5

I am in the social sciences (political science) doing research largely based on fieldwork. Accordingly, my dissertation project has changed quite a bit in the four months since getting my prospectus approved and beginning fieldwork. My department is fairly open, with helpful faculty, and I want to reach out to many different professors to get feedback. I check in with my advisors every few weeks with a just brief email, which is sufficient for them because they understand the broader project.

How can I present ongoing evolving research to new people, especially faculty members? For instance, I could write a brief two-page memo summarizing my dissertation project and revise it on a monthly basis. The only drawback here is that this might require writing a new two-pager every month. From writing fellowship proposals, I know this actually takes a lot of work.

What techniques did you find effective for getting for advice from people outside your dissertation committee during your dissertation work?

  • Is soliciting advice of non-advisors common in social sciences? In math, sometimes you discuss your research with people not your advisor, but (until the defense stage) this is usually only if they ask you or if you have specific questions for them. – Kimball Jun 18 '15 at 8:41
8

People have a lot to read in academia as is. Sending out a document and asking for feedback is a strenuous exercise for all involved parties. You may want to take into consideration that some of your colleagues will also simply not want to willingly participate with their opinion.

Instead, a useful compromise is the use of a presentation. Prepare one whenever you see fit and advertise to your faculty by email what it is you're presenting, why you're presenting, and explain that you're specifically looking for feedback on 'X'; 'X' being the methodology applied, noticeable gaps in literature, etc.

In this manner, you practice your presentation skills, you take only 10 minutes or so of your colleagues' time, you strengthen relationships amongst your peers, and you're immediately available for questions. The benefits of this approach are many, and I think you'll be able to find even more than the ones I've just listed.

I hope that this was helpful to you.

3

Profs are busy and it is unlikely that they will give you one-on-one advice if they don't have any stakes in your project.

Therefore, you must offer something in return. I have not tried this myself, but it supposedly works (Gray 2010, p. 60-61): Volunteer to read and comment on a paper, now or in the future, from the person whose advice you are soliciting. Even very senior researchers need feedback, even from juniors. Why? Because problems of clarity and organization in a late draft are more obvious to non-experts, and because non-experts can more easily find overriding (but hidden) themes in an early draft. In your inquiry, address the following:

  • How their work has informed yours. Ask specific questions aimed at the intersections of their work and yours
  • Which sections and issues you need feedback on
  • Whether you want hints to additional reading and citations
  • Explain that you want just a "quick" read (not an editorial read)
  • Ask when you might expect to hear back from them
  • Promise acknowledgements

Moreover, to solicit comments on my PhD project from people besides my advisors I mostly relied on conferences and smaller workshops:

  1. I applied for workshops and conferences outside my institution. Many workshops and conferences in political science, such as this one, cater specifically to PhD students.
  2. We had a weekly colloquium at my PhD institution where I presented mostly every six months. This was a great opportunity to discuss halfway finished work like draft chapters.
  3. Students from my PhD institutions invited external speakers to participate in a lecture series. Often the speakers were willing to hold a small workshop the following day (before flying home) where a handful of PhD students could discuss their work and ask for advice. If a lecture series with externals exists at your institutions, maybe you can suggest to add a workshop.
  4. You might also be able to propose a thematic workshop (on particular methods or theories), depending on the demand at your institution and the available funding (if external guests are needed). It is best to determine the demand first, i.e. to ask around who would attend such a workshop, before proposing this to your superiors.
  5. At my workplace, the younger researchers established a workshop with a particular "discussant" format. In each session (bi-weekly), someone presented and discussed the paper of another participant. It was expected that the papers not be too polished and do still have many loose ends so there could be a lively discussion how to proceed from the work. The informal atmosphere (coffee and rolls!) and the discussant model made this highly productive, although mostly junior faculty participated. Again, this is something that you could try to establish at your institution.

Admittedly, all these proposals rely on written contributions of probably more than a two-page memo. However, also your thesis needs to be more than two pages at some point. So why not start to write a draft chapter right away? If you want useful feedback, you have to provide tangible input. Depending on the venue, the contribution can be anywhere from tentative "think-piece" (5.) to almost final draft (1.). You mention that you are doing field-work right now. Why not polish your field-notes and elaborate how your preliminary findings form the field can inform your theory/research question and which new challenges you have encountered?

BTW: I would be interested in hearing form senior faculty if they have ever encountered an inquiry for advice from external PhD students and if they would respond positively if offered a reading in return.

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Gray, Tara 2010: Publish and Flourish, Ashland: BookMasters.

0

One method that I've seen works fairly successfully is to use a session of a journal club to do a brief presentation. It's not one-on-one, but it can really help to get a group engaged. A time when journal clubs often work like this is right before a big meeting where people use the session to hone their presentations.

Some larger research groups may do this entirely internally, and have periodic brief presentations to each other.

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