On January 11, 2021, I successfully defended my thesis/thesis idea, and officially became a doctoral candidate. For the rest of my doctoral career, I will focus on writing my doctoral thesis.
This week's article chronicles my journey to finding my thesis idea, defending it, and the lessons I learned from this exciting process.
I write this article so that after five, ten, twenty years from now, I will not forget what I went through. Hopefully the article will also be useful to anyone who is planning to go to doctoral studies in US, is about to enter the dissertation writing stage, or anyone who wants to understand more about the life of a PhD student (which specifically is in Political Science in the US).
What does a PhD thesis proposal/idea include?
In the United States, a thesis proposal is often called a Dissertation Proposal or Dissertation Prospectus, depending on the institution. At the request of my school, the thesis proposal is usually about 10000 words long (like a normal scientific research paper), with 6 main parts:
Research Puzzles and Research Questions: The proposal should state the research questions you want to understand, and the importance of pursuing those questions. Basically, you have to convince the dissertation committee that your topic and question are really important.
Literature Review: How do current studies answer your research question? What are the gaps in these studies, and how will your thesis contribute to the theoretical background?
Theory/Hypotheses: in other words, your answer to the question posed. You don't need to have a very detailed theory, but the proposal should state some testable and falsifiable hypotheses.
Research design/methodology: What methods and data will your research use? Will you use existing data or collect your own? If you collected it yourself, how would you do it? Does self-collection cost a lot? If so, can you get money somewhere to do it? I recommend using three different methods to answer research questions and prove hypotheses, including interviews, survey experiments, and the use of a time-series cross-sectional data set.
Outline: How many chapters will your thesis have, what is the purpose of each chapter? What is the final product of the thesis? Books or 3 separate research papers? As in my industry, often people will write as a book, but also publish a chapter or two as an independent research paper.
Timeline: Create a detailed plan for the time it takes to collect data, complete each chapter, and so on.
Search for dissertation topics
As soon as I passed the Comprehensive Exams in early January 2020 (ie the beginning of the 2nd semester of the 3rd year), I immediately started writing my thesis proposal. Term 2 of 3rd year, I still have to take classes to complete the coursework. I signed up for a research methods class (specifically, Causal Inference), and an Independent Study. Independent Study is a class of your own choosing, usually with the guidance of a professor.
A classmate and I signed up for an Independent Study with the professor guiding me to write a thesis proposal. Every two weeks, he asked us to submit a short article, and then he would give comments. Based on his input, we revised the research question and idea, until he agreed that the research question became clear, specific, and interesting.
Our first assignment was to list the top 5 scholars on a topic of our interest, and read their research papers published in leading Political Science journals such as American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science and Journal of Politics. He asked us to think about what scholars are debating (within the framework of our topic of interest), what new contribution our question would make to that debate, and our thesis. Which group of scholars do I target?
By the end of that semester, I had formed a research question, and a specific idea for my thesis. I spent the summer reading and thinking about the theory/hypothesis (or answer) to the research question I was interested in. By term 1 of year 4 (or fall of 2020), I spent time forming testable hypotheses, thinking about research methods, and working on completing my thesis proposal.
The chapter that I want to use as the Job Market Paper (the research you will present when you apply for a job) will use survey experiments to prove the hypothesis, so I spend a lot of time in the fall looking for funding for my research. assist. I need to convince the dissertation committee that my idea is viable.
I completed the first draft in October 2020, and sent it to my professor for guidance. Fortunately, the professor was satisfied with the hypothesis, and the research method right away. He thought the thesis proposal was good enough and I could defend it. He asked me to slightly revise the argument, then send the article to each member of the thesis committee for comments.
Around the week of November 3, I received input from the remaining 4 members of the thesis committee. Lots of helpful suggestions and hard questions! All 4 members agree that my post is eligible for protection, and I can schedule protection. I feel light all over!
It's hard to find a day where all 5 members are free. And that rare date is January 11, 2021, exactly two days before the new school term begins.
Since all the members of the dissertation committee had read my proposal carefully, on the day of the defense I only had to give a five-minute presentation. I begin by thanking the committee for taking the time to read and comment on my proposal. Then, I shared why I wanted to pursue this topic. After that, each member of the dissertation committee will have 30 minutes to ask me questions (except for the guiding professor). My mentor (and chairperson) helped me record questions and comments from each panel member.
After two hours, I was asked to leave the Zoom room, let the professors comment on my defense, and vote on whether I passed. After 10 minutes, I re-entered the Zoom room. The guiding professor on behalf of the thesis committee congratulated me on passing the exam, and had a very good defense session.
Lessons I learned from writing and defending my thesis topic
Lesson 1: Stay proactive during coursework
Although 2-3 years of coursework is really busy and hard, try to participate in writing one or two research papers with professors or other PhD students. If your thesis proposal is your first serious research paper, you'll probably face a lot of confusion.
Before writing the Dissertation Proposal, I participated in writing a few research papers, and many proposals for money to do research.
These experiences have taught me a lot of valuable skills, helping to make my thesis proposal writing process go smoothly. Writing articles and asking for money for projects taught me (1) how to ask research questions; (2) write a long document with a theme that runs through, without rambling; (3) how to put the problem in such a way that it attracts the reader's attention; (4) see the advantages and disadvantages of different research methods; (5) find interesting thesis ideas based on previous research papers. And many more skills.
Lesson 2: No need to defend your point of view at all costs
The phrase “thesis topic defense” can be misleading. Many people think that we must "protect at all costs" what we write. I entered the defense session with the attitude of a person who is eager to find comments and contributions to help my ideas become more complete.
In fact, once the professors agree to give you a defense, meaning they believe you'll do well (if you're not ready, they'll advise you not to rush), they want to help you and wish you success. . Don't worry, during the defense they will try to bring you down or humiliate you. They all want their students to succeed!
You rarely have the opportunity to invite 3-5 bright, experienced minds to sit together and discuss your research ideas!!! (So cool)
So take advantage of this opportunity to learn. With that in mind, during my 5 minutes of presentation, I emphasized my desire to receive input from the council to turn the idea that I am very passionate about into reality.
When asked difficult questions, instead of insisting that the approach I wrote in my proposal was the best, I explained the reasoning behind that choice, acknowledged the downsides, and asked for advice.
For example, when a professor asked me why I chose to explore the relationship between the land movement, the labor movement, the democracy movement, and the patriotic movement. What about the environmental movement, the anti-corruption movement? Why do I ignore these movements? And how is the patriotic movement different from the movement against foreign invaders? One professor told her she was not convinced why I chose one movement over another.
I admit to the council that this is the problem that gives me the most headache!!!
Firstly, when reading current research, I realize that the concept of Nationalist Movements is not really clear; There are many similarities between the patriotic movement and the national movement (Ethnic Movement). Then I asked whether the group of patriotic movements should be divided into Anti-foreign Movements and nationalist movements?
Second, if I have too many movements (let's add environmental movements), in the experiment design there will be quite a few groups, and this can affect the power of the research. That is, within each movement group, my sample size is not large enough to see the relationship I want to see (may not find significant effects)
After understanding my concerns, the professors gave me advice and direction to solve. A professor on my board—a highly respected and well-known Experimentalist in the research community—advised me not to worry too much about hasty design, and not to let worries about data affect my planning. essay. The professor said if I have many groups, and if I have to "manipulate" many different characteristics, I can consider using the Conjoint Experiment method.
Lesson 3: Choose your thesis committee carefully
Whether your path to a PhD is smooth or bumpy depends a lot on your relationships with your professors, dissertation committee, and the people you work with.
Therefore, I spend a lot of time and effort choosing the thesis committee members.
I am very fortunate to have a good thesis committee, always supporting the path I choose.
I have built a good relationship with each member of the thesis committee. On the one hand, the professors did not hesitate to ask me difficult, challenging questions, helping me think more deeply about my argument, on the other hand, they always encouraged and helped me pursue my ideas.
In addition, the professors on my board are all respectful and have good relationships with each other. Yes, you must avoid at all costs choosing two professors who "hate" each other on your board. You certainly don't want two jealous people to be involved in deciding your future!
I am very happy that the thesis defense session became an interesting discussion among the members, and between me and the members of the committee.
I suddenly realized, the best thing is to be "challenged" by people who are smarter and more experienced than us.
After the defense session, I found that my thoughts and arguments were clearer, the road ahead, although there was a lot of work to do, was also clearer and brighter.
Lesson 4: Speak encouraging words when possible
As a PhD student, everyone sometimes doubts their own research ability.
The words of encouragement from professors, who have more "power" and experience than us, are really a lifesaver when we are in a state of self-doubt.
Before asking me a question, one professor said, “After working with you this past fall, I see in you the potential of a scholar-scholar.”
And my mentoring professor said, “You were the first student I mentored, and you made my mentoring smooth and easy.” Then he said, he feels proud of students like me.
Academia is full of rejections, criticisms, and doubts, so hearing those words of encouragement really warms my heart. At least, my efforts over the past few years have been recognized by the members of the thesis committee!
Author: Dr Thanh Mai