What is a good dissertation? (3)

Another consideration in the “good dissertation is a done dissertation” context is what it means to finish a research project.  Speaking abstractly, every research project has limitations.  There are limits to what can practically be accomplished, so compromises are made.  For example, a sample of data is gathered, rather than collecting data for an entire population. And beyond the immediate practical limitations, there are the new questions that all good research will inspire—questions about the implications of current findings or the ways to address limitations in the current study. All of this is to say that any one specific research project is part of a larger web of issues and questions, and the limits set on that project are not set by any abstract logic, but rather by the decisions of a researcher.

Think of it this way: let’s say you start with a research question X.  The question is complex, however, and it can be meaningfully analyzed into a number of separate issues, X1, X2,…XN. If your goal is to find an answer to X, then that goal is approached by finding answers to X1, X2,…XN.  But this leads to the question: do you have to find answers to all of X1, X2,…XN to have a “good” project?  Consider, for example, the question of mixed-methods research. The premise of such research is that the different methods invoked give additional perspective and insight into an issue.  The question I ask, however, is whether the studies done with the different methods can be presented as a series of interdependent projects that support each other.

If every research project leaves behind new questions, how do you decide when one project stops and another begins?  If you’re thinking about doing X1, X2,…XN to finish your dissertation, can you just do X1, get the degree, and then pursue X2,…XN as a doctor rather than as a student?

What is a good dissertation? (2)

While working on these good dissertation posts (of which this is the second of three), I looked at a few other sources on the web, and I found a blog post by a doctoral student who complained about how the expression “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” angered her and how it felt like it was something of an invitation to lower the quality of her work.  The post struck a chord, because her emotion mirrored what I often felt getting similar advice when I was working on my own dissertation.  It seemed to me like a gross violation of the concern for doing good work.

My view has changed over the years, however.  One factor that has driven that change has been an increasing respect for an idea I got from Laurence Sterne, the 18th century author, who once wrote (I paraphrase) that a bad letter on time is better than a good letter late.

In a way, finishing projects and meeting schedules are a set of skills in their own right—an ability to make practical compromises that are still theoretically and qualitatively acceptable.  The temporal factor is hugely important.  It matters for the audience: what is new and interesting to a person at a certain time may not seem as interesting or compelling five years later.  It certainly matters for the writer/researcher: the longer you spend writing your dissertation, the less time you have for other things.

This is all contextual, of course: someone who is working productively and is generally on schedule ought to focus on maintaining the highest quality possible rather than on just finishing as quickly as possible. But someone who has gotten stuck? For such people, it’s pretty valuable to start thinking about how to limit the scope of the project and focus on “just finishing”.

What is a good dissertation? (1)

There is a common saying in academia: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation.” It’s a claim that is a little cryptic to me because it can be interpreted in a few ways.  Is it saying that if it is good, then it will be done (i.e., accepted)? Or is it saying that if it is done, then it is necessarily good? 

I don’t want to get lost in debating the finer points of how that phrase could be interpreted, but rather to focus on the idea of a “good dissertation.”  What is a good dissertation?  By what standards or criteria do we say “it’s good?”  Phrasing the question that way, however, focuses on abstract criteria and obscures a crucial reality: research projects (including dissertations) are not matched up against abstract criteria in an abstract context, they are evaluated by individuals.  And different individuals hold different standards.

If you’re writing a dissertation, your standards are certainly the first to which you ought to refer.  If you hope to do original research, you need to start by trusting yourself and believing in your own judgement.  But, of course, self-evaluation is a tricky thing and it’s pretty easy to get lost in self-doubt.  

Because self-evaluation is difficult, it can be useful to rely on the evaluations of others, particularly the evaluations of professors with whom you work.  Speaking generally, you do not want your professors’ views to wipe away your own, but when it comes to saying whether the work is good enough, that’s a good time to take their views over your own. If your professors are satisfied, why push beyond that before getting your degree? And, in a way, the most important time to listen to your professors with respect to “good” is when you’re setting the limits of your project, because people who object to “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” often do so because they are ambitious (and ambition is good, in appropriate measure), which leads to trying to carry out projects that are large and difficult.