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What is a Ph.D. dissertation?
by Joseph Gatt
2014-11-14 12:16:48
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I get a lot of emails from people wondering what to write for their Ph.D. dissertation. So I compiled my list of Do's and Don'ts when writing a Ph.D. dissertation. The list is in order of the frequency of the mistakes I see.

DON'T come up with a conclusion before even doing the research for your paper or your dissertation. 99% emails I get tell me their conclusions before even starting their research. For example they tell me they are going to prove that the United States funded ISIS, that they have proof that a 1% tax on the rich could feed the rest of the world population forever, that the reason education standards are dropping is because students play too many games.

There's basically four main types of research: statistical analysis, documents analysis, field work and experiments. If you decide your conclusion before even deciding your research methods, it's very likely that you will collect data in ways that will support your conclusion and overlook other basic factors.

You should review the documents, conduct the interviews, conduct the field work or the experiment first, then analyze the information you gathered before coming up with conclusions.

DO review the literature after your decide a topic. A lot of times you will have an idea for research that has already been thoroughly studied and examined, and the conclusions form a consensus among the academic community. If you decide to do research on the satisfaction of workers in the construction industry, you should know that there are hundreds of papers that have been written on the topic. You should read those papers and decide to be more specific: for example the satisfaction of workers in the construction industry in the state of Kansas.

DON'T pitch ideas to your adviser before doing the review of literature and deciding on the methodology. Inevitably your adviser will tell you your study is not feasible unless you have a review of literature and a methodology.

DON'T come up with your own methodology. You can mix several methodologies that have been tested and proved, but you should at least read a few books about methodology before coming up with one.

DON'T do it for the glory. One of the most salient points that come out in emails I receive is that Ph.D. students (especially men) want to write their dissertation for the glory. They come up with fancy buzz words and acronyms for their "theory" that they will try to sell. The problem is their "theory" often overlooks and omits basic factors that anyone can point out. Be thorough, don't omit simple facts, and do it for the curiosity rather than for the glory.

DO plan to write your dissertation for about two years. 6 months for the methodology and review of literature, one year to collect the data and 6 months to analyze the data and write down the findings is rather ambitious but about right. After two years you will get sick of your dissertation and will want to move on to a new topic. 

DO apply for funds. Once your review of literature is done and your methodology is chosen, there are many sources of funding available. Google them up, apply for them. A grant always looks good on a resume and will help alleviate the financial burden of collecting data.

DO present preliminary findings at conferences. You will find out that a lot of people are actually interested in your research. Last time about 30 people came listen to my preliminary findings, which was very encouraging given they had the option to listen to 8 other talks and that it was 9 AM in the morning.

DO ask for feedback and listen to the feedback at conferences. People will often give you ideas to expand your research or point out things you overlooked. If you have 20 minutes to present, present the main findings in 15 minutes and spend the next 5 minutes taking feedback. Skip things like methodology and review of literature during your talks, and move straight to the conclusions.

DO make friends at conferences, preferably professors who can serve as friends and advisers. If you befriend professors who have their Ph.D.s they can give you advice on your dissertation and your job hunt. They can also provide a second opinion and often confirm what your adviser says.

DO keep your relationship with your adviser cordial. Your adviser has a lot more experience doing research than you do and often knows what is right. You don't have to consult with him on every detail, and should come with at least 50 pages of your dissertation before you ask for feedback.


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Emanuel Paparella2014-11-14 23:09:38
In the informative piece above which lists the mistakes in the the writing of a Ph.D. dissertation, there is a consideration that is glaringly missing, namely whether or not it may be a mistake to even begin a Ph.D. program, considering that, at least in the US, only 57% of doctoral candidates end up obtaining their Ph.D. degree.

But there are even more sobering statistics: in the US the medium time lapse to obtain a Ph.D. in the humanities is 9 years; there are some 34,000 Ph.D. candidates that apply for food stamps every year; the average debt of those who obtain or try to obtain a Ph.D. is $37,000; the non-tenure track positions in colleges now account for 68% of all faculty appointments; more than 50% of all faculty are part-timers; jobs for Ph.Ds; even outside academia jobs are scarce. If those statistics do not give you pause, perhas the advice of Lynn O’Sahughnessy of CBS is also worth pondering: “You can’t eat glory and prestige, but you can write obscure papers called dissertations that only a handful of people will read,” and also this: “If you are smart enough to earn a Ph.D. you are smart enough not to pursue one,” which is another way of saying what Mr. Hadid has already said above: do not pursue a Ph.D. for the glory but for genuine curiosity always keeping in mind the above sobering caveats.

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