I realize this is field- and topic-specific but I'm hoping some of this is generalizable.

I'm in the social science side of information science and narrowing down dissertation topics. Some of what I'd like to do is frankly probably too ambitious for a dissertation, involving randomized control trials in the field (a developing country) that may take a while to get right. So I've thought of doing the dissertation as mixed-methods, based around interviews and surveys, but in such a way that it plants the seed of an RCT that will bear fruit after I write the actual dissertation.

  • Generally speaking, in the social sciences, does it make sense to embark on a longer-term project but write a dissertation on one part of it?
  • What external resources could help me figure out the trade-offs here? Obviously my adviser and committee will be the best resource, but it could also be helpful to network with people who have done something like this. Where would I find them?

Again, this may be so context-specific that it's hard to give useful general answers, and I can try to rephrase it in a more helpful way. But info science is a pretty small field, the part that deals with international development smaller still, so asking a question specific to that niche seems unlikely to benefit anyone else.

  • Have you discussed this with your supervisor?
    – Davidmh
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:00
  • 1
    Yes. He's generally supportive. He's a qualitative researcher so I don't know that he would be as knowledgeable about RCTs, but I have people on my committee who can fill that need. How might I find resources outside of my own dept?
    – Philip
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 20:29
  • I have edited the title of your question to reflect the "generalizable" version. Since many people decide whether or not to read a question based on its title, I think the more general question title is likely to get more qualified people to read the rest of the question.
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 5:01
  • @ff524 what was the previous title!?
    – nilon
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 22:51

2 Answers 2


Research is rarely a one shot affair. Whatever you do you'll likely be building on later on, whether it was your original plan, or some offshoot you didn't even dream of initially. So I'd say you should be glad to have some plan for "after dissertation" now.


This is, in my mind, a fairly common way to actually do a dissertation, and if you're proposing extensive field work and I was on your committee, something I might actually insist on, for one reason alone:

Field-work is unreliable

So your data gets lost when a truck upends on some rural road. It turns out the place where you should be getting subjects who have X trait doesn't actually have anyone like that. You wanted to kick off something in rural Guinea in the summer of 2015, but you'd rather not get Ebola...

RCTs and field studies are long, they're hard, and they're expensive. Having a smaller part of it, whether it be a mixed-methods paper, preliminary data, theoretical work, etc. can help insulate you from some of the perils of that by making sure you at least have something to write about.

From my own experience, I embarked on a project that was way more ambitious than was really advisable for my dissertation, and as one mentor put it after I had finished 2-3 papers..."Cut and run. Finish stuff up for your postdoc or faculty position." Having created a larger project, having lots of data, etc., and having thought about your work in a larger context that you're already working on is, in my experience, a nice way to be able to articulate your future plans as a researcher on the job market.

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