Girl preparing for dissertation

Exposing 5 Dissertation Myths BEFORE You Begin Your Doctoral Study (Plus a Freebie)

By Dani Babb, PhD

Over the years, my doctoral students have gone into dissertation studies or doctoral work with many myths about the dissertation process. I started Dissertation Prep to help students get UNstuck and move from the dreaded All But Dissertation (ABD) to Doctor; Candidate to Graduate! Even as a dissertation coach and mentor, I see these myths persist. I’ll share each of them here with fact and fiction!

#1: Your Dissertation Needs to Solve a Huge Problem.

Fact: Your Doctoral Study Does Not Need to Solve World Hunger.

In fact quite the contrary. You need to offer a contribution to the academic body of literature. You can do this by finding a gap in existing literature, or if your college allows (as is often the case with professional degrees, like a DBA), finding a real world problem to use the scientific process to study. Even experienced researchers are often published by validating, re-validating or re-testing existing theories or beliefs. If you have a documentable reason that some outcome warrants a re-visit, by all means run this by your mentor. You need a narrow, specific problem.

#2: Your Dissertation Problem Statement Needs to be Broad Enough that it Can Be Applied Universally.

Fact: Your Dissertation Problem Statement Needs to be Narrow and Specific.

This is not only a myth but it could put your entire study at risk. A problem statement too broad has no credibility, isn’t “testable”, and remember – you are not trying to solve huge problems! You are demonstrating your ability to add to the body of knowledge and that you understand the concepts and practice of research.

Let’s look at one example. “Alternate Hypothesis: IT workers do not need to work overtime.” You can see how this problem is broad and difficult to study. Who will you question? Who will you interview? What is defined as overtime? Is this nationally or globally? What about companies that define 32 hours as full time? What types of businesses?

Now try this: “Alternate Hypothesis: IT workers in small sized rural healthcare facilities in Michigan work on average more than 40 hours per week.” Do you see how the second alternative hypothesis (what you believe to be true) is testable and “doable”? The first one can almost certainly not be measured and will lead to misalignment in your study.

The more specific you are, the better your outcomes and chances of success.

#3: Your Dissertation Will be Published and Read by The Entire Scholarly Community.

Fact: Your Dissertation Will be Read by your Committee; Maybe Members of the College; Likely Not Anyone Else

Why does this matter? Writers are always told to keep their audience in mind when writing. A dissertation is no exception. Yes your work will likely be “published” by a dissertation publication company, but the chance of anyone reading it is slim. If it occurs, it’s more than likely to be another student trying to find their gap in literature from your Future Recommendations for Research section in Chapter 5!

I know, I know – you spent years perfecting your dissertation. You hired editors and slaved away, missed family events and holidays. I felt the same way! The cold hard truth is that most dissertations are read by the Committee; maybe more folks at your College, but not much beyond that until you begin to publish in journals and only then if someone wants to refer to your original work. The small papers you publish from your dissertation are more likely to garner attention and contribute to the official academic body of knowledge than your doctoral study. This is one reason it’s so important to keep the problem statement narrow! Save the rest for your academic journal publications.

Your school may well offer to publish in their journal; sometimes this is more for their benefit than yours. If you are working in academics, generally speaking the more publications the merrier; go for it. Outside of that, you may want to focus on other ways to get your message out, like trade publications or the most sought after journals in your academic area. Even snippets of your outcomes posted over time on LinkedIn can be beneficial.

#4: You Cannot Move Forward if You Do Not Hit the Required Sample Size.

Fact: You Can Move Forward Without the Desired Sample Size.

Your dissertation chairperson will want you to do everything possible to hit the required sample size, however you and your chair choose to accurately calculate that. There are different methods for each methodology. But – life happens, people don’t respond to surveys, pandemics hit, researchers run out of money and respondents check out.

Many of my students didn’t hit the sample size they needed, but they finished their work anyway and are now enjoying their status as a Doctor. How? They documented the limitation of the study. They noted that an assumption is they would receive X responses and they would achieve that by doing A, B, and C. They did all of those things and they documented along the way. But, the plan failed. So now, their study is restricted, or limited, to the sample size they did get. It likely means that the results are less generalizable to a larger population. It may even invalidate the results and the general outcome is A, B, C, but it is not a reliable outcome. Obviously that is less desirable, but it does not automatically mean you fail. I was reading a study the other day about hemicap toe implants, and the author attempted for a sample size of 20 but hit 4. He’s had over a million views and thousands of responses to his article. It happens to “famous” researchers, too. You do your absolute best to get the sample size without sacrificing quality respondents or responses, and then document what you did and did not achieve and how it affects the results of your study. When and how this criteria is met is up to your committee, but we can certainly help you walk through this and it is common.

#5: Your Dissertation Committee Will Agree About Your Work, Then You Charge Ahead.

Fact: Your Dissertation Committee is Compromised of Individuals with Different Perspectives.

If your committee agrees anything, consider yourself lucky! Part of your job as a doctoral candidate is navigating the opinions of multiple scholars. Yes I said opinions! But I thought this was supposed to be academic with cold, hard facts? Take scenario #4 above. What if your committee Chair thinks you did all you could and your response rate is “good enough” but your member(s) do not think so? This is your job to navigate. (Yes, we can help you!) If your committee is in agreement on many things, consider yourself lucky. The student often feels stuck in the middle. You are! That’s part of your job as a researcher and it happens in real life, outside of the student realm. Get the team on the phone and find out what you can do to satisfy everyone. Get help if you need it to look at your work from another perspective.

Freebie – More On This Later: You Cannot Fail a Dissertation Defense.
Fact: Yes You Can! I’ll Write a Separate Article on This Soon! (And You Need to be Able to Do it in 20 Seconds!)

Signing off for now,

Dr. Babb

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