The Doctoral Dissertation: Boon or Bane?

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The doctoral dissertation which should be the culmination of a doctoral candidate's education, unfortunately turns out to be the downfall of some. There are no exact figures on the number of doctoral students who have the A.B.D. (All But Dissertation), because there are so many variables which cloud the picture. From the writer's experience in working with doctoral students at New York University, the number of students who complete all requirements but the dissertation (A.B.D.) is about 15%. This figure does not include an additional 40 to 45% who start a doctoral program but who stop for one reason or another before all course work is completed, thus never getting to the A.B.D. stage.

One of the major stumbling blocks to attaining a doctorate, the apex of academe, is the failure of a doctoral candidate to zero in on a viable dissertation topic, about which more will be said later in this article. Other reasons for failure to complete a doctorate are lack of finances, poor academic work, pressure of one's position, inadequate motivation, insufficient perseverance, incompatibility with the philosophy of the institution attended, lack of rapport with Dissertation Committee members, and disinterest or indifference on the part of the dissertation adviser or chairperson. Admittedly one of the most trying circumstances which leads to the A.B.D. syndrome is the inability to define a topic which lies within one's interests and abilities and then to develop and implement it. This writer, in a recent article, stressed the importance of critical thinking in the research process, where emphasis is "upon approaching problems through a critical thinking process as answers to questions are sought."1

The requirement for a doctoral candidate to prepare an acceptable research proposal before the dissertation can be started, although not unique to New York University, is one which is heartily endorsed by many of this writer's colleagues who have obtained a doctorate at an institution where a research prospectus (design or proposal) was not required. In addition, some of the writer's doctoral students who have attended institutions where there was no proposal requirement have nothing but the highest praise for this stipulation, even though at the time that they were reflectively and painfully working on the proposal, it seemed to be an unnecessary hurdle. An important reason for preparing a research proposal before the investigation actually is begun is emphasized by Williamson, Karp, and Dalphin in these words: "Each piece of research is to some degree idiosyncratic because each presents special difficulties for the researcher."2

When one considers that a research proposal is a blueprint or logical plan by which a researcher outlines his procedure to collect, organize, and interpret data, it seems difficult to understand how this process can be considered anything but beneficial. Would a reliable contractor construct a building without a blueprint? Cook and LaFleur also have poignantly stressed the importance of the research prospectus in these words: "It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of the research proposal as a basis for carrying out research. . . . Without a carefully worked out proposal, there is no assurance . . . [the researcher] will know what he is doing. . . . The more thought and effort the student puts into his proposal, the more likely he will be to successfully execute the research itself."3

Opponents of the proposal requirement point out that preparing a design is a needless step which impedes a student's progress toward the doctorate. Anti-proposal proponents may approve a general topic the student has in mind, but then the doctoral candidate is told to return to his Dissertation Committee when the dissertation is completed. Frequently this turns out to be a debacle of the highest order because not only is the dissertation unacceptable, but also the candidate is demoralized and frustrated. (Is this another reason for so many A.B.D.'s?) This dispiriting situation could be eliminated if the student were to prepare an acceptable research prospectus and then receive sympathetic guidance and advice from his Dissertation Committee as the dissertation is being written.

The deductive process involved in proposal preparation, plus the preliminary feedback from a Dissertation Committee while the design is being prepared, enable a student to obtain guidance and assistance that would not be possible otherwise. Thus, what might turn out to be a total disappointment due to improper direction, could result in a gratifying sense of accomplishment for a doctoral candidate. A research proposal can be an invaluable guide to the student who plans to write a traditional dissertation as well as to the one whose emphasis in performance culminates in some other type of written project. This writer has been informed by many of his doctoral recipients that without this exercise in reflective thinking, namely, the dissertation proposal, most of them would never have completed the doctorate. It should be patently obvious that one does not learn to do research by reading about it, nor can one discover how to write a research report simply by reading about what someone else has done.

In the Department of Music and Music Education at New York University, doctoral students are first required to prepare a mini-proposal for consideration and approval by departmental graduate faculty before they are permitted to enter the interdisciplinary Dissertation Proposal Seminar where the formal proposal is developed. With the candidate present, faculty discuss the mini-proposal in terms of feasibility and compatibility as determined by the candidate's background. Secondly, a determination is made as to whether or not the proposed topic is a viable one which the department can support. It is counter to departmental policy to proscribe certain kinds of research or specific topics. Each student is a unique individual who has individual needs and background and experience that are peculiar to that individual. To enjoin a student from pursuing a particular topic because "we are only concerned with 'X-type' research" is contrary to departmental philosophy. Except in rare cases, various departmental graduate faculty have the expertise to advise in all the areas normally used for doctoral research projects. When such skills do not exist there are compatible faculty within the entire University who are accessible to the student. When, on certain occasions, topics are denied, it is because of poor conceptual framework or an illogical presentation rather than because of certain subject or topical restrictions imposed by the faculty.

Since the three-person committee which works with the student on the development and implementation of the research proposal and the dissertation is interdisciplinary, students appropriately enroll in an interdisciplinary Dissertation Proposal Seminar, a section of which this writer has been teaching. Students from various departments in Arts, Education, and Health are able to interact intelligently in the Dissertation Proposal Seminar because emphasis is placed on the logical development of a research proposal. These logical steps or components of a research design include title, problem statement, sub-problems, definitions of terms, delimitations of the research, significance or need for the study, literature related to the topic, and methodology for obtaining and treating data. More will be said about these constituents later in this article.

Largely because of the deductive approach in the Dissertation Proposal Seminar, students are able to offer comments and suggestions to their peers, even to those who may not be in their same discipline. Thus a music student is able to offer viable suggestions to a doctoral candidate in Religious Education or in Health Education, to cite two examples, even though the music student may not be familiar with the jargon used in these fields. The logical organization and development of a good research proposal transcend departmental and subject matter boundaries. This is the reason why a musician should be able to comprehend the organization of a research proposal in a field other than his own. Likewise, the student in Educational Administration notes with satisfaction his ability to appreciate what the music student proposes to do. This logical process is associated with critical thinking. Logic as a discipline, of course, may be traced back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Brennan reports that one of the purposes of logic historically has been and still is to teach people "how to 'reason' properly and how to avoid error."4 Is this to suggest that it is necessary for music students to take courses in logic before they can develop a practicable research proposal? Not necessarily, but it does point up the necessity for incisive reflective thought as the proposal is being developed.

Concurrent with enrollment in Dissertation Proposal Seminar, the technical aspects pertinent to the student's dissertation topic are being handled with the assistance of a three-person Dissertation Committee. The chairperson is the key individual on the Dissertation Committee; thus it should come as no surprise to learn that this faculty adviser must come from the student's department or program of specialization. One other committee member also may be from the student's department, but the other person must be from another subject area. If the student enters the two-semester Dissertation Proposal Seminar with a topic which has been approved by departmental faculty, the research design is usually ready for submission to a divisional review panel by the end of the course. The divisional review panel examines the prospectus for its content as well as for its logical development. The sole function of the divisional review panel is quality control. Research proposals developed by music students are reviewed by faculty from the Arts Division Research Proposals Committee, which this writer coordinates. Although the student is not present for the review, the interaction among the faculty members in Art, Dance, Music, and Technology and Industrial Education as they review the proposals is prudent, and the comments forwarded to the student are appropriate because each of the panelists (three or four in number) is considering the proposals as an outsider. Thus the chance of biased remarks being recorded is greatly reduced. (Dissertation Committee members do not serve on the panels which review the proposals of their own students.) When a committee works closely with a candidate it is possible for the "halo effect" to be omnipresent, whereby important points are sometimes overlooked while other material is included which is entirely irrelevant to the study. These omissions and redundancies usually can be spotted by an impartial outside review panel.

The Dissertation Proposal Seminar also puts "pressure" on the student to produce some material for each class session, and this constraint, of course, has the beneficial effect of "forcing" a student to make progress toward his objective of completing the doctorate. Without this external motivation many students who lack internal motivation would never complete a doctoral degree. Opponents of this concept might well argue that this smacks of a "degree mill." However, this is not the case, because if the student does not have enough internal motivation he cannot even progress to the mini-proposal stage, described earlier; and as already noted, enrollment in the Dissertation Proposal Seminar is thus not permitted. The main argument for conducting a Dissertation Proposal Seminar is to give experienced guidance and justifiable encouragement to doctoral students. Most doctoral students have never written a dissertation (or research proposal) before, so obviously they need some assistance. Would one realistically ask a music student who has not had intensive courses in theory and composition to compose a symphony? Likewise, a doctoral student needs the sympathetic guidance and friendly assistance of a faculty member who has earned a doctorate and thus has gone through the rigorous reflective process necessary to develop and implement a research project.

In an article referred to earlier, this writer pointed out the importance of reflective or critical thinking in the development of a research project, whether it be aesthetic, descriptive, experimental, historical, philosophical, or any other genre.5 This thought process obviously requires direction from qualified individuals. Except in rare instances, it is inconceivable that an individual who has not earned a doctorate can successfully assist a doctoral candidate to conceptualize a research problem which is appropriate for a doctorate. Since the chairperson is the key individual in the eventual success or failure of a doctoral candidate's dissertation, as already noted, at New York University, no faculty member is permitted to chair a dissertation who does not possess an earned doctorate. This may seem to be an arbitrary injunction, but it must be realized that a person who has actually been involved in the process of deductively developing a dissertation proposal and then inductively writing the dissertation should be better able to anticipate and perceive the difficulties faced by a doctoral candidate under his or her tutelage. The chairperson who is pleasant, approachable, and takes a personal interest in a doctoral candidate's research is much sought after by students; his students usually complete an excellent piece of research. On the other hand, the dissertation adviser who is always too busy to work with doctoral students, who does not empathize with them, or who feels that a doctoral student ought to be erudite enough to develop a dissertation proposal or write the dissertation without guidance, usually has more students who end up with an A.B.D. than with a Ph.D. or an Ed.D.

When a doctoral research proposal has been approved, the candidate can officially begin to collect and synthesize data and start writing the dissertation. Here again, the incisive guidance of the three-person Dissertation Committee takes on added significance. As data for the dissertation are gathered the focus listed in the original research proposal sometimes changes, but this should not present an unsurmountable dilemma with the proper guidance of the Dissertation Committee.

Many students who are research tyros seek this writer's advice relative to the selection of a research topic. Here are some typical questions which this writer poses to students who are starting the search for a viable topic: What is the general area of your interest in research? How long do you think it would take you to complete this project? Are there some more specific facets in this general area of interest that you would like to research? Have you reviewed the literature relating to your proposed area of research to determine whether or not the topic has already been completed by someone else? How would you go about obtaining the information you need to complete this research? Do you need any special facilities or equipment to complete the research? Are there archives, libraries, or other repositories of information that you need to visit?

The most important criteria in the selection of a topic are that the area chosen for research should be one in which the individual is vitally interested, and the topic ought to be one that the researcher would like to spend time investigating twenty-four hours a day, not because of external pressure to meet a deadline, but because of internal motivation, almost like the urge to create, as it were. Some cogent suggestions are offered by Chambers in an article entitled "Selection, Definition, and Delimitation of a Doctoral Research Topic." Among the points stressed by Chambers are that the student should avoid asking an adviser to "assign" a topic for research, that he should select a topic in harmony with his interests and background, that a careful review of the literature in the student's field is mandatory, and that the student needs to determine what techniques or skills are necessary to complete the research.6

As already mentioned, the dissertation chairperson is the key to the eventual success or failure of the dissertation proposal and the dissertation. A student who is not willing to take reasonable suggestions from the mentor he or she has chosen to serve as chairperson of the Dissertation Committee will have difficulty completing the doctorate. (At New York University each doctoral student selects the members of his Dissertation Committee, including the chairperson.) Word does travel quickly through the "grapevine," and the most sought after chairpersons are those who give generously and unselfishly of their time to work with doctoral candidates.

On the other hand (even to the exclusion of golf, tennis, or other personal pursuits) should the faculty member who is not willing to devote all the time necessary be given the responsibility for supervising a doctoral dissertation? For optimum results there needs to be a close relationship between mentor and doctoral candidate. If there are unusual tensions between the two, little progress toward attaining a doctorate can be made. Incompatibility between adviser and student undoubtedly is one of the reasons why many individuals possess the A.B.D. today, although it probably is not the most important reason.

There are faculty advisers who believe that editing a student's work is beneath their dignity, and therefore do it reluctantly or refuse to do it altogether. Now it must be admitted that a doctoral candidate should be able to express himself or herself adequately in written English, and presumably has had adequate courses on the undergraduate level in English Composition. Nevertheless, some editorial guidance from the Dissertation Committee is always necessary in the preparation of a dissertation proposal and a dissertation. When the dissertation is completed the imprimatur of the individual signing the dissertation form is on the line; and shoddy scholarship and poor grammatical construction, when permitted, do not cast the chairperson in a very good light professionally. An up-to-date dictionary is a mandatory tool for adviser and student alike. Another required tool is a current style guide, which needs to be consulted whenever any questions about format or procedure arise. These editorial responsibilities may appear to be demeaning, but they are important duties of the Dissertation Committee. Let the glory come when the dissertation adviser's signature is affixed to a well written piece of research!

What are the criteria for determining whether or not a specific research project should be done? Here are a few: (1) Has this study already been done by someone else? This will involve a careful search of the literature in such sources as Comprehensive Dissertation Index,7Resources in Education,8 or International Index of Dissertations and Musicological Works in Progress,9 for example. By the time the student completes his dissertation undoubtedly he will be the expert in his chosen area of investigation because of his intense involvement in the research. Thus it is imperative that the candidate become familiar with the literature of the field of special interest. If one does not know what has been done, how can it be determined what still remains to be researched? It is ethically bad to duplicate the research of some other individual except in the case of a replication study, such as would take place in medical or other research in the natural or biological sciences; (2) Is the topic feasible, or does it need to be done? There are instances when a proposed topic is too insignificant for doctoral research or does not need to be done for other reasons. Can one imagine a student obtaining a doctorate based on a study of the function of the register key on a clarinet? The register key may be an important area of concern to some doctoral student, and it certainly is important to proper clarinet playing, but it hardly is appropriate for in-depth doctoral research. A topic that may need to be researched, but yet would be difficult to implement and interpret, would be one to determine whether string, woodwind, or percussion players have more musical talent, or the best "musical ear"; (3) A third criterion relates to the time involvement necessary to complete the research. Most doctoral programs have a terminal limit on the number of years a student may take to complete all requirements. This means that some longitudinal studies are not feasible for doctoral candidates, simply because the time element involved—in some cases ten years—to complete the research would be greater than the parameters allowed for completion of all degree requirements; (4) Another factor is the interest and background of the candidate in the area of the proposed research. This does not mean that research cannot be pursued in an area in which one has only minimal expertise, but it does imply that additional background requirements may be necessary, through course work or other experiences, before the research can be initiated.

As indicated earlier, there are certain steps in the formulation of a research proposal (and subsequently implementing the proposal and writing the dissertation) which have proven to be most helpful to students at New York University. The writer's own description of the steps of the scientific method represents a concise statement of the process involved: "stated in its simplest terms, any investigation which is logically organized, objectively implemented, and precisely interpreted may be said to meet the conditions of the scientific method."10 The research proposal represents the first step, the collection of data the second, and the written dissertation the third.

The individual components of most research proposals are: title, problem statement, sub-problems, definitions, delimitations, need or significance, related literature, and methodology. Some studies will call for hypotheses in addition to the foregoing.

All too often a doctoral candidate will spend needless hours trying to delineate a title. This is unnecessary because the title can evolve after the nature of the problem is made lucid. The first step, then, should be to formulate a clear, succinct gestalt statement of the problem. What is it that the researcher is trying to find out or do? Verbosity is not necessary because the statement should be in conceptual or cognitive form, and represents what not how. An acceptable problem statement might read as follows: "The problem of this research is to compare stylistically the eighteen nocturnes for piano of John Field with the eighteen nocturnes of Frédéric Chopin as an aid to their performance." The problem statement does not indicate how the study is to be carried out, only what is to be determined.

After the problem statement has been perspicuously defined, then the title can be educed. The title should lucidly indicate the focus of the study in unambiguous terms. How often does one review dissertation titles in Comprehensive Dissertation Index, or some other source, and then examine the actual research only to find out that the title and problem of the research do not agree? Usually the wording of the title is only slightly different from that of the problem statement. Using the problem statement above, an acceptable title would be: "A Comparison of the Eighteen Nocturnes for Piano of John Field and Frédéric Chopin: A Stylistic Analysis."

The sub-problems (or subordinate problems) represent the organismic elements which make up the gestalt or problem statement. These also are stated in conceptual or cognitive terms and represent specific components which will be treated separately. Most proposals average four sub-problems and the emphasis, as in the problem statement, is on the what, not the how. Using the problem statement above, some viable sub-problems would be:

  1. To trace the background of the nocturne up to the time of John Field,
  2. To select a system of analysis which could be used to analyze the nocturnes for comparison in this study,
  3. To examine the nocturne as developed by Field and Chopin,
  4. To analyze the eighteen nocturnes for piano of John Field and Frédéric Chopin to determine their similarities and differences.

An examination of the sub-problem statements will reveal that each one starts with an infinitive, and that each one clearly delineates a specific area of investigation which relates to the overall problem statement.

"Definitions" refers to terminology that might be ambiguous, terms used in an unusual way, or items which the researcher feels need some explication. The definitions may be quoted directly from a standard dictionary, or they may be paraphrases of the terms to be defined. A dictionary is helpful because according to Simon: "A dictionary definition often gives you synonyms, which help you translate the word you do not know into words you already know, or examples of the word that help you to learn how it is used."11 A term such as "general music" or "music appreciation" obviously would need to be lucidly explained. Definitions may be cognitive, in which case the indication should be to state what the term means. In addition, it is sometimes necessary to state how the term will be used, in which case the term is operationalized. If one were defining "creativity," for example, the meaning of the term could be given as it relates to the specific research; and then it could be operationalized by indicating that creativity would be measured by an instrument such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.12

Delimitations or limitations also are what statements which are found in many research projects. A delimitation represents a restriction imposed by the researcher, whereas a limitation is some restriction over which the researcher has no control. For example, a researcher could delimit a study to a certain population or group, whereas a limitation imposed on a researcher would be materials which have been destroyed by some catastrophe and are no longer available. The purpose of delimitations or limitations, however, is not to emasculate a study until it has no potential worth. Rather, when used, delimitations indicate more succinctly the scope of the study in situations which otherwise might be ambiguous.

The need or significance section is the first one in the research proposal which calls for an extended narrative exposition. In this section the researcher states why the research is needed. This can best be handled by providing appropriate documentation. It is not enough merely to rest the case for need on the paucity of literature related to the topic. Statements quoted by the researcher from various sources should be those which relate to the study and which enable the researcher to verify the need or significance of the proposed research. Gorn puts it this way: "This section should be a brief exercise in rhetoric, i.e., persuasion. It is better to promise less and deliver more."13

Related literature was mentioned earlier as a very significant ingredient of a research study because only by reviewing the literature can one really learn what has been done in his field and then determine what areas still need in-depth study. Barzun and Graff state that the purpose for reviewing the literature is "to find out whether someone has already dealt with its subject in print—in an article, it may be, or in a book."14 The related literature section is composed of two parts: a brief summary of the material reviewed, and an indication of the relevance (or lack of it) to the proposed research. The statements in this section also are presented in an expository narrative form, and the emphasis, as already must be evident, is on what exists.

The methodology section, a most important how section, is an expository statement of where the information will come from and what will be done with that information after it is obtained. Van Dalen avers that "a competent investigator determines in advance precisely what data are relevant to his study and in what forms he should collect his data to facilitate processing and analyzing of them."15 Sources of information could include literature, experiments, analyses of musical compositions, observations, questionnaires, interviews, oral history, to mention a few. Once these data have been collected they must be placed in some logical form which is relevant to the study. Data obtained from literature frequently are recorded in a chronological narrative form; analyses of musical compositions suggest some form of graphic representation of data obtained, and so forth.

After the research proposal has been approved one can begin the actual collection and synthesis of data subsequent to writing the research report, which is known as the dissertation. Usually it is necessary to rewrite parts of the document several times before a diligent Dissertation Committee is ready to accept a student's work and affix signatures indicating that they approve of the completed dissertation. A dissertation is more than a report on the research one has done, it is "an exercise in learned scholarship,"16 according to Koefod. A doctoral report does not need to be dull reading, yet it should contain all the necessary elements investigated to let the reader know that the researcher has done his homework carefully. Koefod emphasizes that a "doctoral inquiry should be characterized by originality of thought, imaginative speculativeness, number and value of insights, and the vitality of experimentation and proofs . . . [and] sophisticated reasoning in induction and deduction."17

While some type of dissertation has been required to fulfill partial requirements for the Ph.D. or the Ed.D., there are other doctoral degrees, such as the newly instituted Doctor of Arts at New York University, which permit flexibility in regard to the type of culminating project which may be used to complete degree requirements. In some instances, depending on the focus of Doctor of Arts candidates, a traditional dissertation might be the result. On the other hand, the final product could be some type of project involving a creative endeavor (development of a model, series of position papers, composition of a large-scale musical work, etc.). The increased flexibility afforded by such programs as Doctor of Arts, Doctor of Music, and similar degree programs should make it easier for the individual who is under an injunction to obtain a doctorate—or else—to find a program which is flexible enough to permit him to earn a doctorate without the anathema of so many A.B.D. students—the traditional dissertation. With this degree flexibility, what otherwise might be a bane could turn out to be a boon to a musician whose very specialized training suggests that the traditional Ph.D. or Ed.D. is not the degree which he might be interested in.

A doctoral degree program can be an exciting and delightful experience in learning and in broadening one's horizons. It need not be drudgery and frustration. Clearly delineated goals, with proper guidance from a concerned and sympathetic faculty, should make the task easier for any sincere and diligent doctoral candidate, and the long awaited day of investiture of that coveted doctoral hood a reality.

1Roger P. Phelps, "Critical Thinking: A Prerequisite for All Sound Research," New York State School Music News, 40, No. 7 (March, 1978), p. 31.

2John B. Williamson, David A. Karp, and John R. Dalphin, The Research Craft: An Introduction to Social Science Methods (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), p. 6.

3David R. Cook and N. Kenneth LaFleur, A Guide to Educational Research; 2nd ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1975), pp. 20-21.

4Joseph G. Brennan, The Meaning of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1967), p. 15.

5Phelps, "Critical Thinking," pp. 31-32.

6M.M. Chambers, "Selection, Definition, and Delimitation of a Doctoral Research Topic," Phi Delta Kappan, XLII (November, 1960), pp. 71-73.

7Comprehensive Dissertation Index 1861-1972 (with supplements) (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Xerox University Microfilms, 1973-date).

8Resources in Education (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966-date).

9Cecil Adkins and Alis Dickinson (eds.), International Index of Dissertations and Musicological Works in Progress (Philadelphia: American Musicological Society, 1977).

10Roger P. Phelps, A Guide to Research in Music Education (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, 1969), p. 13.

11Julian L. Simon, Basic Research Methods in Social Science (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 18.

12E. Paul Torrance, Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (Princeton, N.J.: Personnel Press, Inc., 1966).

13Janice L. Gorn, Style Guide for Writers of Term Papers, Master's Theses, and Doctoral Dissertations (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), p. 78.

14Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 3rd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, Inc., 1977), p. 19.

15Deobold B. Van Dalen, Understanding Educational Research: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1973), p. 351.

16Paul E. Koefod, The Writing Requirements for Graduate Degrees (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964), p. 36.

17Ibid., pp. 43-44.

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