Many students are challenged but the requirement to use or even develop theory in their dissertation work. Those who come from a practical background may regard theory with skepticism, and see little value in working with it. However, stripped to the basics, all theories are just structured discussions of belief about how different phenomena fit and work together.
Most doctoral programs require you to review and integrate theory, or perhaps several theories, into your research. Hypotheses are usually based in theory, and developing a good explanation of how theory is relevant to your dissertation focus or topic is usually very useful in understanding the problem, and choosing a method and design to research the problem.
One of the common problems I see in dissertation proposals is a discussion of theory, but little alignment between the theory discussed and the research questions or design that is proposed. A failure to demonstrate how theory connects to your questions, hypotheses, and design can slow you down in getting your proposal accepted.
We have posted several relevant resources about working with theory in various sections of this website. In particular, you may find the following resources helpful:
A common question I hear from students is about who they should seek out to be members of their committee. I find it useful to consider your committee members as your team, which each member playing an important role.
Obviously a key role is played by your dissertation chair (in some schools referred to as dissertation mentor). Your chair is your advocate and agent on the committee, as well as your chief advisor. Usually your proposal or final dissertation drafts will not go to other committee members until your chair has approved the draft for distribution. Depending on the culture and process at your university, your chair will read multiple drafts of chapters or sections of your proposal, providing feedback and suggestions along the way. They may also challenge your ideas, identify writing problems, or refer you to source material or even new ways of thinking about your proposed research.
Think of your committee members as supporting members of the team who bring particular assets and resources to the committee. These may include theoretical knowledge, methodological expertise, or a deep knowledge of the literature. Sometimes members may come from outside your university, depending on your need and the university policy. Good committee members will bring different perspectives to a problem and study, even challenge your thinking or methodology, all in an effort to improve your work and help you write a more effective proposal and a stronger dissertation.
You will usually have the opportunity to select one or more committee members in addition to your chair. Sometimes members are assigned by the university. Check the policy at your own school so you know what to expect. When selecting or nominating members, try to choose those who add value to your committee due to knowledge or expertise. You might find it useful to think back to faculty members you had as course instructors or met at a residency, and with whom you resonated. You want to make sure to build a team that can work well together. Keep your chair apprised of your plans every step of the way. They can often suggest other faculty members as possible committee members.
It’s worth keeping a few “road rules” in mind in working with your committee:
- Respect every committee members’ time and effort. Don’t repeatedly send drafts for review that only have minor changes from the previous draft.
- Work with your chair to pull proposal or dissertation drafts into shape before circulating to committee members, and only do so when your chair indicates the draft is ready for committee review.
- BE RESPONSIVE to the feedback and suggestions you receive. Nothing angers a chair or committee member more than to have their concerns and suggestions ignored and the same errors or issues show up in the next draft. To this end, I recommend use of a change chart or revision log (see Guides section of this website) to track committee comments and the changes you have made in response.
Remember that your dissertation team wants you to succeed, and they have invested their time in helping you to succeed. Critical, intellectual feedback is a gift, and should be treated as such. Certainly you can disagree with committee members’ comments, and you do not have to slavishly follow their guidance. Faculty are used to this give and take with doctoral learners, and they will respect your right to disagree with a particular change. However you must be responsive, and be prepared to explain why you chose not to make a revision that they requested. In the end, the product of your dissertation work is a team project, and both you and your committee want it to be a product of which everyone is proud.
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