Managing the Doctoral Dissertation – Part II (Proposal Development)

In my last post, I had talked about the value of coursework and some of the things that PhD students must keep in mind when doing their coursework. Here, I present some tips on how to manage your dissertation after the coursework phase.

Dissertation comprises three parts: proposal, data collection and analysis, and thesis writing. The dissertation proposal forms the first part of the dissertation. This is the part where you will have to decide the topic of your research. It is important to think carefully about the topic as what you choose at this stage will stay with you for at least the next 4-5 years (sometimes, even longer). Please read the previous post here to know more about where ideas for research can come from. Be careful when choosing the ideas.

The coursework should ideally help you with the ideas for research. I would suggest that the research idea should be contextual, large enough to tell a good story, be able to address an important and relevant research problem, add to current conversations on a topic, and throw light on a particular phenomenon, its components and boundary conditions. Overall, you should be able to communicate a good research problem in a simple statement.

Along with the research, you should pay attention to the research method and research design that will be most appropriate to answer the research problem. For example, whether you would like to adopt a qualitative or a quantitative research design, or a mix of both (mixed methods research) should be determined by the research question. Reading the most recent research papers on the topic and talking to one’s seniors and faculty will help in this task.

Another important thing that you will have to do at the time of your proposal will be to identify your PhD supervisor and committee members. I suggest that you do this early in your PhD journey. If possible, attend a course offered by those faculty, work with them on course projects, talk to them about your research interests and understand their preferences. Also, do talk to faculty about their future plans (whether they are planning to take leave or go on a sabbatical in the near future). Lastly, be convinced of their research record. Once you are convinced of the fit, go ahead and choose your supervisor.

If you are planning to do primary research and going to collect data from an organisation, you must also at the time of proposal development start reaching out to organisations that may be interested in your research idea. Please read my post on doing research where I have talked about the importance of doing research that is relevant to corporates.

During the proposal stage itself, you should start talking to practitioners and co-create your research topic with them. If you are able to do so, your data collection effort will be lot less problematic and stressful. Also, work with them and develop the research design.

In case you are going to use secondary data, it will also be useful to look for databases that you will like to use. If you are planning to conduct experiments, again chalk out clearly who will be your participants and how you will get access to them. Lastly, it may be a good idea to even do a small pilot study before you submit your proposal. A proposal is like a contract that you are making with your thesis committee and the institute about what you will do in your dissertation. Promises once made, will need to be kept. Proposals should take anywhere between 3-9 months to develop.

In my next post, I will talk about data collection, analyses and thesis writing.

Best wishes

Prof. Vishal Gupta