College Quarterly
Winter 2010 - Volume 13 Number 1
Reviews The Dissertation Desk Reference: The Doctoral Student’s Manual to Writing the Dissertation
Raymond L. Calabrese
Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2009

Reviewed by Michael Topmiller

Writing the dissertation can be the most difficult of many tasks on the road to a PhD.   Despite the enormous amount of time and money invested, many doctoral students fail at the writing phase of the dissertation and remain All But Dissertation (ABD) in perpetuity.1 Why? Perhaps the reason is that students lack clear guidance on how to write the dissertation.

Fortunately, resources are available to help, including The Dissertation Desk Reference by Raymond L. Calabrese. This book provides doctoral students with a quick reference guide to assist with the writing phase of the dissertation. Faculty advisors and committee members also will find this book useful as it can eliminate many needless questions, saving the time of both faculty and students. If a student has a simple question about the location of a particular component of the dissertation (e.g., In what chapter is the statement of purpose located?), faculty can supplement their own advice by pointing students to the appropriate section in The Dissertation Desk Reference.

Written in a dictionary-style format, the book contains 150 dissertation components with four brief sections for each entry. First, a short description of the component is presented.  Second, Calabrese provides the location of the component (i.e., where it is usually contained within a typical five-chapter dissertation). Third, an example from a completed dissertation is given.  Finally, each entry concludes with a checklist that ensures that all the necessary elements are included for each particular component.

The format of each component of The Dissertation Desk Reference is most easily understood by example. The first entry is “abstract”. In the description, Calabrese provides the purpose of the abstract and its five key elements. This is followed by a brief statement concerning the abstract’s location – before the introductory chapter and after the acknowledgements.  Next, Calabrese gives an example. Finally, an abstract checklist is included that helps the reader ensure that the abstract has all the necessary elements.

The most important attribute of this book is its simplicity. Other dissertation guides such as Turabian’s classic A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations provide detailed explanations of different elements of the dissertation research process.2 However, if a student has an immediate concern about the location of a particular component or what to include in a particular section (e.g., the problem statement), The Dissertation Desk Reference provides the student with a concise, direct answer.

While it is difficult to find much to criticize in this book, it does have some limitations. First, Calabrese discusses each component in the context of a traditional five-chapter dissertation. Thus, students working on dissertations that differ from this format may find the book less useful. Second, most of the examples provided are from the field of education; students from other fields might appreciate a wider variety of examples.

Calabrese notes in the introduction that The Dissertation Desk Reference is not a stand-alone reference book that could replace existing dissertation guides. Rather, this book’s purpose is to supplement other resources and serve as a quick reference. The book serves this purpose very well. Whether you are advising doctoral students or writing your dissertation, there are many good reasons to add this book to your resource library.


1 Ivankova, N., and Stick, S.  (2007). Students’ Persistence in a Distributed Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership in Higher Education: A Mixed Methods Study.  Research in Higher Education, 48(1): 93-135.

2 Turabian, K. L.  (2007).  A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, 7th Edition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Michael Topmiller is a doctoral student in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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