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Focusing Your Research at a Cocktail Party

Tomorrow's Research

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If you can\'t convince someone at a cocktail party about the value of your research project, you certainly aren\'t going to convince your dissertation committee.  



The short posting below looks at the task of explaining your research in a few brief sentences to people outside your field of study. It is from Chapter 3 Focusing Your Research, in the book, The Education Dissertation: A Guide for Practitioner Scholars, by Dan W. Butin. Copyright © 2010 by Corwin, a SAGE Company. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320 []. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research

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Focusing Your Research at a Cocktail Party 


The next two chapters focus on clarifying your theoretical framework, conducting multiple literature reviews, and developing and choosing your particular research design and methodology. The key for now, though, is that you are able to focus and phrase your research as clearly and tightly as possible such that your research questions and purpose stand at the center of your thinking.  You do not yet have to think through every permutation of your research or the literature or the variables involved.  You just, for now, have to be focused enough in your research idea to be able to talk about it.  This chapter thus concludes by describing an activity I conduct with my doctoral students. The “dissertation cocktail party” is a way to test the ability to articulate a research topic and move to the next stage in the process. 

Here’s the scenario and activity: you’re at an elegant cocktail party and someone hands you a drink and says, “So, tell me about your dissertation….”  You should be able, on the spot, to clearly articulate your dissertation theme and focus.  Your articulation should have nothing about methodology, theory, educational research, or any other so-called jargon. It should be about the big picture.  Elegant people at fancy cocktail parties, I tell my students, don’t really care about such minutia.  If you can clearly and concisely answer this basic question, the inquirer then asks, “Fascinating… so what exactly will you be studying?” You should then be able to explain your research question in a few, clear sentences. 

I go around the room and engage in exactly this kind of role play with each of my doctoral students about halfway through my Introduction to the Dissertation class. It takes a few attempts, but all of the students quickly understand how to reframe and rephrase their detailed ideas into such a conversational style.  This is not just a fun classroom-based exercise; it is important to learn how to talk about your multifaceted and detailed ideas with others who may not be familiar with your research interests  Moreover, talking about it with others helps you clarify both the big-picture points and the exact terminology of why you are doing what you are doing.  If you can’t convince someone at a cocktail party about the value of your research project, you certainly aren’t going to convince your dissertation committee. 

My students get it.  You can’t just go deep into the literature and into the data and into your own writing.  Your dissertation proposal has to be able to both go deeply into the specifics as well as “rise above the fray” in order to position the value and relevance of such work.  They then ask the next logical question, “If indeed we were at a cocktail party talking about our dissertation, and the listener was truly interested, wouldn’t another whole set of questions immediately arise?  For example, wouldn’t the listener ask us about whether this was ever done before or how we actually were going to do this study?”  Yes, these are exactly the right questions…for the next chapter. Because, I explain, if the listener could ask such precise questions, then you have done an excellent job of precisely stating your dissertation idea.  We can thus now move from focusing our research to actually structuring it.