner! It is a highly-readable, well-organized, down-to-earth manual (or, better said, bible) for surviving the most intimidating part of a graduate career. Whereas Leslie S. Philmore makes valid criticism in her 2008 review of the book from the point-of-view of an established faculty member, as a beginning graduate student, I believe this book gave me the head start I needed to start thinking about the theses and dissertation processes in the field of school psychology.

However, readers should be forewarned that this is NOT an indepth guide to writing a thesis or dissertation, nor will it take the place of appropriate course work (although it may fill in the holes!). It may seem too elementary for a graduate student who has already completed a large portion of the dissertation process. It is also important to remember that no text can take the place of a supportive and knowledgeable chairperson and committee that is well-versed in your university’s procedures. In addition, it is important to read this guide with caution as some students may become frustrated when advice provided may be contrary to that given by their university.

Despite these few limitations, Dissertations and Theses From Start to Finish: Psychology and Related Fields is a highly recommended read for graduate students in the early stages of their careers, as well as for veterans searching for a different prospective, or wanting a refresher in the nuts and bolts of the process.


Cone, J.D. & Foster, S.L. (2006). Dissertations and theses from start to finish: Psychology and related fields (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Paul, G. L. (1966). Insight vs. desensitization in psychotherapy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Phillmore, L. S. (2008). Review of Dissertations and theses from start to finish: Psychology and related fields, second edition. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(1), 74-76.

Shadish, W. R., Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D.T. (2002). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

About the Author

Marla Pfenninger Saint Gilles is a first year school psychology doctoral student in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education at Michigan State University.