Developing a Dissertation Strategy

by | September 10, 2012

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you rely on your past successes to determine your future means of action? How often do we utilize a task utilizing an approach that is known to us, only to find the approach is inadequate for the situation?

In dissertation, this is quite common. From the early days of our conceptualizing the study to the time we implement the research and draw our conclusions, we look to utilize the tools we know and understand. For many, this knowledge and understanding comes from our prior dissertation coursework, our professional experiences, or even the feedback we have received from our faculty colleagues. For some, this yields exceptional results. And yet for others, it is this approach that limits our growth and development as researchers. In the past, I’ve shared the works of Barbara Lovitts and her effort to clarify for students the difference in creating knowledge (such as a dissertation) versus the demonstration of knowledge. Knowing the two are distinctly different, how do we take the skills, experiences and attributes we’ve acquired over the years towards adopting a new strategy? Here are some initial thoughts for your consideration:

Articulate your situation. Too often we begin our actions without thinking about the specifics of the situation. It is a common error to blend what we know and what we understand. As students of our craft, all of us bring forward a wealth of knowledge. Volumes of books, boxes of journal articles, reams of personal interviews and discussions with others, years of professional experience and more all contribute to our knowledge base. And yet, it is possible to acquire such materials and still not understand the problem, is it not? To adopt a new strategy, therefore, requires us to first sift through our knowledge and work towards articulating what we do and do not understand.

Learn to question differently. When we struggle, it is quite normal to want answers to our questions. In dissertation, we seek the sage counsel from those around us. At times, this is quite satisfying and our mentor or our advisor, our committee or our colleagues point us back on the path commonly traveled. Other times, we find the answers only contribute to our frustration and confusion and we are left wondering, “They don’t understand” or “I already know that.” Rather than starting an effort with finding answers, try to reframe your questions. Finding your own answers will always prove more satisfying and moreover, it challenges us to think about what is contributing to our challenges.

Purposefully explore the unknown. To adopt a new strategy acknowledges that the old approach is insufficient. Take the time to utilize new resources, new techniques, or converse with new people towards gaining new perspective. Force yourself into the unknown territory or to utilize an unfamiliar approach. In research, this is quite satisfying. For example, how often do you go to the library and utilize the same databases or the same search terms only to yield articles you already possessed. Low and behold, you utilize a new term or explore a new database and find a number of previously unfound articles relevant to your research interest. Whether your means of researching or writing or thinking, adopt new techniques and explore new tools to broaden your approach.

Build on your strengths. The beauty of doctoral education, we all come to the table with strengths in our research. Whether you are an exceptional writer, a masterful researcher, a knowledgeable statistician, an articulate communicator, a knowledgeable subject matter expert, or a critical thinker; you bring to the table unique attributes that can help advance your effort. Adopting a strategy that highlights your strengths will yield good outcomes. It is important to articulate your strengths to your colleagues, however, in an effort to collaborate on how you plan to overcome your deficiencies.

Be thoughtful about the kind of researcher you are today and the kind of researcher you want to be as a PhD. To get from Point A to Z, it is important to adopt a strategy that capitalizes on your deep repertoire of knowledge, understanding and experiences, but adopt one which challenges your intellectual preferences to be ever-changing.