GRADUATE STUDENT SURVIVAL GUIDE
What every doctoral student should know
THE DISSERTATION DECATHLON
Picking a Topic – When considering a topic, test it with the following questions.
I really have an interest in the topic? This is the most fundamental
question. If you are going to devote several years of your life to “The
Role of Inductive Thinking in Kindergarten Dropouts,” you’d best have
an ardent interest in inductive thinking. And in kindergarten dropouts.
Graduate students’ interests can shift quickly. Your ability to sustain
your interest is the single most important factor in determining
whether or not you finish.
How long will it take me to finish?
Estimate the absolute maximum amount of time you can stand to remain a
student. Then figure as precisely as possible how much time it will
take you to complete the proposed project if everything goes according
to plan. Triple it.
Is this topic being forced on me?
Professors love to have their students research topics that are of no
interest to them. Look deep into your professor’s soul. Think
carefully; if you are being manipulated and don’t really have an
interest, slide out.
Is it possible to conduct this study? Every
field has fascinating questions that have never been answered because
they are impossible to answer with the available methods and
technology. Think about why other researchers haven’t attempted your
topic. If it falls into the mission impossible category, see if there
is a simpler, related problem or piece of the question you could answer
without biting off the whole thing.
Do I have the resources to
conduct the research? Don’t underestimate the expense of conducting
research both in time and money. Not to mention hassle. Students are
always unpleasantly surprised at just what it costs to have their
dissertations typed, copied, and bound. Not to mention duplicating
countless drafts, photocopying articles, postage. Do a budget.
I have the necessary background and expertise to handle my topic? If
your question is such that it will require hierarchical linear modeling
and you have a tenuous hold on the eternal mysteries of the t-test,
it’s time for self-reflection.
Is my topic timely, and is it
likely to remain so (at least in the near future)? By the time you
complete your course work and pass your orals, you may find that your
topic has lost its luster.
Can I get the faculty support I need?
No one completes a dissertation without substantial support from the
faculty. If a faculty member does not have an active interest and
expertise in your specialty, you may be in trouble. Besides not being
able to help, professors’ lack of knowledge about your project may
cause them to demand the impossible or insist on things that are
detrimental to the study. If your advisor isn’t interested in your
topic or simply doesn’t have the time for you, look around for someone
who is and does.
Does my topic have career potential? The career
potential of a topic is hard to predict. Academia is fickle. Topics to
avoid are such things as rehashing your advisor’s dissertation or
picking up topics that have recently gone out of vogue. Ask yourself if
valuable articles can be drawn from your dissertation. Remember that,
when you interview for a position, you will need to make a
presentation, and it is likely that this presentation will deal with
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR A DISSERTATION
The creation of knowledge is thine only goal; thou shalt have no other goals before it.
Thou shalt value research over teaching and publishing above all else.
Thou shalt honor theory over the practical.
Thou shalt not criticize thy chairperson’s work.
Thou shalt gratefully and humbly accept all criticism of thine own work.
Thou shalt willingly share publications produced by your dissertation with your chair.
Thy chairperson’s ideological and theoretical prejudices shall be thy prejudices.
Thou shalt not complain about poverty, family problems, or poor job prospects.
Thou shalt read the literature, memorize the literature, and cite the literature on command.
Thou shalt not break the commandments in the presence of thy chairperson.
THE FOUR DEADLY SINS
sin of stubbornness. The irrational refusal to make any changes or
accept criticism from any source. While this may merely alienate your
fellow graduate students, it can be fatal when dealing with your
committee. Remember that professors are like the IRS; when they examine
something, they are determined to find something wrong.
sin of compliancy. This is the willingness to do anything that your
committee asks. They will then think you are immature and lack good
judgment. Or spunk. By trying to please everyone you are more likely to
The sin of comparison. This undercuts motivation and leads to counterproductive competition and sloth. Everyone can win.
The sin of procrastination. I’ll discuss this next week.
ON SELECTING A COMMITTEE
Choose professors with whom you get along personally. You will often need to rely on the compassion of committee members.
professors who have time for you and who are interested in you, in your
welfare, and in your work. Your work cannot evaluate itself. Find
people who will guide, evaluate, edit your writing, and critique your
Select professors who get along with each other. Even if they get along with you, feuding members will slow your progress.
professors who are genuinely interested in your dissertation topic and
can provide you with technical help, especially in the area of data
Choose professors who know how to balance their demand
for academic rigor with your need for patience, assistance, and
Choose professors who may be able to help you with
your career after graduation. Hard as it seems to believe, there is a
life after the dissertation.
With thanks to Richard W. Moore, who wrote the wonderful Winning the PHD Game.
One last word:
If you’re smart enough to get a PhD,
you ought to be smart enough to know how to get a PhD.