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Dissertation Writing: Cause-Effect Relationships

“Correlation is not causation.” This mantra has been repeated countless times by instructors and review boards everywhere, and yet even at the graduate and doctoral level, students still run afoul of presenting cause-effect relationships properly in their dissertations. These simple tips will help you to avoid this very common pitfall.

Understanding Cause and Effect

While in casual speech and observation cause and effect are often used, they aren’t used the same way in dissertation level writing. You may blithely note the cause or effect of some everyday occurrence without considering whether or not that relationship has met certain stringent conditions, but beware doing so in your dissertation. Expect the ire of your review board if you ignore this advice. Understand exactly what qualifies cause and effect in your field, as this can differ from discipline to discipline.

Don’t Make Assumptions

The biggest mistake made by graduate students and doctoral candidates when discussing cause and effect is making unfounded assumptions. When you write about any cause or effect relationship, consider very carefully whether or not you are making any assumptions at all, no matter how benign or mundane.

If You Make Assumptions, Qualify Your Statement

If you are making an assumption, even a small one, spell this out and point out that the cause-effect relationship you’ve outlined depends on this assumption. Your review board may still take issue with it, but being transparent in this manner will help considerably. Also, discuss the way in which that relationship changes if your assumption were to be incorrect.

Avoid Cause-Effect Relationships Unless Necessary

The best solution, of course, is the simplest. In casual conversation, cause-effect relationships can be expressed lazily, based on assumptions, and they can’t be in dissertation writing. But there aren’t many situations in which you actually need to express cause-effect relationships. There are many other ways in which you can present the information about a relationship without explicitly or implicitly claiming that there is a cause-effect relationship. Simply state the information, and, perhaps, suggest that a causal relationship is possible.

Properly Defend Cause-Effect Relationships

When expressing a cause-effect relationship is unavoidable, take special effort to ensure that you fully support your conclusions. That means presenting thoroughly researched support, citing it correctly, and using only the most reliable of sources. Your conclusion should be unassailable. If it does have unavoidable weaknesses, detail these yourself to show that you’re aware of them.