Planning a Social Science Dissertation
I wish I could begin this article by pointing students to the definitive "how to" resource on writing a doctoral dissertation in the social sciences. Unfortunately, none exists. Some students apply to our doctoral program in Politics & International Affairs with clarity about their dissertation research question. Most applicants have no clue and only begin thinking about a dissertation topic after taking a year or two of courses.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that it typically takes eight years to complete a social science doctoral degree. There’s no reason then why students need to rush to select a dissertation topic. On the other hand, there is value in moving efficiently through a graduate program. There’s no need to flounder around taking courses that don’t contribute to an overall program of study.
I advise new students to take core classes immediately. Core classes typically provide broad overviews of disciplinary fields. They lay the foundation for study in more specialized areas of knowledge. Students taking core classes will naturally gravitate to some readings rather than others. It’s a great opportunity for students to develop a sense of which readings they find most engaging, which papers are most interesting to write, and where their passion lies. Core classes help students think about areas of inquiry in which they’d like to eventually conduct independent work.
As students develop specific interests, they should choose courses wisely. Students can write research papers for their classes that revolve around their specific areas of interest. They can recycle some of this material at a later time when they begin crafting a dissertation prospectus. Similarly, students should think strategically about using the opportunity of studying for comprehensive exams to build reading lists and hone knowledge in their areas of interest.
In addition, NAU values small classes and personal interactions between faculty and students. Students should take advantage of this and get to know their faculty. I advise students to talk to their faculty after class, visit them during office hours, and get to know their interests. "Social networking" is the buzz phrase of today. My advice is for students to put as much energy into developing personal networks are they’re putting into online networks.
Faculty enjoy sharing their interests with students. It’s interesting to understand what motivates faculty to get up every morning and put hours into their fields of study. Students can learn a lot from interacting with faculty outside the classroom. There are many valuable questions to ask. What is the leading edge of the field today? Where is the literature going? What types of projects are fundable? Also, students should not be shy about sharing their ideas with faculty and gauging which faculty members are paying attention to them.
In addition to choosing a dissertation topic, students need to select a dissertation committee. It’s important for students to consider which faculty they could imagine working with over the next two, three, or four years. Which faculty members are supportive, yet capable of pushing the student to new heights?
Finally, students should remember that the NSF figure of eight years to complete a doctoral degree in the social sciences is nothing more than a mean average. Keeping the principal of "efficiency" in mind, students could easily locate themselves below the mean. On the other hand, the more students swim around without getting hooked on a specific area of interest, the more likely they are to fall above the mean. It really comes down to personal decisions.