Myths and Truths about Academic Research Projects
Myth #1: Your research project has to be brilliant, truly impress the committee and be published in a prestigious research journal.
Truth #1: The research project only has to be good enough to be accepted so you can graduate. Any additional effort to improve it beyond that bare minimum has to be carefully considered against all other competing life responsibilities such as family, career and health. More is not necessarily better!
Myth #2: You have never done anything like this before.
Truth #2: All that a thesis or dissertation really is can be described as “a fancy term paper that includes some original data.” Most graduate students have successfully written dozens of term papers since high school. Therefore, most know more about what it takes to get the project done than they realize. Some have found it helpful to refer to their project as “my fancy term paper” to remind them of their writing experience.
Myth #3: You have to do all the work yourself.
Truth #3: It is often helpful to delegate portions of the project to others to utilize their expertise and to speed up the time to completion. This could include portions of the typing, the statistical analyses, gathering the data, etc. Some projects are done in student teams or other times people hire professionals to help. If you look at your professor’s projects, seldom do they work alone and often their grants include money for consultants. Other people find it helpful to delegate or hire someone to handle other life tasks such as childcare, gardening, tax preparation, shopping or other misc. errands to free up more time to work on their project. Unfortunately, some people think that they are “saving money” when they do it all themselves but often they really end up paying more money in the form of extra tuition or lost future income because their project drags on.
Myth #4: All of my committee members carefully read and remember every word that I send to them plus any of the related discussions.
Truth #4: Except for the committee chairperson, most actually don’t read every word and some chairs don’t either! A good strategy is to send the first few drafts of each chapter to your committee in bullet-point form for their feedback. Most committee members will read and provide detailed feedback if given three pages of bullet-points. However, many are not likely to read carefully a 30-page chapter and give a thoughtful critique. In addition, a few drafts in bullet-point form increases their comfort level with your project so they tend to ask fewer dumb or surprise questions at the Final Orals.
Myth #5: Every draft to my committee must be flawless.
Truth #5: Not true! One of the key differences between a term paper and a thesis or dissertation is that with a term paper you only get one submission to get your grade. It’s different with a thesis or dissertation because it’s created in multiple drafts. Many students slow down their project unnecessarily by spending too much time polishing their initial rough drafts.
Myth #6: My research project must make an original contribution to the literature of my discipline.
Truth #6: Most graduate research projects are repeats of other studies and not later published. Most graduate students (and faculty members for that matter) do not have the ability, funding, or resources available to them to make a truly original contribution. The true goal of a thesis or dissertation at most universities is to teach graduate students the research process so they can better understand journal articles and the scientific method.
Myth #7: My paper must be long to be accepted.
Truth #7: Not necessarily true. While some schools do require a certain number of pages, length is generally not a key factor. Remember that most of the seminal journal articles in your discipline are under twenty pages in length.
Myth #8: Qualitative research projects are easier to complete than quantitative ones.
Truth #8: This is also not necessarily true. In qualitative analysis, there really is no limit to the amount of thematic analysis one can do so it becomes difficult to know when you have done enough work. Students are still writing dissertations on the works of Shakespeare and he hasn’t written anything new for quite awhile! With a quantitative study, there generally are specific hypotheses to test with clear criteria for acceptance or rejection. Once the hypotheses are tested, you can write your conclusions and be done.
Myth #9: It always better to pick a topic that you are passionately interested in when deciding what to write about.
Truth #9: There is actually some truth to this myth but what often happens is that the project suffers from “the curse of an interesting topic.” This means that the student makes the project much too large because they can’t decide what to exclude because “it’s all so interesting.” It’s generally better to find a moderately interesting topic with readily available data to get the project done.
Myth #10: My first proposal to my committee must include everything I plan to do.
Truth #10: Writing the proposal is in many ways a negotiation with your committee. If it were a money negotiation, one would begin by saying “it costs $1 million” while the other person initially offers to pay about $1.00 for it. After a few rounds, the parties hopefully come up with a price both can live with. In the same way with a proposal, make the first offer to be simple and then add to it only after the committee wants more. Some graduate students have offered simple initial proposals, had the project accepted unchanged by the committee and this saved the student countless hours in the process.
Copyright Tom Green 2002
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