Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 23 November 2007

The inside scoop – dissertations

Last weekend I attended a “cluster” meeting. Fielding, the oldest virtual graduate university in the country, has a variety of ways to meet face-to-face (F2F). The cluster is a group of geographically located students who get together once a month. They determine the agenda for the meetings and have a budget from the school to bring faculty in as guest speakers. Sometimes they schedule three day “intensives” with faculty on a particular knowledge area that apply toward credit. Students can attend their local cluster or any other cluster around the world (most are in US and Canada).

I went to the Santa Barbara cluster last Saturday. They had invited a few of us new students for a day of sharing their doctoral journeys. It turned out that I was the only new student to attend, so I was the very fortunate recipient of a wealth of information. I heard many opinions on the various faculty, which I won’t include here. I will include a few pertinent tidbits that would apply regardless of your program.

  • When choosing your dissertation topic, make sure the topic/question is one for which you have a true passion. Evaluate the topic/question regarding the methodology you would need to use for the question and fit with your personal writing style. Make sure you can control the process of data gathering and analysis. For example, if you are doing a sociological study of a program within a university, you have no control over whether the funding is cut mid-way through your research.
  • There are two types of dissertations (there may be more, but that’s all I know for now). One is the most common – that’s the “research dissertation” where you articulate a question, design and conduct a research project and write up your results and conclusions. The other type is a “theoretical dissertation” – where you structure and develop a theory. Then it is up to the research community to prove or disprove the theory. Developing theory is not an easy task (it’s usually done by seasoned academics who are well past their student days) and two of the students in this cluster are writing theories.
  • Pick your dissertation chair very carefully. They call all the shots once the committee starts working together.


  1. Thank you Sarah – I’m adding these links to my terminology section. Interesting thing about Wikipedia – even my daughter’s middle school teachers discourage her from using it. However the statistics on Wikipedia are impressive – it’s only slightly less accurate than Brittanica and far more comprehensive.

    Regarding the word “autopoetic” – it was of of 88 assigned vocabulary words for my 753A “Cultures of Inquiry” course. I had paraphrased the given definition – so here it is in full:

    Refers to the self-referential and self-generating character of a social situation in which a narrow group of socially interdependent individuals generate standards for each other and judge each other’s performance without regard to their contextualization within the interests of society at large (Lincoln & Denzin, The landscape of qualitative research 2003, p. 163).

    This definition does sound a little narcissistic…..

  2. Wikipedia, though maligned by our faculty, is sometimes a good place to begin looking into a concept or theory or person or movement. Here’s the link to “autopoiesis” (note spelling). As I understand it from having worked with this idea in my Systems KA, the simplest definition is “self-organizing.” This can refer to a group organizing itself for some task or undertaking, or to a phenomenon in nature, etc. I don’t think autopoiesis quite means “self-referential,” which has a narcissistic element to it.

    Wikipedia also has an entry for “phronesis” (, with which I’m less familiar.

    Blogging your journey and using the blog in your comps is a great idea! I think I’ll start now!

  3. This thing about “making sure you control the process of data gathering” is practically understandable, but I also find myself a bit resistant to the idea that life is controllable in that way. For me it is more useful to say “Expect the unexpected. When that happens, how might you continue your research?” This won’t give us all the answers, of course, but it moves thinking in a more practical direction (if you believe thinking systemically is practical!).

    In addition to the advice about carefully picking your dissertation chair, I’ve heard several people now recommend researching relationship dynamics between committee members very carefully before selecting them. For example, I may work very well with two potential committee members who have some issue with each other that’s outside my realm of experience. I’d rather not be in the middle of their issue, so I’d like to know about it ahead of time if possible.

    Thanks for the post!

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