by Michael Premo, Writing Coach

A common concern for many people writing their dissertation is using the correct verb tense. The APA Style Guide (6th edition) provides a section on “Smoothness of Expression.” At first, this is relatively vague and confusing.

Eventually, the section on verb tense in the APA Style guide will make sense, but you’ll want a more definitive understanding right away, so the tips below should help you.

TIP #1: The Basics

The key is to keep every sentence within a paragraph in agreement. If the first sentence is in present tense, then the entire paragraph should be in present tense. This is especially important to remember because your Chapter 1 is going to be a jumble of verb tenses:

  • Present
  • Present Perfect
  • Past
  • Past Perfect
  • Future

Stick with these verb tenses and make sure they stay in agreement throughout the paragraph. Just remember that you can describe research findings without using past tense verbs, because you are synthesizing the information.

TIP #2: Prior to IRB Approval

Prior to IRB approval, your dissertation is a study proposal. Because of this, you will be using the future tense in chapter 1 and chapter 3.

One exception to the first tip above is that a paragraph can start in present tense and have sentences in the future tense. Future tense is used prior to IRB approval to describe the study’s intentions. Here’s an example:

Student persistence is a primary concern for many school districts throughout the United States. This study will explore students’ resourcefulness through their ability to overcome barriers to learning. The findings will show how students adapt using coping mechanisms or other processes to overcome challenges.  

Using the past tense in the first sentence is too much of a temporal leap and “violates” the smoothness of expression.

TIP #3: Citing Research

You can cite your research using the following tenses: present, present perfect, and past. These are the most common verbs used for academic writing. The trick here is to know when and how to use them properly. Here’s a breakdown for each one:

Present – Typically, present tense describes research findings from multiple researchers that are synthesized (paraphrased) to make strongly worded statements. For example: Urban and rural school districts still face problems with persistence (Fullan, 1992; Wexworth et al., 2017).

Past – For writing about others’ research, you’ll want to place it into past tense. Most of your literature review will be in past tense. This is easy to remember because their research was done in the past. For example: Despite recognizing a lack of parity within the organization, a significant gap remined with regard to compensation and promotions (DesRoches et al., 2010).

Present Perfect – When to use present perfect (has + simple past) tends to be ambiguous, because it doesn’t indicate a specific time. The result of this means that the action could have occurred multiple times in the past. This verb form is especially useful for citing multiple studies. For example: Over the past four decades, the observations of transitioning elementary students have found that educators need to be aware of individual needs while addressing the needs of the classroom (Aiken, 2002; Bandura, 1977; Wentzel et al., 2010).

Tip #4: Findings and Discussion

Your findings happened in the past, but the implications and conclusions you draw from them are in the present. So, keep your Chapter 4 in past tense and Chapter 5 will go back and forth between past and present depending upon the subsections. Also, in your discussion, you’ll be comparing past research with your own findings, which leads to the careful use of past tense and present perfect.

It’s a Process

When writing your dissertation, remember that it’s a process; you start with a draft and revise frequently. Getting the words and information on page is critical, so don’t worry about verb tense agreement until you’re ready to edit your work.

As a writing coach, I’ve worked with individuals throughout the United States to help them write and refine their dissertations. Verb tenses is only one of many complexities when it comes to writing your thesis. If you’d like to know more about how I can help you, just send me an email so we can clear up any confusion or obstacles that you may be having.