Choosing a Doctoral Thesis
post # 180 — September 1, 2006 — a Careers post
Since people know that I used to be a university professor, and that I have a specialty field (professional businesses) I get quite a few emals and letters from doctoral students asking me to suggest thesis topics.
They want to know what CEOs or managing partners would find interesting, what the researchable and challenging issues are.
My reply always surprises them.
I point out that the only purpose of thesis is to get your doctorate degree approved. By very definition, your thesis wll be the worst piece of research you will ever do.
Furthermore, no-one in the real world ever pays attention to a doctoral thesis, so you shouldn’t even try to design it with their interests in mind.
What academics care about and what real-worrld people care about are two different things, and the ONLY people who can graduate you and let you get on with your life are your thesis committee — your professors.
The job of a doctoral student is to forget what the world finds interesting and to focus with a laser-like beam on what the thesis committee thinks is interesting and worthwhile. If yoy’re getting a doctorate, you’re in academia and you MUST play the academic game.
And the whole game is won or lost at the thesis proposal stage. Here’s where you have to deploy your sophisticated negotiating skills.
You have to make sure that what your professors think would be a worthwhile and interesting piece of research is actually doable. So, you have to bargain (subtly, deferentially and with an appropraite amount of grovelling) until you get a contract that says “If I do these things as the research, then, no matter what I find, you’ll sign the completed theis, right?”
Then you fulfil your contract, graduate and only then begin to care about what the real world finds interesting and would consider helpful research (if you still want to do any after your first taste of it.)
Carl A. Singer said:
Perhaps a bit cynical in tone — but right on.
I’m 30 years post my PhD but I do recall that among the drivers was to determine the shortest, surest path from here to there — “here” being I think I know my stuff and I’m learning lots from my professors and my comps (comprehensive exams) are behind me, and “there” being finish my thesis, get my degree and get on with life. This meant checking one’s ego at the door and, more importantly considering your advisor as key member of your “get it done” team.
One of the four members of my dissertation committee was a true mentor. A second a partly interested participant. The two others were on as a courtesy to my mentor.
I definitely agree with the focus on the proposal and its importance. In my experience the dynamic was that, to a great extent, I wrote my proposal in cooperation with my mentor. It’s here that lots of give-and-take negotiation and communication was important. I’m reminded of the legal adage (courtesy my son who’s finishing law school) — a lawyer never asks a witness a question unless he (the lawyer) knows what the witness’ answer will be.
I think it would be foolish brinksmanship to get to the point of submitting a thesis proposal without, similarly, knowing how it wil be received.
posted on September 1, 2006