All posts by manabunnow4zph

Choosing a Question for your Dissertation

My post today involves a challenge which I did not meet well as a Ph.D. student. Let me say at the outset that I never really even thought about whether the question I asked in my dissertation was interesting. My sole goal was to finish and be employed at a first class university.

My formula was simple. I decided to write a quantitative dissertation and crunch a large data set. My question was to answer the question: What predicts strikes by public sector employees?

To be clear – I chose the topic because there were data lying around that no one else was mining. I could throw a lot of predictors in a regression equation and see what popped out.  I could then work backwards and write up logical hypotheses.

This is not exactly a textbook approach now is it? The frustrating part of the work was that I never really was able to craft a theory that made any sense. Of course – no one else had done this either.

I finished in 4.5 years from Michigan State (three years earlier than the average) and was employed at an excellent school – the University of Texas at Austin. So in one sense my simplistic strategy succeeded.

But – I never had a passion about the research. It was a means to an end. I wanted to support my family in any way possible.

I do have regrets – regrets that I did not slow down and find a question that truly excited me. That happened later rather than sooner. I shifted over to topics that did interest me as a faculty member but it would have been much more satisfying had I taken the time during my Ph.D. program to discover a question that gave me juice.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

How to Finish a Dissertation Fast

There are of course many dissertation topics and many ways to process through the maze of challenges you will inevitably confront. How do you get through an arduous Ph.D. program quickly? The average time to completion in the social sciences is 7.5 years. Wow! That is a long time.

My answer may unsettle some of you. My recommendation to those wishing to finish faster than 7.5 years is to piggy back on the research of your dissertation chair. They can help you with the existent research. This alone will cut down six months of work. They would have already focused on one or several theories which inform specific hypotheses. This alone will cut down six months of work. You have already saved a year.

The twist normally involves doing a similar study as they have done but with a different study population – or perhaps examining an issue raised by people working in the area. If you get along well with your chair and see yourself working collaboratively with them in the future – this might be an excellent choice. Your chair will also be eager to spend lots of time helping you finish. Of course, if they are well known in the field, the chances you will secure a reasonable faculty appointment are improved.

So much for the positives. I personally never allowed any of my students to piggy back on my own research. Why? I believe they learned a great deal more about the research process when they had to learn how to piece together everything themselves. You do not learn by copying someone else. You learn by doing it yourself.

If you decide to become one of your faculty chair’s proteges – you may never become your own researcher with your own research agenda.

The people who succeed in academic life are doing research that excites them from the inside out. If you are piggy backing on someone elses thinking, it is unlikely you will have the passion to do the work for longer than a dissertation or a few follow-up studies.

The downside is that it will take longer to complete your own work. You may have several starts which fizzle. You may well become depressed in the process. Most students have spells of depression. You may also find that you will discover a passion that lies deep inside that you never knew existed.

Once you light the fire of that passion, no one can stop you. You will find the job you want. If it is a faculty appointment – you will be deliriously successful. You will publish because you must publish to get the word out about your discoveries.

It is a choice – but then again – every moment in life is a choice.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

How to Prove a Dissertation Has Been Read

I shutter to even think about counting the number of Ph.D. dissertation defenses I have attended where I was the only faculty member who had actually read the dissertation. When I say read – don’t get me wrong here. If I was serving as a dean’s representative I would spend an hour or so looking through the dissertation before the defense so that I could ask some informed question and make some helpful suggestions.

When the questions begin at the defense – it becomes imminently clear that even though I only spent an hour reading through the dissertation, I know more about the research than any of the other committee members who are present – even the student’s chair. Oh my.

I would always wait until the end to ask my questions, hoping that at least one other faculty member had reviewed the dissertation. More often than not – I am the only one who has a clue.

Of course, faculty members always want their colleagues to think that they have put their time in for the student and provided assistance when asked. Sometimes of course this is clearly the case. Often it is not.

One of the funniest experiences involved the defense of a student defending an education dissertation. Before I began with my questions – I was the outside faculty member on the committee – I deferred to all of the committee members who were education faculty members. One of the students committee members explained that she had no questions to ask, but that she had marked the dissertation with copious notes for the student to consider later. She thought the dissertation was acceptable.

That is all well and good – though it is a courtesy to at least ask a few informed questions of the student out of respect for the time and effort they spent on writing their dissertation.

But when I examined the student’s copy of the dissertation that was placed on the table in front of this faculty – there was a paper clip inserted on every 5th page of the dissertation. So, she just happened to have a comment on every 5th page of the dissertation – or perhaps she had her secretary insert a paper clip on every fifth page? Hum I thought to myself. I believe I know the answer to that puzzle.

I have never said anything to anyone until now – but I must confess that every time I think about that faculty member, I laugh myself silly.

The student passed. It wasn’t a bad dissertation by any means, but I suspect the student would have appreciated a little more help from their committee along the way to completion.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Waiting for Feedback On Your Dissertation from Your Chair

So – you complete the first chapter of your dissertation. Before you proceed, you would really like to get some feedback from your chair. So, you print her off and give your professor a copy.

You wait a week. You run out patience and finally decide to ask the important question:

Had a chance to read my chapter?

What chapter?

Oops. They did not get it – or remember getting it.

So – this time you give them a print version and send the chapter as an attachment on an e mail,

A week passes.

Had a chance to read my chapter?

Oh – I’ll get to it in a few days …

A week passes …

Does this scenario sound familiar? During the past month – you are teaching your classes to undergraduates. You find yourself fidgeting as you continue to edit your first chapter – while wondering if your idea will fly. It is hard to be creative when the threat of a rejection hangs over your head.

Your writing becomes ponderous.You take more coffee breaks than are really necessary. You are cautious. The work finally comes to a standstill as you continue to wait. … and wait …. and wait.

Sound familiar?

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Difficulty of Getting Constructive Feedback on Your Dissertation

I learned early on as a faculty member that it was pretty easy and efficient to judge the work of others. You can easily spot issues with dissertations (and all research for that matter). Why?

There is no such thing as a perfect study. Every piece of research I have ever done, reviewed or read has issues. The only question turns on whether the research is good enough to pass through the scrutiny of a Ph.D. committee or the scrutiny of a journal review panel.

It really does not take much time to spot problems which you can always proclaim – as a faculty advisor – are “fatal flaws”. Of course, – there is really no such thing as a flaw which is fatal – it is just an issue that needs to be addressed in the review process.

When you hear a faculty member say that the study has a “fatal flaw” what is the underlying truth here? The underling statement is:

I do not have the time to think through the problem and help you solve it.

Why not you ask? This may seem like a cheesy cop out, but the truth in the pudding is that it takes a great deal of thought to suggestion solutions to many of the  problems that are flagged. Some of the problems you may be having are the same problems your professor is having with their own research.

When a faculty member declares that a dissertation proposal has a fatal flaw they do not have to torture themselves with working on how to solve the “flaw.” It is most likely the case that they can not even solve the “fatal flaws” in their own research.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Why Do Doctoral Students Find it So Difficult to Get Help With Their Dissertations?

When entering into a Ph.D. program the hope is that feedback given on dissertations will be timely. Rapid turnaround will be the rule and the custom. After all, it is difficult to complete a Ph.D. program when months go by and you do not know where you stand.

Is your dissertation good enough? Is it passable? Does it need to be re-written before it is defended?

These questions are seldom answered. Few firm commitments are made about when a student can expect to finish.

My personal involvement with serving as chair and committee member of countless Ph.D. programs  is that students hear mostly about what is wrong with their work, but slow to hear what they need to do to fix their dissertations so they can be successfully defended.

This negative approach actually embodies the belief template of the academic culture. The focus is on what is wrong. The tendency is to criticize. The custom of the culture in academic life is to judge harshly – always.  It is not a good life for those with tender  hearts.

This is what happens in the review process of academic papers. One way to look at the process is simply to acknowledge that you are being indoctrinated into a culture that is light on positives and heavy on judgment.

If you are a person that needs to be nurtured and held – you best find another profession.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Who Reads Dissertations?

There is a preconceived anticipation that Ph.D. students hold about their committee’s involvement with their dissertations. Students anticipate that each committee member will thoroughly review each chapter of their dissertation. They will make constructive comments that will help the student improve the presentation and tighten up the presentation.

In an ideal world perhaps this is true. In a world that is not found in our galaxy perhaps. But from my personal
experience serving as a committee member on countless dissertations, committee members who actually read dissertations are the exception rather than the rule.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.