Who Is A Dissertation For?

by Jerry Davis

Is there an audience for academic research? While it may seem an obvious yes who is that audience? Of all the things I neglected to learn in graduate school, this one took the longest to address. Recognizing that someone might read, and better yet make a decision from my research, wasn’t on my radar. Scholars spend so much of their lives outlining, writing, revising, revising again, revising yet again…but who is the intended receiver of those hard-won insights?

Judging from much of what I see in webinars and paper development workshops, the audience is often Reviewer #2 — that grumpy curmudgeon whose goal in life is to prevent papers from seeing the light of day, blocking the paths to publication with off-base comments and demands for “contribution to theory.”

Alternatively, we might write with the intent to delight our colleagues with engaging stories and to confound their expectations. Management is the only field I know of where “That’s interesting!” is seen as a how-to guide for publication, not a cautionary tale of how science can lose its way.

One recent article estimated that a publication in an A business journal costs an average of $400,000, which seems like a lot just to pacify Reviewer #2 and amuse other academics.

This question of finding (or choosing) an audience is even more pressing when it comes to one’s dissertation. Scholars spend years on a dissertation, selecting a topic, defending a proposal, gathering, and analyzing data, writing up findings, defending the dissertation, sharing insights on the job market, and (optimistically) publishing one or two resulting papers. We live with our dissertation for a long, long time. Is the audience for this work just the four or five people on the dissertation committee who stand between the scholar and their credential? Or should we think beyond the audience in the front row?

A group of senior scholars centered at Wharton has been framing the question this way: How do I choose a dissertation topic that can make a strong scholarly contribution AND has the potential to shape practice for societal benefit? This is, of course, central to the mission of RRBM (Responsible Research in Business & Management): combining rigor and relevance. The answer hinges on the intended audience: who are they, and what do they need to know that your research can provide?

While a seemingly simple and obvious idea in my experience it is almost wholly absent from standard doctoral training. What if we thought of a dissertation as a project or (shudder) a product that is intended to meet some need in the world?

Phanish Puranam jokingly proposed the idea of a “dissertation model canvas,” and the idea stuck. A dissertation proposal might:

  • Define an intended audience or audiences (business executives, policymakers, the public, academics interested in antitrust)
  • State a clear value proposition for each intended audience – what benefit would they receive from the proposed research
  • Speculate on the intended uses for the work

Perhaps the proposed topic is sparked by a gap in the literature, or a new and under-examined phenomenon — but without a clear audience who could receive value from the research, it might be worth re-thinking. Of course, the value could be “Fellow academics will enjoy reading this,” but that might not be as persuasive.

What do you think? How do you choose audiences for your work, particularly dissertations? And what would your “dissertation model canvas” include?

4 comments on “Who Is A Dissertation For?

  1. Jerry lays out an important set of issues —- not just for the dissertation researcher, but for all of us. Among the challenges of the management scholar offering some “value add” to applied audiences, whether a government policy maker or a manager, is the highly context specific nature of the decision challenges such individuals often face. For instance, if we study interventions to help increase diversity and inclusion in organizations, the audience of managers is obviously vastly larger than the organization(s) in the study. This desire to say something useful and at the same time somewhat general, often leads management scholars to what Merton termed theories of the middle range or what Jim March more modestly termed “little ideas”. These “little ideas” can have considerable power in practice, but may at times create a “last mile” problem — the unpacking of these potentially useful insights into particular circumstances. Perhaps the implication is that the contribution to some audiences may not end up with the publication of a set of findings, but those findings are part of a broader conversation among diverse audiences.

  2. I completely agree that writing to delight or amaze one’s colleagues is hardly a good justification for a research project. But must every study be able to clearly define what the specific value proposition is for a non-academic audience? Why isn’t it good enough to be able to say that understanding the phenomenon that one is studying would potentially be useful for a particular audience? When I was younger, I studied path dependence in firms’ R&D. What, asked one of my favorite senior colleagues, was the implication of my research for practicing managers? I could only say that it would help managers to be aware of the upsides and downsides of path dependence so they could figure out how to deal with it–and I am not persuaded that every study needs to go further than this. My colleague, by the way, was not entirely happy with my answer, although we became extremely good friends nonetheless.

  3. Good points, Jerry! I would argue that part of the problem for students is also the pressure to be ready for the job market talk. As our expectations for rookies have risen, so has the pressure to publish fast. As a result, the dissertation becomes “what is my job market paper going to look like?” which short circuits deep thinking about the importance of the topic itself. I agree that we also don’t make it a habit for students to consider an audience beyond academia when they are thinking about scholarship. It seems to me that we should start with this issue in our doctoral courses – let’s not just criticize papers, let’s think about and discuss how, where, and when the ideas the authors suggest could be relevant to organizations and policy.

  4. Although I agree that for our research broadly management scholars should think of multiple audiences I am less persuaded that for the dissertation the list of targeted audiences needs to be broadened to consider policy-makers or organizations. If that were to happen, it would be great but I don’t believe that it is necessarily important for dissertation scholars to do that. Indeed , I would argue that itI tcould be problematic and argue that a dissertation may be well served by having even fewer than a handful of direct beneficiaries. It is difficult for a person to serve several masters simultaneously (Ethiraj & Levinthal, 2009). Indeed I would argue, that the audience targeted for a dissertation should be much narrower – just one person – the author of the dissertation (or perhaps two – lets not forget R2😊).. Research is a hard business, much of it learnt through trial and error, apprenticeship, and formal study. Coming up with interesting, important and doable research questions and building a process for repeatedly doing s, building a skill-set and disciplinary competence to address such questions, learning how to write, anticipate and address reviewer concerns, etc. etc. . The dissertation is simultaneously the process and the outcome to bring all this together. In this setting the doctoral student’s only goal of should be to build the best research competence they can in an area that is of deep interest to them. Adding any other goal or constraint to this incredible workload and desired end state is likely to be problematic and a bridge too far. Plus, very simply put – it is a rare dissertation that could directly and by itself informs policy or management practice. A good dissertation by definition is a narrow, focused pierce of work. Policy and management advice necessarily requires a broader understanding of the context in which the policy or advice is to be used. It takes a long time and lots of narrow focused questions to build a deeper understanding of any policy or management decision area. So policy and management implications may be somehing that is left for later. Indeed, Ethiraj and Levinthal (2009) show that temporal distancing between competing goals is one way to achieve them So my perspective would be that doctoral students should not worry about managerial or policy influence. They should focus only n writing the dissertation that they find most engaging and which builds their skills the most; there will be enough time for influencing policy and practice in the years to come.

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