I am working on my dissertation and was really excited about the topic. It’s been something that I have been wanting to study based on both my personal and clinical experiences; however, with each draft of my proposal that my committee reviews, the project seems to be getting further and further away from my vision. This is supposed to be my research project, but I also know that my faculty has a say in the project. I also am all too aware that these faculty members have the power to decide whether or not I can move forward with my project. Do you have any suggestions for ways to stand up to my committee about some of the changes they are suggesting for my project ?
--Deflated Doctorate Student
Dear Deflated Doctorate Student,
Most students are excited about their dissertation topics early on. A dissertation is the opportunity to carve out a niche in a research area that has been previously unexplored. Unfortunately, time, resources, and departmental politics can thwart students’ best efforts to stay on course. If you find yourself feeling frustrated because your project seems to be getting away from you, make sure you explore all your options before making a fuss to your committee.
If you have a relatively good relationship with your chair and/or committee, you may be able to negotiate some parts of the project. For example, if your committee wants you to include some crazy statistical analysis that would take a semester to learn, ask your committee if you can answer your research questions using a simpler approach.
Whenever you assert yourself, always support your arguments with evidence. If you cannot argue against their advice with evidence, you will have an uphill battle trying to convince them otherwise. Revisiting the crazy statistics example, you might use the law of parsimony as evidence against using a crazy analysis in your project by noting that simpler analyses might work better in the long run. However, if you decide not to use evidence to support your arguments, asserting your preferences and dropping your committee’s advice may come across as whining to your committee members.
If you don’t have a good relationship with your chair and/or committee, you may find yourself stuck in the middle. It is an unpleasant place to be, but you need to ask yourself if you want to graduate or push your idealized views onto people who do not want to hear them. In times like these, it is best to keep a low profile, and if their requests are reasonable, do what they ask. If you believe that they are completely unreasonable and you have exhausted every attempt to work with your committee, another option is to go to your dean for advice. But be careful! A graduate student pleading to a dean is worse than simply burning your bridges, so only use this option as a last resort!
Regardless of the type of relationship that you have with your committee, be sure to listen to their advice carefully and discern appropriately. Your dissertation is not their first rodeo, and they are experts in their respective fields, so take their suggestions seriously. If they think that your original idea was not edgy, novel, or interesting enough, they might be right. Approach your committee with humility and gratitude, and 9 times out of 10, they will likely be on your side.
--René Paulson, PhD