Advice for Dissertation Advisors 3: Focus on the Practical Dimensions of Research Projects

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Generally speaking, this may be the least common of the “bad feedback” issues that I see, but it can be crushingly bad feedback. Many, many professors try to force their students to look at the practical dimensions of the project and try to get the students to do less. Almost every professor I ever worked with told me some variation of “do less,” and many students with whom I’ve worked have also been told to try to do less, so I know it’s no rare idea, but some students could really benefit from this advice.

I have two main suggestions here: 1. Get the students to reduce the scope of their project if possible and reasonable, and 2. Explicitly focus on the practical dimensions as a reason to make the project smaller in order to reduce the emotional impact of being told to do less. Some students take on too much work because their professors are not guiding them to a project of a reasonable scope; other students take on too much work because they are focused on creating the best intellectual work possible without sufficient attention to the practical concerns.

Set reasonable practical expectations for the study’s completion. Don’t encourage a project that will take many years! Don’t encourage something too far beyond the student’s abilities and experience. These seem like common sense, but I want to shake every dissertation advisor who ever encouraged a student to pursue a mixed-methods study regardless of that student’s inexperience in carrying out and completing a single-method study. There are students who are capable of doing a good mixed-methods study as a dissertation, and for whom it really makes sense. But, despite the value of mixed-methods research, it’s not good for dissertation writers who would struggle to carry out a single-method study. Almost everything that needs to be done for a single methods study needs to be done twice for a mixed-methods study.

In my previous post on advice for dissertation advisors, I said to focus on clearly defining the research purpose and research question because poorly defined questions were a major hurdle. For obvious reasons, research questions are a double hurdle for a mixed-methods study, where a research question needs to be defined for each method individually and also with respect to the purpose of the larger project. If a student can’t clearly define one research question, and doesn’t know how to align a research question with a research method, then trying to do a mixed-methods study will only muddy the waters, even granting that the two individual methods are being used together to illuminate a single larger question. If completing one study well is hard, completing two research studies simultaneously in a way that they do a good job of complementing and supporting each other is a lot harder.

Another problem that I see too often is students trying to do a quantitative study that requires the development of their own instrument. This can be fine, if expectations for checking the quality of the instrument are low, but that reduces the value of the research. But doing all the work to validate and check reliability of a quantitative instrument can be a full project in itself—indeed commonly used instruments typically go through many different tests, each of which is a project of sufficient scope to be a dissertation. Again, there are students who are able to do all this, but for students who are struggling, you can help them by getting them to either find an established instrument, or to focus on the design and testing of a new instrument.

There are important pragmatic concerns that may be obvious, but may be worth making explicit. Pointing out that a ten-year longitudinal study wouldn’t be good for a dissertation might help a student decide to focus on shorter-term questions. This concern for practical dimension is also an issue of emotional guidance. A lot of students are ambitious and they want to answer large-scale, meaningful questions, and when professors suggest smaller projects, the students feel a sense of loss because of the desire to answer something larger. Choosing to work on a very limited project can feel like a betrayal of ambition.

The emotional impact of suggesting a reduction of scope can often be reduced by focusing on and asking about the project in practical terms—what steps/actions will they take? How long will that take? What will they do if that takes longer than planned? Highlighting the real practical costs of a project can both reduce the distress related to reducing scope and, when combined with specific pragmatic questions, can help them make incremental progress in defining their project. If you focus on the practical dimensions, you may not even need to say “make the project smaller,” because they’ll start to face their own limitations as they proceed. A student who starts thinking about waiting for the completion of a longitudinal study might think again, and a student thinking of recruiting thousands, might wonder if there’s a study that would work with only hundreds, or dozens. Of course, facing one’s own limitations can be frustrating and disappointing, so it’s not out of line to remind students that all research is limited by practical concerns.

Research requires real, practical resources—time, money, effort, equipment, and more—and graduate students rarely have those in great abundance. Economic resources should not become the barrier that prevents a qualified and capable student from completing a dissertation. Focusing on these practical dimensions can help students better define a project they can complete in a reasonable time and can reduce the emotional sting of reducing the scope of inquiry.