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.
  1. Do 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Do 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 your dissertation.


THE TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR A DISSERTATION

  1. The creation of knowledge is thine only goal; thou shalt have no other goals before it.

  2. Thou shalt value research over teaching and publishing above all else.

  3. Thou shalt honor theory over the practical.

  4. Thou shalt not criticize thy chairperson's work.

  5. Thou shalt gratefully and humbly accept all criticism of thine own work.

  6. Thou shalt willingly share publications produced by your dissertation with your chair.

  7. Thy chairperson's ideological and theoretical prejudices shall be thy prejudices.

  8. Thou shalt not complain about poverty, family problems, or poor job prospects.

  9. Thou shalt read the literature, memorize the literature, and cite the literature on command.

  10. Thou shalt not break the commandments in the presence of thy chairperson.


THE FOUR DEADLY SINS

  1. The 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.

  2. The 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 alienate everyone.

  3. The sin of comparison. This undercuts motivation and leads to counterproductive competition and sloth. Everyone can win.

  4. The sin of procrastination. I'll discuss this next week.


ON SELECTING A COMMITTEE

  1. Choose professors with whom you get along personally. You will often need to rely on the compassion of committee members.

  2. Choose 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 ideas.

  3. Select professors who get along with each other. Even if they get along with you, feuding members will slow your progress.

  4. Choose professors who are genuinely interested in your dissertation topic and can provide you with technical help, especially in the area of data analysis.

  5. Choose professors who know how to balance their demand for academic rigor with your need for patience, assistance, and compassion.

  6. 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.

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