Dissertation Committees: Making More Transparent

I call this my third act as a qualitative researcher working in academia. In my first act, I was part of a Leadership in Education program; in my second I was a methodologist serving all programs; and in my third act I am part of a new Ph.D. in Research and Evaluation in Education (REE). In my first act I served as chair for multiple Ed.D. dissertations, primarily in Leadership in Education, as well as serving as a committee member on Leadership and other Ed.D. dissertations. In my second act, I served as a member, not a chair of Ed.D. committees. Now, in my third act, I am serving as a chair of Ph.D. dissertations in REE, as well as a member of REE dissertations and other Ph.D. and Ed.D. dissertations. I include all this detail to let the reader know that, as far as dissertations go, this is not my first rodeo.

In my first act as a dissertation chair or member, I felt like I was trying to learn the form, as it existed in my institution, which resembled the classic social scientific, American Psychological Association expectations. Along with learning the form I had to figure out how in the heck this form was going to fit the qualitative dissertations with which I was working. It was always an awkward fit.

In my second act, as a committee member I was a supporting actor, offering my best advice and letting the chair do the heavy lifting in regard to form.

Now, in my third act, I know what has been the accepted form, and I have seen it from many angles. There are some things I like about it—like the clean, sharp logic of setting up a good argument, or the rush I get when I read a literature review that is thoughtful and shows real deep digging. However, there is a lot I don’t like—the formulaic expectations and the lack of personalization to name a few.

Despite all this experience with dissertations, I was recently surprised to realize I had never questioned the way the dissertation committee is rhetorically positioned vis-à-vis the dissertation. The position of the committee was like a black box that I never unpacked. We signed a membership pact as the dissertation got started. We pulled the strings in the background. Then at the end we signed-off, as it is called. We probably got a line in the acknowledgements, but the dissertation itself was supposed to be the student’s independent work, whatever that means.

As I thought more about the comparison to the notion of project, this suddenly seemed like a very strange way to approach a complex project. When one applies for a grant, you assemble a good team, and you share their credentials with the funder. You describe the individual in the narrative, include a biography in the appendices, and give them a percent as a line item in the budget! This information helps the funder make the decision about the goodness or fit of the team to doing this project.

In doing a dissertation proposal, on the other hand, the fit of the credentials, the expected contribution of the committee members, the role of the chair, and the way they will work together with the individual doing the dissertation is not declared.

Thinking about this got me to imaging a different scenario. What if when a dissertation committee is formed, in addition to the proposal as it currently stands, the dissertation committee and the individual conducting the dissertation came together to craft a kind of work agreement that would include:

  • Timeline for the components of the dissertation
  • Information on the special contributions for which each member was selected (with brief bio included
  • Expectations for the workload of each member
  • Procedures for interacting, reviewing, etc.

This would be attached to the proposal as an addendum.

Not sure how it would be worked into the dissertation—but it could be useful information.

I encounter many doctoral students who are baffled about how to get started on the final stage of their work—the dissertation. They have never done it before (conducted a dissertation) and don’t really know what a dissertation committee is and how they are supposed to work with it. Are we purposefully leaving them in the dark by not making this process more transparent?

As things stand today—how do they know what to expect of their dissertation chair…or the committee members? How do they know if they are holding up to their side of the bargain?

Perhaps it is time to let go of the medieval apprenticeship model (think of Mickey Mouse and the Sorcer’s Apprentice!) and move into a more business-like approach.

Japanese painting and calligraphy–from Wikipedia Commons

What is a dissertation? What is a project?

Japanese Calligraphy–from Wikipedia Commons

What is a dissertation? You’ve got me, and I’ve been at this for some time. Almost 20 years into helping people write their dissertations and I feel like I am more confused than ever. So, as I often do when facing confusion—I turned to Wikipedia, which defines it as:


[A dissertation is…] a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author’s research and findings…

They also say that a dissertation is a research monograph and is generally in the form of a research monograph.

An ordinary monograph has a title page, an abstract, a table of contents, comprising the various chapters (e.g., introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion), and a bibliography or (more usually) a references section.

Yes, it’s true, I was right—this is the form the world accepts as the dissertation. I love the logic of a good argument, but I am less and less in love with this form and the language in which it is presented.

When I graduated from my doctoral program in 1995 from the University of Illinois, I thought that the rigid form and writing style of the classic dissertation would be of short duration. Little did I know I would still be teaching it in 2017.

Recently in working on my “complex teams in qualitative research project”, I had cause to look up the definition of project. I had worked on many projects, but now I needed a formal definition, which I found at the Project Management Institute, the guru of organizations on the topic.

“…[a] temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.” (Inserted from http://www.pmi.org/en/About-Us/About-Us-What-is-Project-Management.aspx)

Reviewing this definition made me realize that one reason I don’t like the way we use the term “dissertation” is that we conflate everything into that one word—the process, the product, the committee, the rising researcher. Everything is symbolized by that one little research monograph.

What would happen, I have been asking myself, if we stopped calling it a dissertation and started calling it a project…and adhered to the appropriate definition of project?  What are the implications of making that one change in wording? Here are some ideas:

-it might shift the style of the proposal

-it could lead to a description of the dissertation committee within the document; and accountability for the committee work as opposed to focusing accountability of the student

-it would allow doctoral students to practice writing an up-to-date document, rather than a more archaic writing form

-it would allow for the inclusion of multiple products as part of the dissertation outcome, not just the one research monograph

In future posts I am going to follow up on some of these ideas.

Complex Teams and Qualitative Research


There were many pathways that led me to Qualitative Research Reconstructed (QR-R?). Certainly one was my recent project examining the issues of complex teams and qualitative research. The outcome of this work is a book that will be published by Oxford University Press sometime in the near future, but more to the point of this blog—identifying and raising to the fore my concerns about complex teams and qualitative research was yet another way I became aware of my interests in reconstructing qualitative research at its roots.

One of the great things about taking on a new project is the way it sometimes focuses light on earlier thinking that was lost in the someplace in the scuffle of other work. Although my meandering into this area was sparked by work on multiple experiences with teams, I was half way through the manuscript when I suddenly connected the dots in a new and deeper way through making connections to “the interpretive zone”, writing I had done at the end of graduate school with friend and mentor Liora Bresler (Wasser & Bresler, 1996).

In this piece, “Working in the Interpretive Zone: Conceptualizing Collaboration in Qualitative Research Teams”, we examined the interpretive processes of a qualitative research team of which Bresler was the leader and I was a member. We identified the “interpretive zone” as a place where the team negotiated meaning in that study of arts education in elementary schools. The interpretive zone, as we described it, was a place where contradictions abounded and contextual were variables were often in flux. Constructing meaning in the zone required conversation that worked down through multiple inhibiting frameworks. That work published in 1996 had pretty much stayed in the background of my life until now as I thought about complex teams in qualitative research.

Ironically, it was new distant friends I was meeting in my literature search on team issues that turned me back in this direction. Three pieces in particular, re-introduced me to my own work and showed me how it was being extended. Let me introduce you to these three distant friends (in the backwards order I discovered there work):

First there was Mauthner and Doucet (2008), ‘Knowledge Once Divided Can be Hard to Put Together Again’: An Epistemological Critique of Collaborative and Team-Based Research Practices, published in Sociology in 2008 (Mauthner & Doucet, 2008). This intriguing article pointed out how “normative team-based research practices embody foundational principles” that are often at odds with the “postfoundational epistemological practices” (p. 971).

Proceeding this unique piece was Elizabeth Creamer from Virginia Tech who discussed “Interpretive Processes in Collaborative Research (2002). She conducted a content analysis of four accounts in the literature of collaborative team processes, ours being one in this group, to create a model of collaborative interpretive processes. The four steps of her model included: 1) dialogue; 2) familiarity; 3) collective consciousness; and 4) engaging differences in perspectives (Creamer, 2003).

Finally, in this process I also discovered Gerstl-Pepin and Gunzenhauser (2002). They described the group processes of a team studying the North Carolina A+ Schools Program. This was a highly complicated qualitative research team process composed of multiple layers. The many layers of interaction and the many kinds of players created inherent contradictions that were explored in dialogic manner.

This handful of three articles by authors who followed the interpretive zone helped me to see how that piece began a conversation that I was now returning to through the continuing study of complex teams. In that earlier piece I had focused in on one section of the work a team does, whereas now I was considering the whole of team work from initiation of a project to completion. The three articles here do not in any way constitute the whole of authors one can consider when thinking about qualitative research and team work, but they were important re-beginning points for me. I hope someday to meet them in person! Thank you for your work.


Creamer, E. (2003). Interpretive processes in collaborative research. Academic Exchange Quarterly(3), 179.

Gerstl-Pepin, C. I., & Gunzenhauser, M. G. (2002). Collaborative team ethnography and the paradoxes of interpretation. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), 15(2), 137.

Mauthner, N. S., & Doucet, A. (2008). ‘Knowledge Once Divided Can Be Hard to Put Together Again’: An Epistemological Critique of Collaborative and Team-Based Research Practices. Sociology, 42(5), 971.

Wasser, J. D., & Bresler, L. (1996). Working in the Interpretive Zone: Conceptualizing Collaboration in Qualitative Research Teams. Educational Researcher, 25(5), 5-15.


Preparing Qualitative Researchers at the Doctoral Level

For today’s qualitative researchers, nothing is more important than reconstructing the pathways we provide to expertise. It is critical we reshape the ways one becomes this thing—a qualitative researcher–with the new assumptions we have developed about what it is, how to practice it, and how to insure it brings good value to society.

Much has changed in the years since qualitative research officially came onto the academic scene, but our preparation does not reflect these new perspectives. Here are my ideas about what must be done (in no particular order):

  • Integrate digital tools throughout the students’ experience—in a digital world all components of research will benefit…faculty and students need to adapt to technology fluidly. Create a mind set to support a digital tool kit perspective.
  • Provide students with opportunities to learn to conduct research as it is conducted in the real world—as team-based and interdisciplinary. Don’t drop this stance in the dissertation phase. How can all parts of the program develop collaborative skills?
  • Include students in all levels of program planning and community organization. Doctoral students need to learn what program is and how to build it, and as faculty we need to continually mentor them in these perspectives. Where ever they go next they will need to contribute to program, not just their own agenda.
  • Spend significant time with them reading and writing,—Integrate different forms of writing/expression into their/your experience. TEACH writing, break it down, explain it, create worksheets and templates if needed. Honor scholarly logic but bring academic writing into the current century.
  • Spend significant time with graduate students on oral communication. Show them how people at the next stage talk through a methodological argument and present it in a professional setting.
  • Deal with feelings (particularly if you want to diversify the student body!). Don’t be afraid of anger or frustration—they go along with learning hard things. Affirm students, help them to find ways out of the quandary they find themselves in.
  • Help students come to grips with the role of “the literature” in a digital era where there is massive amounts of stuff to sift through. Elevate literature to data and demonstrate the dynamic ways that literature (extant data) plays in developing thinking through an idea.
  • Introduce students to the conundrums qualitative research currently faces—what are the struggles and arguments? How are they historically situated? Why do qualitative researchers care? What are the implications?
  • Introduce your students—to people in the department, to people on campus, to people in the field. Introductions and invitations are key to mentorship. Expand their world and help them to develop independence, not dependence.
  • The dissertation as currently conceived is an anachronism. In today’s world we work with projects (write grants) Approach the dissertation like a project, not a dissertation—in fact, get rid of that word. As a project, sit down and work out roles, % of commitment. Consider, what are the important products that this project can create? What media is appropriate for expressing the knowledge? What knowledge objects will be created?
  • Insure that the data and products from these major projects conducted by students have an archiving plan and the materials are appropriately and professionally archived so they can continue to give value beyond the student experience—on many, not just one narrative level.
  • Recognize that the working world available to students is much bigger than just academia, assist them to develop career paths that allow them to develop their talents to the best of their abilities, wherever that is.
  • As the leaders of educational programs it behooves us to figure out how best to maximize resources, increase positive achievement and positive results, and meet key goals. This may mean learning to organize in new or different ways, investigating options, or changing long held traditions (whether they belong to this organization or another). Our world is rapidly changing and we face increasing challenges in this area—but we’re it. We have to lead, not look around in astonishment waiting for help to arrive.
  • As qualitative researchers can we say what we feel our students should know and be able to do? Do we know if we are hitting that mark? Have we educated our academic significant others to understand what we value and why?


Thoughts on the Stages of Doctoral Life:

Induction: Deciding to come, applying, entering the program

Initiation: Beginning Stages, Confronting the Academic World, Creating an initial identity, identifying key areas of interest, understanding how they are understood in this new world.

Intermediate: Confirming one’s identity, exploring key areas of interest, consolidating old and new knowledge

Demonstrating Independence: Expanding and Experimenting

Transitioning into professional work roles.

Each of these stages have special challenges for qualitative researchers—

In summary, we need to treat doctoral students as valued colleagues-in-process not cheap teaching and research labor. Student numbers are decreasing. Cherish what you have and bring out the best in each individual. They reflect your cherishing…they are not there to reflect you to the world. Pay attention to the professional and the personal; meet often, debrief, and be available to support integration to this new world.