Managing Doctoral Dissertations - Part I (Coursework)

I have been away for some time. Now onwards, you can look forward to regular blogs that will aid your doctoral journey.

Most doctoral students ask me two questions – what is the process of and how they can develop a good thesis. In this 3-part series, I will explain some points to keep in mind as they embark on their PhD journey. The first part (this blog article) focusses on the course work during the PhD, the second blog will be based on dissertation work (proposal writing, data collection and analysis), and the third part on defense and a post-PhD career.

Once a student is admitted to a PhD program, every institute will (most likely) provide him with the opportunity to go through a set of courses that will prepare him for the thesis-related work. Coursework is extremely important for a doctoral candidate as it lays the foundation on which the dissertation will be built. It can be divided into two parts: content and method. I explain the two below.

1. Content: This part of the coursework provides an introduction to the basic and advanced topics in the area of specialisation. I would strongly recommend that students take courses that are theory-based and that make them read research papers (both conceptual and empirical) in their areas of specialisation. This part of the coursework is especially useful for individuals who are new to the area or for those who are coming back to academics from corporate work experience. Such coursework provides them with the opportunity to explore the literature in a specific area and help them to get a grip on the relevant theoretical models, research issues, gaps and debates in their prospective area(s) of work.

2. Method: This part of the coursework is an extremely critical aspect as it provides an understanding of important empirical methods that students might use in analysing the data that they will collect during their dissertation. A grounding in research methods is critical for students who want to do well in research. I would strongly advise PhD students to do both - basic as well as advanced courses in both qualitative as well as quantitative methods.

Management research is a discipline where the phenomena are quite subjective and different individuals may see a particular phenomenon differently. In that case, students must learn do basic qualitative methods course so that they understand how to engage with individual interpretations and develop conceptual and theoretical models. A few qualitative courses that I would recommend are: case-based research, grounded theory method, interview methods and the philosophical foundations of management.

Quantitative methods are important as they enable a researcher to test theories and understand what may be going on in the large sample data collected during the dissertation. Here, I would recommend courses on the basics of probability and statistics, hypothesis testing, regression analysis (econometrics), psychometric method (reliability, validity, factor analysis), structural equation modelling, to name a few.

Coursework is a wonderful place to develop ideas and also test them before a doctoral student begins his dissertation work. It provides opportunities to also practice reading and writing academic papers. If he does the course projects well, he may even take them forward for publication. Thus, coursework must be taken very seriously.

I am aware that some colleges may not give enough time or opportunities to do the coursework. Students must try to complement what their institutes provide them with courses available online (e.g., MOOCs, SkillsEdge, etc.).

My next post will be on what goes into a dissertation. See you there.

Best wishes

Prof. Vishal Gupta