Writing a dissertation is the goal and culmination of the degree. Think of a dissertation as a book-length answer to a question that can be answered through research and original analysis. The courses you take, the faculty you decide to work most closely with, and the advisor you ultimately select should be chosen with the dissertation in mind. Generally dissertations make a contribution to the research methods used in analyzing discourse, as well as contributing to our understanding of a specific problem, medium, or theorist.
Some of the theoretical approaches and methods used by faculty and students in Writing Studies are rhetorical theory and criticism, technical communication theory and research, ethnography, human factors, information design and display, literary theory, philosophy, and feminism. These methods or perspectives make it possible for us to better understand the way technical knowledge is made, debated, and communicated. Because a dissertation makes a contribution to scholars’ understanding of scholarly methods, the RSTC curriculum emphasizes methods so that you will be prepared to deal with both the substantive and methodological demands of a dissertation.
As described by the Graduate School, a doctoral dissertation is based on original research that makes a significant contribution to knowledge. A dissertation in our program needs to be on a topic significant enough to justify a book-length study but defined narrowly enough to allow for command of the relevant literature and for an original contribution. Dissertations are usually about 150-200 pages in length, though good dissertations have been written by students in the program that are shorter and longer than these suggested limits. For a list of titles of dissertations written by students in the RSTC program, see the Graduate School's Register of Doctoral Degrees.
Before you proceed with your research and writing, you need to form your dissertation committee, then write a prospectus which you present to that committee.
It is important that you and your advisor work closely together throughout the complicated processes of framing, writing, and revising your dissertation. For example, your prospectus can be a starting roadmap for deciding how to conduct your research, the order in which you will draft the chapters, and when those chapters might be ready for review by your advisor and other members of your committee. Perhaps more important is for you to get help, coaching, and encouragement when you run into snags, get stuck, or need to change the direction of your work—that can come from your advisor, others on your committee, your fellow students, and your family.
The Graduate School's web site at http://www.grad.umn.edu/gradwriting/ has many useful links in support of dissertation writing. It also includes a section on dissertating from a distance. Please check it out.