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.

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