Dissertation Canvas

by Phanish Puranam

I have no doubt that the hardest part, by far, of the Ph.D. student’s journey is finding a thesis topic, and then a cast of characters who are enthusiastic enough about the topic to serve as a thesis committee. How do you select a suitable dissertation topic? And, even more importantly, how can you select a topic that will also have an “impact”?

Impactful research has become more desirable than ever. That’s a good thing because as researchers we are in debt to many stakeholders who make our work possible, and it is only right that our research aspires to serve at least some of their needs. But for the doctoral student, this desire makes the task of choosing a thesis topic seem doubly daunting: not only must it meet the standard for quality, but it must also somehow have this thing called impact!

In one of our salon conversations, Jerry Davis set me the challenge of producing the equivalent of a “dissertation canvas” to help students converge on a topic, like frameworks that firms use to select business models.

My answer: a pair of exercises found here. These were designed to help doctoral candidates who have completed their coursework select research topics that are impactful while still being feasible, rigorous research projects. By impactful, I mean “relevant to important contemporary problems that our societies face.” Another way to operationalize is to say “of interest to audiences in addition to the readers of our academic journals”. The exercises were piloted with a group of Ph.D. students in early 2023 and were refined based on feedback from both Collective Impact colleagues and the students.

The student begins with a set of potential topics, then iterates within Exercise 1- i.e., think through Exercise 1 for each of the possible topics, and use it to narrow down to a smaller number (2-3).  After that, they should do Exercise 2, and then iterate back to Exercise 1. The student should repeat this iteration until converging on a single topic. Since the exercise answers  can be written down in a page or two, at each iteration, gathering some feedback from colleagues and potential committee members is also likely to be useful. It may also help begin assembling a committee.

I’d love to hear whether and how these worked for you.

One comment on “Dissertation Canvas

  1. Phanish has done the field a real service in creating a Dissertation Canvas. I am particularly intrigued by Exercise 2. Who are the potential readers and beneficiaries of the research you are proposing? What do they need and what do they need to know? How will your research findings help them address these needs?

    Thinking about these questions can be intimidating. At the earliest stages of our careers, we must satisfy an advisor, a dissertation committee, and perhaps Reviewer #2. Do we really need to add one more audience (whom we may not know much about) to satisfy?

    I recommend you take the “applicability” criterion into account BEFORE settling on the topic in Exercise 1. In my experience, coming up with research topics is not hard for doctoral students when given the right stimulus. The prequel to Phanish’s exercises entails turning real-world events into researchable themes. I’ve found that putting 3-4 students together with some news articles can be enough to generate a half-dozen research topics. For our workshop, we included articles on these events:
    Competition and the new antitrust
    The post-covid remote workforce
    Politicization of ESG
    The “anti-woke” backlash
    Creating the green transition

    Come up with a few questions within the broad theme and then ask, “Could the answer to this question inform policy or practice, beyond its ‘contribution to theory’?”

    If it’s impossible to visualize who might use your findings, then consider steering towards a topic with more potential application. Think of Phanish’s canvas as a lighthouse to lead you toward more impactful shores.

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