Stuggling to Formulate a Dissertation Proposal that Will Change the World?

There is a universal theme that I have identified with preparing a dissertation proposal. Everyone I have helped as a faculty member and through this website initially pitches a proposal that embraces 2, 3 or even 4 dissertations.  When learning research everyone has ambitious ideas of what can be said and accomplished in a dissertation. Given the constraints and demands of scientific inquiry, all studies have to focus on a narrow question that can be empirically tested.

Why is it so difficult to shrink your ambition about what your dissertation proposal will say to the world? I suspect it is because people earning a Ph.D. degree want to make a large contribution to the world. You want to make a difference. In the case of science that is empirical in nature, the scientist has to take small steps that are deliberate and focused.

If your committee is giving your grief about your proposal it is probably because you have pitched a proposal to do a study that is much too ambitious, especially if you have any intention of finishing within a year or two.

What can you do about this problem?  Think of your original proposal as 3 studies. Then, decide which of the three studies you really want to make your dissertation. You can work on the other two studies after you have earned your Ph.D.  if you are so inclined.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.



Measurement Error

Perhaps the most significant barrier to discovery in science is measurement error. A single measure of any construct – it really does not matter what you are measuring – is tainted with measurement error.

The idea of measurement error is relatively easy to understand if you are trying to measure psychological states like greed or guilt or depression. Everyone can agree that the measurement of such vague constructs is difficult and bound to miss the mark by a wide margin.

Measurement of even physical constructs has measurement error. If you and I measure the length of a football field, I may come up with 102 yards. You may come up with 99 yards.

Once you acknowledge the huge role measurement error plays in all of the sciences, you will honor the importance of using more than one variable to measure whatever construct you have decided to measure.  When you us more than one measure of your construct – you can actually correct for the attenuating effects of measurement error. The role of error which is uncorrected masks the true relationship.

I suggest that whenever possible, design you dissertation so that each construct has more than one measure. And incidentally, if you are interested in publishing the results of your dissertation, using multiple measures of the same construct is expected by most reviewers.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Dissertation Help – Design of Rigorous Studies

Dissertation help – With a large sample- you are virtually guaranteed of getting significance.

Many students are glued to the idea of significance testing. They want to design a dissertation that will lend itself to being “rigorously tested” using statistical analyses.

Statistical testing is anything but “rigorous.” If you design a study with a large sample – you are virtually guaranteed of getting significance. If you design a study with a small sample,  your chances of finding significance are slim indeed. Now that does not sound very rigorous does it?

To make matters worse – the large sample study may show significance but the size of the effect could be very, very small.  The small sample study will not show significance, but the size of the effect could be huge. It is the size of the effect that counts.

What if you want to design a study with a small sample? Present it as a qualitative study. In my book of “rigorous” designs, the qualitative study beats the quantitative study every time.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.


The Problem with Most Dissertation Proposals

You have decided to earn a Ph.D. You are ready to devote your time and energy to revealing new discoveries to the world of science. As you immerse yourself into the process of learning research skills, you are probably amazed at how much time and trouble doing a single study takes.

With this realization, you  may be thinking that if you are going to have to spend 1-2 years doing a dissertation, it might as well be a study that makes a significant contribution to the field – a study that will make a name for yourself. What does this mean?

It means for most people that you carve out a very large research question that will take more than 2 years to complete. How about 6-8 years?

I made one helpful suggestion to every one of my Ph.D. students that made it possible for them to complete their programs. Here is my speech.

You have developed some interesting – might I say intriguing ideas here.  How long do you suppose it will take to finish your dissertation?

Here is the typical  answer.

“Probably a year – maybe a year and a half”

“If this were my program of research, it would take me 8 years. Did you plan on hanging around that long as a Ph.D. student?”

Every student I ever worked with took on too many questions. They do a great job of laying out a 5-10 year program of research.

As I see it – you have 3 studies here. Why not choose one for your dissertation and delay the other two for later?

I am discussing this as a faculty member. This is also what I did as a Ph.D. student. This is what most people do from my experience. If you want to finish your Ph.D. program, you have to focus on one and only one question to ask.

It sounds simple. Believe me – it is not simple. It only looks simple after you are finished.

Robert Rodgers. Ph.D.

Talk Out Your Dissertation Idea

Who can help you formulate a clear, simple and defensible dissertation project? Clearly, that is what committee members do for their students. But, committee members and chairs typically are not that helpful with the “up front” work required to figure out a good dissertation question to ask.

Who can help out then? Perhaps you believe the only people who can be helpful are colleagues who are familiar with the field. After all, they are generally familiar with the research and what type of dissertation your committee members are willing to accept. There is no doubt that committee members can be very helpful.

What about your friends who have little interest in scientific research? Should you even bother talking with them about your dissertation? Would they really understand the complexity of it all? I say yes.

I believe it is helpful to talk with all of your friends and family about your dissertation project. You will surely get blank stares and yawns in the beginning, With each explanation of your dissertation comes greater clarity on your part. As you hear yourself talk you are more clear about what you are doing.

Clarity comes from having to explain the idea to someone who knows nothing about the research area. Once people begin to tell you that your idea is interesting – you have a viable project.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

The Elevator Explanation of Your Dissertation

When my students were ready to go onto the academic job market, we practiced an elevator pitch. What in the world is an elevator pitch?

This is the explanation of your dissertation that you can give to another faculty member as you ride down a four story elevator.  You have enough time for 2-3 sentences to pitch the idea.  If the faculty member says:

Sounds interesting.

You have a viable project. If the person has to ask a number of followup questions to understand what you are doing, you need to go back to the drawing board.

I recommend that you use this same process with each member of your committee. Practice your elevator pitch. If they look interested, you will succeed with that idea. If they look puzzled, you either need to reformulate your pitch or find another project.

Too many people hold the false belief that a dissertation has to be complicated to be passable.  The truth is just the reverse.   Simple ideas that can be simply explained are the keys to success.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Simple Dissertation Projects Sell

There is a truly perplexing challenge that is confronted by anyone formulating a dissertation project. A defensible dissertation project is simply explained and simply presented.  It may take 200-300  pages to present the project, but when asked, you can explain your dissertation in 2-3 sentences to any stranger who asks.

It is simple after the fact. But getting there is another issue altogether. It takes thought. It takes trial and error. It takes time to incubate the idea. It takes a massage of the original idea. It takes time to get feedback from committee members. It takes time to get over the frustration of being criticized.

Each time you explain the project, it gets simpler and easier. The easier it is to explain to a friend who knows nothing about research – the closer you are to landing a viable project.

The process is terribly frustrating because you will beat up on yourself with  criticisms of your slow progress:

“All I need is to come up with one simple idea. How hard can that be?”

The answer is that it is extremely difficult to come up with a simple idea that has merit. It may sound simple after the fact, but getting there can be time consuming and tortuous.

The people who finish are determined. They do not give up.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Holidays and Dissertations

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, so now is not a time to be working on your dissertation. It is a time to take a break from thinking, analyzing, writing, editing and organizing the chapters. My experience with breaks is always a huge surprise.  Why?

While on break, I often get the most amazing insights. Problems I have not been able to solve are suddenly solved – and I wasn’t even trying.  It helps immensely to step away from the intensity of the work and play. If you never take a break (since all you want to do is finish) – you may just dig yourself into a deeper and deeper hole of despair and frustration.

You may feel guilty about not working tomorrow, but don’t let the guilt of that thought hang you up from doing something different and having a good time. The more fun you have this weekend, the quicker you will finish.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Literature Reviews that Flop

I have consulted with many Ph.D. students who have adopted the strategy that hard work should pay off. The idea is that if they show their committee that they are thoroughly familiar with the details of all the studies that are relevant to their dissertation they should pass. The idea is to demonstrate that they have located, cited, analyzed and understood each and every relevant study.

Here is how this strategy plays out.  The student first locates the studies. Once started – it becomes easier because you can chase down all the research cited in the studies already located. By way of example, let’s say that 25 studies have been found.

The next step of this process is to take several hours to thoroughly read and study one study at a time.  On day one the first study is described and written up and included in the literature review chapter.  The study description can consume anywhere from a half page to several pages.

The following day you take a second study and follow the same process. A description of the second study is added to the description of the first study. You now have written several pages  of your literature review.

Continue with this strategy day after day – adding the results of one study at a time. At the conclusion of 25 days you have as many as 50 pages of text for your literature review.

If length counts for anything you are in good shape. But let’s now look at what you really have for all your work.

Your chapter reads as follows:

  • Humpty Dumpty found a significant result but he used a lousy measure of the construct.
  • Donald Duck’s results were inconclusive. It was a good study but the sample size was small.
  • Mickey Mouse  found a significant result, but in the opposite direction. He studied ducks. As we all know ducks are not representative of human behavior.

And so forth and so on.  You can find a flaw with any study. Anyone reading this chapter begins to think – what is the bottom line. Reading a chapter written in this fashion is always very boring.  A reader does not have to wait for the conclusion of the chapter to know how the final paragraph will read:

Some studies found a positive result, Some studies were inconclusive. Some studies found a negative result. Therefore, more research is needed.

Why is this literature review a flop? Your committee members has just read 50 pages of detail with no clear resolution of what any of your discussion means. They are bored stiff. They still have 4 chapters to review. Nothing was learned.

You have not placed your study in the context of the existing literature. Rather, you have simply proven that you worked really hard. Great. Now you have to figure out how your study fits in the context of what other researchers have found.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Are Literature Reviews Always Necessary?

Successful dissertations place their study in the context of the existent research. It is not enough to assert that you have an interesting question, a rich data set no one else has mined or a powerful method of analyzing your data.  Why?

Your committee will inevitably ask the question: how does your study fit into the context of all the research which has already examined your question in some fashion or another? You can always respond with the answer:

“There is no existent research on this question. Therefore, a review of the literature is not needed.”

In rare cases, this answer may fly with your committee. Success with this response is however  highly unlikely. Why?

  1. There is very likely research on the question – it is just not framed in the way you are planning to proceed.
  2. Committee members always look to see if a review of the literature is included in your dissertation (either Chapter 2 or Chapter 3). If  it is missing,  the student is told to go back to the drawing board.

Learning how to frame and write a review of the literature is part of the training in any Ph.D. program. To complete your program, committee members like to see a demonstration that you  know how to do a review of the literature.

Researchers may well have not used your constructs, your variables or your data.  But there is very likely a stream of literature that has considered your question and/or tested your hypothesis. Perhaps this research is theoretical. Perhaps it is filled with cases studies. But such a literature exists.

The challenge is to define the boundaries of the literature that falls into the backyard of your dissertation. Once you have placed boundaries on your own study, the literature becomes easier to identify and the literature review chapter much easier to write.

Without a clear idea of how your study fits in the context of existent research, literature reviews can consume hundreds of pages – but contribute little to a true understanding of how your question fits in the context of all the other work which has been published,

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.