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.