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, youÂ 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.Â How long do you suppose it will take to finish your dissertation?
Here is the typicalÂ 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.
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.
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.Â It may take 200-300Â 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 withÂ 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.
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.Â 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.
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.