J.L.Lemke On-line Office

Secrets of Completing a Research Project

Whether it is a dissertation or another research project, most new researchers get hung up somewhere near the end of the process and get in danger of not completing their work.

In the case of dissertations this is particularly serious, though it also matters as one approaches the tenure-decision year. I have abandoned a lot of research projects, and there are often good grounds for doing so. Giving up can be a sign of mature research judgment, but new researchers should usually complete what they start.

Why do people get stuck? There are two primary reasons, I believe: Fear, and Ambition.

The Fear of Failure: Whys, Whos, and Hows

The first obstacle is simple fear that the finished product will be seen by others as inadequate. "Better never to finish than to wind up a failure" is an attitude that simply reflects lack of self-confidence. It is particularly common in students and new researchers whose social positions and backgrounds have not instilled in them the automatic arrogance and sense of self-merit that is traditional in the academic world. Women and sometimes gay men, working class students, people of color, and those not from eurocultural backgrounds suffer disproportionately. You may be acutely aware that there always seems to be something you are missing, something you just don't "get" about what is expected of you. A thousand tiny signals send this message to you, and your life may not have prepared you to tune in on the other signals that would affirm that you belong. You should recognize that you do have further to go to meet expectations designed by people who are in many cultural and social ways quite different from, and even opposed by social position to, yourself. You should also recognize that once you have met these expectations you will still be yourself, still be different, and so be able to bring to your work more than what is expected of you. You are likely to rebel against these expectations at some point (unless your program faculty are unusually open-minded, rebel openly only after you finish the dissertation), and more likely than others to develop surprising alternative viewpoints eventually.

Meanwhile, working harder will pay off. There is nothing required of you that you cannot learn, though some of it will also not come easily, or pleasantly. Once you have proven that you can do it, you will have the latitude to do something that is more true to yourself. You should probably keep thinking and planning your alternative perspectives even during the time when you are trying to meet the expectations of others.

You should also know that it is very difficult to fail at dissertation research. If you complete, you will almost certainly pass. Many really mediocre dissertations are approved every year, especially in the U.S. (based simply on volume). Your dissertation in most programs need only be competent, not brilliant. It does not prove you are a genius, just that you are technically ready to be on your own as a researcher. Programs that really do have higher standards may require you to re-write large sections of your dissertation a few times. If your supervisor or committee keep you re-writing for more than a year or two, it's a signal that you're not going to make it. You might still be able to get a degree at another university, however. If your supervisor or committee makes you keep changing your basic topic, that's also usually a sign you ought to go elsewhere.

The Excesses of Ambitiousness

It is a serious mistake to try to make the world take notice of your dissertation, or to cram a dozen ideas into one article for publication.

Do not try to revolutionize the field in your dissertation. This is not what dissertations are for. Probably at most six people in the world will ever read your dissertation. Don't waste your time. You can certainly use your dissertation to lay the foundations for significant future work, but that should be published in a book. Make your dissertation manageable and modest in its ambitions. There will be better opportunities later, when you already have the credibility of a PhD and a good job, to put forward radically new ideas and perspectives. In your dissertation you can hint at or sketch out such ideas, and even argue for them; but don't make them the centerpiece.

If you happen to have, or come across, significant new ideas while doing your dissertation, or if you want to try some newer or less approved methods or approaches, there is always space in a dissertation for these -- but you should insert them modestly into the midst of work that also shows that you are conversant with the older ideas and competent with the traditional methods.

This is particularly important for people doing discourse analysis, semiotics, and other forms of qualitative or interpretive research in dissertations. The older traditional quantitative methods and forms of argument should usually still appear somewhere in your dissertation. Their prominence will depend on the composition of your committee and how progressive generally your chosen field is (not just your specialty field, but the larger field whose name is on your degree -- you will be hired by people in that larger field).

Even researchers who are past the dissertation stage get hung up, either because of fear of failure, or because they want to put too much into one project, too much into one article.

Some advice. In the natural sciences there is a practice known as the MPU, or minimum publishable unit. Large research projects subdivide their empirical findings into simple facts which are significant enough to get published: one fact cluster, one publication. This is of course absurd and counterproductive, but is encouraged by the mindlessness of the "productivity model" of academic research. Outside the natural sciences it does not work because generally speaking findings are regarded as significant only in some larger context and not simply as matters of fact. Your articles have to have a point, and not just report some findings.

Nevertheless, new researchers are well advised to submit short articles that make just one or two specific points and provide supporting evidence.

It is much easier to get a short article published than a long one.

And having more articles in total is an asset when promotion and tenure review comes along.

One of the principal secrets of research is that no good research project is ever finished. There is no natural ending point. Good research generates new perspectives and new questions and potentially goes on indefinitely. You must arbitrarily cut off some part of the research, frame it for an audience, use it to make a point of interest to them, and publish it as is. The reviewers of the article will then ask why you have not included X, Y, and Z. You probably have already done X,Y, and Z but not included them. You will negotiate with the editor of the journal how much of this to include in your revised version, which will then most likely be published. That is how it usually works.

The logic of a book is the opposite of that of a journal article. You should attempt to be reasonably comprehensive about your topic. What you don't say you should reference or cite. A good book is one that people _use_ because it helps to define a topic and provide a way into it for others. It is still true that it is easier to publish a short book (200-300 pages) than a long one. In the near future people may publish or add to information webs, and books as such may become obsolete. But not for a while yet, and even after they are obsolete, universities will still expect you to publish some.

The concept of a dissertation belongs to the logic of the medieval guild system and has really been obsolete for at least a century. It belongs to a time before large-scale academic publishing of books and journals. Academic journals themselves are today already obsolete because of new electronic information technologies, but no one wants to admit it because journals do the work of evaluating research, which university committees know that they themselves are no longer competent to do because of specialization and the extent of knowledge in any field. Books are still useful, but maybe not for much longer. Don't romanticize the doctoral dissertation. It is meant to be a grand learning exercise, a full dress rehearsal for later professional research. It should result in at least something that is publishable and of interest to a research community. It can also be the basis for contributing to wider understanding on the part of the educated public or other professional communities, but you will get little academic credit for those outcomes. You do a dissertation mainly to learn how to do research, including how to write about research. If something more important comes out of your work, consider yourself very, very lucky.