Dr. E. Glynn Harmon (School of Information)

Dissertation Tips

E. Glynn HarmonBelow are a few pointers about selecting a dissertation topic and committee members, and pushing the dissertation through to successful completion. Please keep in mind that each situation tends to be unique, so these pointers need to be qualified and even challenged accordingly.

  1. Begin early to delineate your research interests and talents, even before you enter the doctoral program. Try to become familiar with the works of the relevant faculty members in your selected department or school. Note which faculty members seem to provoke the most thought or elicit your research passions. Attempt to get to know those faculty members by attending their seminars and lectures and meeting them face-to-face, particularly to see whether or not there might exist a potentially good "chemistry" between you and these potential mentors. Do these mentors have a reasonably successful record of guiding their students through their dissertations? Do the dissertations that these faculty members chaired inspire you to make a good contribution to knowledge? Would you be willing to join them in their research efforts, or might they be interested in the kind of dissertation topic you would like to undertake? Would you be a worthwhile collaborator from the faculty members' standpoint? How do other doctoral students feel about these particular faculty members?

  2. Try to pursue significant research topics. Will your research have theoretical relevance by unifying prior contributions, challenging old theories or building new ones? That is, would your problem, if solved, tie together large amounts of data, produce fresh insights, or go beyond prevailing conceptual approaches? Will your research attack problems that are apparently serious and pressing, or those that have long existed or frequently recurred? Would a solution to your problem have economic value, in that it would save considerable time, money or energy, or suggest a better allocation of resources? Will your results possess prognostic or predictive value?

  3. Thou shalt love thy topic! It is probably fair to say that many permanent ABDs acquired that status because they were not passionate about their research, or did not learn to make it a labor of love. Perhaps the right topical area is one that draws you so strongly that doing anything else becomes an annoyance. You might then want to concentrate on the dissertation day and night, as if nothing else mattered.

  4. Conduct thorough literature reviews. Some researchers find it necessary to do two or more literature reviews. A first review might be fairly broad, to scope out the breadth and depth of a potential topic and identify problem parameters. A second review might try to define the problem rigorously and isolate the best past studies that deal more specifically with the problem and provide clues about the effectiveness of various research methods and designs. Other reviews are usually necessary as research progresses, new insights occur, conclusions are substantiated and elaborated, and failures send one back to the drawing board. Encyclopedic and annual reviews help especially to parameterize problems, while journals and proceedings help to come closer to the front lines of research. Informal communications with leaders who are probing the research frontiers can provide approaches that might not be published in the near future. The Web of Science database can be useful throughout this process. Resist the temptation to merely summarize abstracts, or to rely excessively on Web site information in lieu of rigorous literature review.

  5. Ask the right question at the outset, and perhaps you have the job half done, an old saying goes. Often, the difficulties inherent in the initiation of inquiry are glossed over, and spurious problem statements result. Large amounts of data can be then be collected and analyzed, with the disappointing realization that you have pursued the wrong question. Rigorous problem definition requires copious literature review at the outset, along with the solicitation of early criticisms from advisors.

  6. Pilot studies might be regarded as a gift from God. With relatively little effort, one or more pilot probes can help better define a research problem, shape and refine the research design, collect and test sample data, and reach interesting preliminary conclusions. One can then try to make the final effort more cost effective by achieving a very low ratio of research cost (time, effort, money) to overall knowledge gain.

  7. Take advantage of available research software and other tools. Software and data gathering and analysis tools can be deployed to gather and organize stored bibliographic and numeric data, and to mine, gather, organize, and analyze primary qualitative and quantitative data. Specialized web sites and tools can likewise be helpful.

  8. Organize and schedule the dissertation effort. Some researchers find it useful to develop three critical path schedules: one for developing and dealing with the substantive problem; a second for dealing with the corresponding deployment of methods; and a third for managing the entire dissertation effort (coordinating with your committee, adhering to deadlines, etc.).

  9. Outline. Some dissertation writers have benefited by understanding the cognitive chunk limits of human short-term memory ( seven plus or minus two) and the impact of cognitive limits on knowledge production and representation. For example, writers might plan to write a dissertation of, say, 100 pages in length, exclusive of appendices. They can thus outline something like five chapters (7 minus 2) of 20 pages each (the introductory chapter, three chapters in the body, and a concluding chapter). Each chapter can then be factored into five sections of four pages each, and each section can consist of five or so paragraphs. This sectioning effort then provides the basis for doing several reasonably balanced trial outlines until one gets it right. That is, this approach seeks to provide a skeleton upon which to hang the content of the dissertation, and serves to break the overall task down into manageable chunks. The appropriate use of appendices can shorten the formal drafting effort.

  10. Edit your own work. Do not expect your chairperson or other committee members to edit your writing. Clean up after yourself. If you submit unedited drafts to your committee, each member will probably tend to fall automatically into the task of editing, and then turn the dissertation back to you without rendering much substantive criticism. Then, when you resubmit, the committee members might finally turn their attention to providing substantive criticism. The submission of unedited drafts can thus lead to successive re-submissions, and obviously slow the dissertation effort down considerably (and perhaps partially alienate your committee members along the way).

  11. Do not crash dissertation proposal or submission deadlines. Work systematically and continuously to give your committee and other dissertation officials enough time to review and approve your work. Your committee should not be compelled to treat your procrastination and your last-minute submission as their emergency. It might pay to defend a dissertation or proposal fairly early in the semester, when committees tend to be in a better mood (November and April tend to be stressful months for all). Summer might not be a bad time to defend your dissertation, provided committee members are available.

  12. If you appear to be getting interesting research results, plan to publish your dissertation findings, preferably in one or more top-level journals. Some students organize their dissertation into modules, so that each chapter can be redeveloped for publication. Or, consider converting the work into book format for submission to a top academic book publisher.

  13. Do not linger in the dissertation effort. Time is not necessarily your friend. Many things can go wrong during prolonged dissertation efforts, as many permanent ABDs can testify. Enthusiasm can wane (yours or other's) and money, health, emotional or family problems can arise. Your literature review and even your research design can become increasingly inadequate. Committee members can move away or fall prey to illness or death. The position that you accepted can become too demanding to make much dissertation progress; or you might not be as competitive in winning your dream position for want of a completed dissertation. Petitions to extend your doctoral candidacy might have to be filed, and prolonged tuition and fee payments can become burdensome. You incur economic opportunity costs when you delay re-entering the full-time or most optimal labor market. Perhaps speed is more of a friend.