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Passion, People and Principles

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.)

Good luck!


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

Warren Miller, ASA, CPA said:

For one who intends to spend a life in academe, I agree with both David and Carl. There are times to stand on principle, but the choice of dissertation topic ain’t one of ‘em. That said, however, I think there is another group of us out here that could use some guidance.

I refer to those of us who have vast experience in business who are looking to try to contribute to the knowledge in our professional fields by doing a doctorate. Call us “non-traditional Ph.D./DBA students,” if you will.

U.S. Ph.D. programs, I think it’s fair to say, tend to include a certain level of hazing and socialization. These are part of the ritual that accompanies a rite of passage. Those of us in late middle age don’t need socialization, and we’ve probably already experienced more hazing than any group of academics could ever conceive.

Therefore, we look towards Europe. I’m no expert on the subject of relative differences between U.S. doctoral programs and those on the Continent. My sense, however, is that the former tend towards more rigor and more coursework, while the latter tend to be an all-or-none roll of the dice on the dissertation. In other words, in the U.S. process takes precedence, while in Europe it’s the outcome that matters. That is not to say the thesis stateside doesn’t matter. Of course, it does.

In my own case, I have contemplated a part-time DBA program at the Copenhagen Business School (CBS). It is aimed at late-career business professionals with an academic bent. That describes several colleagues and me perfectly.

The ringer is that CBS and others (e.g., the University of Manchester) require what I believe is the equivalent of a thesis proposal prior to being accepted into the program. Though they say that these need only run about 5 pages, I believe it’s virtually impossible to compress a proposal into so few pages.

Here’s my question for both of you guys, since you both have Ph.D.s: If you were 62 (as I am), well-published (as I am – Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management Executive, and numerous publications in my profession), and both frustrated and intrigued by some unanswered questions that themselves are too broad for a thesis (as I am), how would you wrestle with the proposal issue I have described?

Many thanks in advance to both of you and any others who care to comment.

posted on September 2, 2006

Warren Miller, ASA, CPA said:

Forgot to mention: these European programs are aimed at part-time doctoral students. Much of it is “distance learning,” though there is time required on-site. Sorry I omitted this important piece of the puzzle.

posted on September 2, 2006

Thomas M. Box said:

David, Carl & Warren —

I read, with considerable interest, your suggestions regarding a dissertation topic and, Warren, your quite valid question regarding regarding the relative merits of US and European schools. I, too, am a late -in-life academic. I didn’t finish my bacalaureate until age 40. The Ph.D. was awarded at the age of 54. My reason for getting a Ph.D. was that although I had led a fairly interesting life — a member of the finest military force in the world (for those who don’t know, that’s the USMC), bartender, iron worker, union steward, plant manager, Vice President – Operations, etc. — I discovered as an adjunct that I enjoyed teaching.

On reflection, if I had to do it again, I would approach the process of getting a Ph.D. as a series of sequential steps that could best be understood and mastered by employing Goldratt’s Theory of Constriants. It occurs to me that the initial blocking constraint is the proposal step (assuming satisfactory completion of course work and comps). So, how to elevate the constraint? Warren, in your case I might be tempted to write a short (perhaps only five pages) description of the work you have already done on the RBV of the firm and a preliminary idea or two about testing the efficacy of the model. Pitch that to Copenhagen and see what the reaction is.

posted on September 2, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thomas, what’s Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints? What’s an RBV?

Warren, what’s an ASA (American Society of Actuaries?) and are we all going to start listing our degrees and qualifications on this blog? Could be a mess!

If I understand it, you’ve got two questions here, Warren. First, the pros and cons of getting a Ph.D in Europe v. US. Second, how that choice affects writing the proposal.

On the first question, I think you need to be honest with yourself about your motivations. You are correct (or at least you would have been in my day) that US Ph. D. programs have course requirements. Which is great if you really want to learn some new stuff, or if you are really new to the field, but a real pain if you’re just trying to get the qualification.

You also have to ask about the brand value of the institution you get your Ph. D. from. (which turns on your motivaations.) It counts for a HUGE amount. If you were younger, you’d have many subsequent decades of people aasking “Where did you get your Ph. D.?” Doing it as a mature student, maybe that won’t matter to you.

I do think a thesis proposal – which after all is nothing more than a description of some research you plan to do – can be done in 5 pages. In fact, I would argue that all thesis proposals are less than 5 pages, it’s just that some have 40 to 50 more pages of pading around them to either cover the insecurities of the applicant or flatter the reader.

Strip it down. “I plan to test whether the following hypotheses can be validated by collecting the following data in the following way and applying the following methodolgies and tests to interpret the data.”

How’s that?

posted on September 2, 2006

Warren Miller said:

Thank you, David. Sorry for the credential letters. Force of habit. FWIW, ASA stands for ‘Accredited Senior Appraiser’ (my professional specialty is appraising private equity); the credential is sponsored by the American Society of Appraisers. RBV stands for the ‘resource-based view’ of the firm, an important concept in the strategic-management field. (Eliyahu) Goldratt’s ‘theory of constraints’ comes from The Goal, a work of fiction that has achieved quasi-cult status among knowledgeable manufacturing professionals; it’s about eliminating bottlenecks in related processes.

I appreciate what you say about the importance of the institution from which one gets one’s Ph.D. I believe that the caste system in India was modeled after the one in the American academic community. :-)

At my station in life, I am motivated far more by knowledge and new learning than I am by just having a terminal degree. However, I am not in a position to wave good-bye to our small business and hunker down full-time in a doctoral program somewhere. That makes a part-time program mandatory, at least for me. I am not aware of any truly fine part-time Ph.D. programs in America. With respect for those who teach in such programs, Nova Southeastern seems to be the best of a not-great lot.

I do appreciate your thoughts about a proposal of less than 5 pages. Cutting to the hypthesis chase, so to speak, is sensible. It appears to omit the hypothesis-development process that, in my view, would point towards a longer document. I’ll try it and let you know how it goes.

I certainly wish there was a high-quality part-time Ph.D. program stateside. If you or anyone else is aware of any, I’d appreciate a note to wdm@beckmill.com. My field is strategic management with a heavy finance bent.

Many thanks, David. Sorry for the initials.

posted on September 3, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Let’s hope someone is reading and can help with a suggestion on a stateside part-time Ph. D.

But, the thought occurs that if you’re going to cut to the chase of doing the thesis (ie doing all the work yourself) and you don’t need the imprimatur of a brand name, then won’t ANY program do?

What do you mean ewhen you say “a truly fine” part-time Ph. D.? What does truly fine mean to you here? What do you need to get from the school / institution?

posted on September 3, 2006

Tomas M. Box said:

David – Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints is a remarkable managerial philosophy that in a very general sense facilitates the solution of constrained production problems….but it can be applied much more broadly to administrative processes, marketing processes, indeed almost anything that can be described as a series of discrete steps. The original reference is a book (a very unusual book) by Dr. Goldratt (called The Goal). A complete quick read of the process can be found in The Theory of Constraints by Eli Schgragenheim and published by Lionheart Publishing.

RBV (Resource Based View) is Jay Barney’s contribution to strategic management. It differs appreciably from th “positioning school” of Porter et al. An early book of his is Gaining and Sustaining Competitive Advantage. It was published in 1997 by Addison Wesley.

posted on September 3, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks. I used to be in the flow of keeping up with this stuff – now I need to know what I need to know. Your guidance helps.

posted on September 3, 2006

Warren Miller said:

For me, David, a “truly fine” Ph.D./DBA program means a program (a) with professors/advisors who publish in “A” journals; (b) that recognizes that the chasm that currently exists between academe and business does neither community any good; (c) with professors who recognize that the only useful dissertation is a finished dissertation; and (d) where professors don’t feel a compulsion to haze or put down a doctoral student who has enjoyed significant publishing success before coming into the program. Does that help at all? Thanks for your patience and great questions.

posted on September 3, 2006