Mason A. Carpenter
Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
PhD Strategic Management, UT, Management Department, 1997
Supervisor: Jim Fredrickson
1. Persist -- If you have not chosen a dissertation topic yet, spend some time drafting abstracts (300 words or less) of what you would like the outcome of your dissertation to look like. This process will force you to put ideas in writing and structure them coherently. While you may discard many of them, it is just as important to know what you will not be studying as it is to know what you will study in the dissertation. If you are dissertating, touch the dissertation at least twice a day, every day. This may mean formatting a table, revising and introduction, or even adding citations. The critical thing is to invest in the dissertation every day -- it works just like compound interest.
2. Unique data -- The best dissertations, including the research that eventually flows out of them, are unique. This does not mean that every data point is unique, though in rare cases this may be true. In contrast, the best strategy is to have three to five datapoints that are very unique -- meaning that it took time and effort and perhaps some unique skills to compile. You then couple these unique data points with a larger public data set. The combination is unique in and of itself, which gives you a competitive advantage.
3. Use time as a weapon -- Touching your dissertation twice a day is the start of this advantage. Another facet is to manage short turn-arounds with your dissertation advisor. This means that you revise your document in response to advisor and committee member comments in about a week. If the comments require extensive revisions, then the turnaround should be no more than a month. This quick, iterative process will raise the probability that your committee members are engaged and supportive of your dissertation.
4. Sweat the details -- While you want to be quick, you also want to be precise. Sloppy writing will suggest to your committee members that (a) you may have been sloppy elsewhere and (b) you do not value their time enough to take the dissertation seriously. If you need to hire a copy editor to make this happen then do it. A dissertation is not a senior thesis -- it is an investment in frontier-shifting basic R&D that requires all the resources that you can marshal.
5. Take teaching seriously -- Increasingly, teaching skills will break the tie in a hiring decision between two comparably talented researchers. Because new grads have relatively little research track record (and what does exist is often confounded by the fact that it is work co-authored with an advisor or more senior colleague), evidence of teaching interest and skills weighs heavily in the portfolio. This does not mean that you have to teach a lot in your PhD program. Instead it means that you can communicate your ability to develop a class from scratch, teach it in a way that students find meaningful, and learn from your successes and failures to improve later iterations of that course and unrelated courses. One of my strategies in this area was to develop a teaching toolkit. You are welcome to draw on these tools with the understanding that I would appreciate suggestions about new tools as you come across them.