Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Choosing a Dissertation Topic (and staying with it), Part 2

As promised, here is the second installment of "Choosing a Dissertation Topic.

3. Choose an appropriate advisor (and committee).

There are at least three factors to consider when choosing a dissertation advisor: specialty, interest, and personality.

· Advisor Specialty

Whatever your dissertation topic, your advisor should have interest in it, and preferably, expertise in some aspect of the topic. In my case, I chose an expert in computers and writing who I knew to be willing to chair my dissertation. To fill out the rest of my committee, I chose a research specialist-since I was conducting qualitative research—with interests in ethics and a religion and rhetoric expert: meaning that all three of my interests were covered. Some of you may not be fortunate enough to cover each aspect of your dissertation based on faculty availability, but the key is ultimately your advisor.

· Advisor Interest

Interest is not the same as expertise. You need to ASK your would-be advisor if he or she has an interest in your topic. By interest I mean, would she enjoy reading about topic X and learning more about it? Would she encourage you to ask important questions about the topic? Would she be supportive of you and this project all the way through until the end? The answers to these questions are mostly predicated on the advisor’s responses, but you can start by considering the previous point (what is the potential advisor’s specialty and professional interests?). Mostly, when in doubt, ASK.

· Advisor Personality

Finally, your advisor’s personality is a key factor in your success. Really. Choose an advisor whom you know to be competent (that goes without saying, but I said it anyway), reliable, and timely. I knew the work ethic and response rate of my advisor, but I still could not have foreseen everything: though I ended up with the best advisor I could have hoped for. Do your research on your advisor (and committee), including their CV, publications, interactions with students, interactions with fellow colleagues (your other committee members), commenting style, and teaching style. These things matter. One of the best ways to learn about a potential advisor is to take a class (or two) with him. In the end, this person will be one of the most important factors in your success, along with those in the next recommendation.

4. Have a support network

Doesn’t everyone have a support network? Well, no. I found that a supportive group of people was integral to my survival as an academic and as an individual.

· Family

Perhaps the single most effective support structure is family. Why? They care for you no matter what and will stick by you. Wives, husbands, children, mothers and fathers, siblings, etc. all contribute—if you let them. If you keep the people that you care about involved and updated, they can offer counseling and support in a multitude of ways: including offering advise about topics.

· Colleagues

The important thing about colleagues is that they are likely going through the same experience as you and can share their own. Don’t underestimate the value of other’s experiences and venting to colleagues. Additionally, they can keep an eye out for helpful readings they might run across or signs of burnout.

· Friends

Hopefully, some of your colleagues are also friends and can provide support at various levels. A dinner with friends, game night, and just relaxing are all important along the way and these people can be great sounding boards for potential topics: they know you and your interests and are likely to ask questions you didn’t anticipate.

Finally, with these four recommendations in mind, you can decrease your chances of switching topics at some point through your dissertation. Expect doubts to creep in though. I almost switched topics a year in, but friends and family convinced me otherwise and I am GLAD I LISTENED! Be who you are, choose a topic that compliments your personality and interests. Be an expert at your interests and you are likely to find that the research and writing will be a joy to you. REMEMBER: your running a marathon, not sprinting a 100-yard dash.


Toby F. Coley completed his PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Bowling Green State University (OH) in 2011 and now teaches courses in Rhetoric and Composition, British Literature, Advanced Composition, and Advanced Rhetoric at UMHB. His research investigates the connections between writing, ethics, digital media, and religion. His publications have been featured in Rhetoric Review, Computers and Composition, Computers & Composition Online, and Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. His upcoming book, Teaching with Digital Media in Writing Studies: An Exploration of Responsibilities is due out in the fall of 2011 (Peter Lang Press).


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