The question I am mulling over tonight is, “What is a good dissertation question?”
I have had several students ask me for advice in answering this question for themselves. The first thing I would say is that optimally the dissertation topic should be one that students have been interested in and immersed in throughout the program (if not before). Lately I have heard from more than one student who had a topic when they entered the program and with each new class they changed that topic. In one of my classes I posted the following description of the ideal process.
N6004 N6014 and N6024 N6034
Artists go through stages when rendering a subject. They don’t start with detail but with a general shape. To that shape they add a bit more shading and detail, and finally artists apply color, background, and fine grain detail.
Research is much like creating a piece of art. In N6004 you will begin laying down a strong research foundation (basic shape) on which to build quantitative and qualitative research. It is too early to add detail at the beginning. This course will simply assist students in choosing their subject and their starting outline.
Then in N6014 and N6024 students will add a bit of relevant detail.
In N6034 students will choose more of the color, background and detail that will become the plan for their dissertation.
The point of my explanation was to stress that proposing, defending, and executing a dissertation is a painstaking process which builds gradually from curiosity to a richly detailed piece of unique and innovative work.
If a student starts the process over they must still progress from a vaguely shaped idea to a fully detailed plan that must stand up to intense scrutiny. That scrutiny is only partially satisfied when the student’s committee is satisfied. Even more rigorous scrutiny awaits new graduates who seek to publish the results of their dissertations.
It takes time, rumination, revision, re-thinking, commitment, and perseverance to complete a PhD program. The dissertation is not like an assignment that stands alone and is detached from all other aspects of the program. The program is designed to begin by constructing a strong foundation and then adds progressively to the student’s ability to plan and conduct research that is sound and will stand up to the criticism of peers.
A common pitfall I see students fall into is the crafting of their question. Many of us arrived in the program with a stick figure-type question such as ” Is medication X more efficacious than medication Y in pediatric asthma?” There are three main problems with such a question. The first problem is that it appears on the surface to be a drug trial. Drug trials (or any type of treatment evaluation) is expensive, time consuming, and requires a team which includes pharmacologists, physicians, statisticians, etc. Such an ambitious study is best left until after graduation and then only in a setting where such teams are readily available and the treatment under investigation is of relevance to all members. The second problem is that drug trials or treatment evaluations requiring prescriptive authority are not usually within the domain of “nursing research”. So now you are going to ask, what is the domain of nursing research and where are its boundaries? I will admit that the domain and its limits are not fixed but flexible and broad. However, the general understanding of nursing research is described on the NINR website as
Nursing research develops knowledge to:
- Build the scientific foundation for clinical practice
- Prevent disease and disability
- Manage and eliminate symptoms caused by illness
- Enhance end-of-life and palliative care
There is no explicit reference in this description to the medical or pharmacological treatment of disease. Aside from that qualification, the definition is quite broad. So how could I take my question about asthma medications and situate it more aptly within the domain of nursing research? I would start, of course, by reviewing existing literature on childhood asthma and the medications of interest. Perhaps I would learn that medication X has more troubling side effects than the Y but is far less expensive, making it a preferred treatment option. I might then pose my question differently, I could ask, “What differences in compliance do patients taking drug x and y report?” or “What strategies for ameliorating side effects of drug X work best for lower socioeconomic groups of pediatric patients?” The options then become focused on management and elimination of symptoms-clearly a nursing question.
The wise student will not abandon the original question and switch to a totally different topic and begin the process at the beginning again each time they receive critique from faculty or fellow students. The student will, instead, address criticism of their plan or question and continue to refine it, focus it, situate it more firmly in the literature and in the nursing domain. To do otherwise is to complete the course work of the program and arrive at dissertation time with a stick figure rather than a well-executed rendering of a germane and feasible proposal .
The final problem with my entry-level question is that it is what I will call a “small problem”. By that I don’t mean unimportant but rather this problem is likely to be of relevance only as long as drug X is prescribed and only for asthma patients. A dissertation ideally addresses a “big problem”. Putting this question into a larger context might be asking “How do the side effects of medications taken by different socioeconomic groups affect compliance and treatment outcomes?” Can you see the difference? In this case drug x is an exemplar of a much larger problem with implications for illnesses other than asthma. Of course, you cannot study side effects of every drug for every illness but you can systematically sample drugs (picking a specific class of drugs or a specific type of side effects).
I hope this simplistic example illustrates the complexity that becomes apparent when “big problems” are addressed rather than “small problems”. I hope also that it is illustrative of the developmental process PhD students go through as they move from an initial question to a more seasoned and thoughtful one.
I would love to hear from some of our PhD students or others with similar or differing opinions. There really is no easy way to answer the question, “What is a good dissertation question?” I still have considerable mulling to do myself.