Why a Dissertation? Why a PhD?

I believe a dissertation is, primarily, a method for doctoral students to show they can conduct research; that they are familiar with the pitfalls of research design and the hard work involved in collecting something that looks like good data, and that they can stretch themselves to synthesize and evaluate the results in light of the previous research and the study’s theoretical framework.

That is hard work and for many it is the last time they do research in their careers. Many of my clients pursue the PhD for professional reasons. In public education and business, it is for advancement. For some it is for the credentials (practicing psychologists, for example). For others it is the cache attached to putting a PhD behind your name and being called Dr. in your professional life.

Do they know everything about the field? Hardly. Do they know everything about their dissertation topic? They had better! They should be the experts on what they wrote about, but it is not the extent of the knowledge in that field. It is just a small portion of the entire scholarship of the field.

I remember wondering why many academics gave short shift to dissertation work at professional research conferences I attended. When I finally asked, I was told that dissertation work is “beginner’s work.” You have just begun. You do not have the knowledge about research that years of experience bring to publishing, conferences, and the like. I now believe that, knowing the kind of experience many of my doctoral clients bring when they come to me for help.

For those who want to stay in academia, it is the beginning of a long pursuit of scholarship. A good dissertation shows future employers and colleagues their scholarship potential. For those who can publish from their dissertation, bravo! Many don’t, but hopefully go on to productive research careers. A professor at my university was publishing articles before he graduated from undergraduate school. By the time he received his PhD, he was a known figure in his field. There are very many scholars like that. It takes several years to develop a line of research and a good name in the field. That comes with the job in academia, not necessarily with the dissertation.

Why pursue a PhD? I know why I did and why many of my clients do. It can be for professional advancement, credentials, or the cache. I do believe one thing is very important in a successful pursuit of a doctorate‒a fire in the belly. I first was offered that advice when I spoke with a professor at a university where I was thinking about pursuing a doctorate. He said I had to have “a fire in the belly” to finish the program. I realized then that family, job, and relationship issues would prevent me from finishing what I wanted to start. Several years later, with some issues cleared up, I revisited my goals and realized that I still wanted that PhD!

I applied, was accepted, and visited my advisor, who admonished me that 50% of doctoral students never finish and become ABD. I told him I would complete the program. Six years later (almost to the day) I reminded him of that conversation as he and the dean hooded me!

What was I going to do with a PhD? I had no idea. It was an advancement and credential issue in my field (education), but I realized shortly after beginning the program that I did not want to go back to the classroom or to work in administration. I also realized that many people did not want to spend the time learning statistics as I had and they valued my skills. From working with university research projects, to becoming a consultant in research design and survey research, I use my PhD as a credential for people who are willing to pay for the experience and cache the degree brings.

The dissertation is also something of an initiation for doctoral students. Doctoral candidates go through a lot of hell before they finish a dissertation. Some experiences can be more painful than others. It has a lot to do with department politics, college policy, the personalities of the chair and/or committee members, and with ourselves and other demands we have on our time and commitment. A doctoral program is easy to get through‒course work takes time and energy‒but the dissertation… that is different! Course work is structured, a dissertation is us! How we work, how we structure our time, how we let other things get in the way, how we interact professionally and (sometimes) not so professionally with our chair and the committee. If we are not prepared to jump through the hoops, understand the process, roll with the punches, and ultimately, stand up and say, “This is my work, I stand ready to defend it,” then we stay stuck. We cannot finish.

All those things happened to me and to many of my clients. We all handle it in different ways. That is what ultimately decides if we become a member of the 3‒4% of the population that holds a terminal degree.