Curso doctorado Metodología Filosófica
Prof. Jaime Nubiola
Universidad de Navarra

How to Design a Dissertation Project

Scott M. Lanyon
BioScience vol. 45/1 (1995), pp. 40-42

Of all the decisions that a student makes during his or her graduate career, the selection of a dissertation project is perhaps the most important and most difficult. This decision can come early in their graduate school careers, often before students have developed and understanding of all of the factors to be considered. This problem is particularly acute for Ph.D students who have not first obtained a master's degree and, therefore, have that much more to learn about conducting research. I have advised doctoral students in evolutionary biology over the past eight years and have served on seven search committees to fill tenure-track research positions in evolutionary biology. In this article, I articulate the many ramifications of selecting a dissertation topic and outline how students might go about making this article for graduate students interested in pursuing a research career on biology, but my central theme is relevant to graduate students in any doctoral program.

Frequently, graduate students attempt to evaluate project ideas without having first determined criteria that would allow them to differentiate good ideas from bad. Criteria sometimes considered by students when evaluating potential projects include logistic feasibility, originality, and size —often simply whether a project seems large enough to earn a doctoral degree. These criteria are necessary but insufficient for a wise decision. For students who view the Ph.D degree as a means of obtaining a preferred job, the single most important question to consider when evaluating potential dissertation projects should be: What is the likelihood that this research will generate sufficient interest to launch a successful career? Although other graduate advisors may not agree with the points I make, I hope the article encourages them to articulate more clearly the criteria they use to evaluate doctoral dissertations.

What is the goal?

A graduate student may make the mistake of seeing the doctoral degree as the goal. Obtaining a Ph.D does represent a significant hurdle. However, it is unwise to focus primary attention on the degree while ignoring the far more difficult hurdle that follows quickly on its heels: the job market.

The degree guarantees nothing beyond the opportunity to apply for postdoctoral positions and jobs. The dissertation research and resultant publications are the primary factors that determine whether job interviews and offers are to be forthcoming —often even when research is not a primary responsibility in the desired position. Consequently, potential dissertation topics must be evaluated with respect to the jobs the students is interested in obtaining. The ideal dissertation project would be one that guarantees results and insights that are exciting to the search committees that eventually decide one's proffesional fate. Unfortunately, research is not an activity with guarantees.

The second most important question to consider when evaluating potential research projects, and one that all too often is ignored by students and advisors alike, is whether the project is of inherent interest to the student? It is essential that students be genuinely excited about the research projects they select. The successful completion of a doctoral program is difficult enough when students are enthusiastic about their research project. Selecting questions and organisms that students find only moderately interesting can convert a difficult task to an overwhelming one. Advisors and fellow graduate students can offer their opinions about the relative merits of various projects, but only the student who plans to conduct the work can decide whether a project is suitable for himself of herself.

The following suggestions are likely to improve the student's ability to design an optimal project. My general guidelines for dissertation research are presented in Figure 1. I elaborate on several key components below. I directly address the students, specifically those interested in pursuing academic research careers in biology.


When designing a dissertation project, it is critical that your starting point be broad issues. Few people are hired in biology because they work on a particular species or set of species and have insights about those organisms. Search committees select new colleagues on the basis of the concepts they are investigating and the exciting insights that result. Pick questions that are of broad interest and select study organisms that maximize the probability of finding far-reaching answers. In reality, most biologists select a broad taxonomic group on which to work (e.g., birds) then the questions and issues they wish to investigate. Finally, they choose the most appropriate species within their broad taxonomic group.

By stressing the conceptual foundation of dissertation projects, I do not mean to imply that all dissertations themselves must be broad. Many excellent dissertation projects are narrowly focused (e.g., a single question investigated with a single species). However, the question selected must be of interest to a broad audience and the broader implications of the narrowly focused study must be explored and communicated.

Improve the odds

Science is exploration. Every scientific study has many possible outcomes. To evaluate a project properly as a potential dissertation, you must articulate, as fully as possible, the spectrum of possible outcomes.

When students first consider a project, they have a strong tendency to think of it as a linear series of events, often with a predetermined outcome. They imagine they are to conduct experiments, collect data, employ their various analyses, and then announce to the world new insights on a burning question.

However, science does not work that way. Each step of a study has an element of uncertainty associated with it. Data collection might not go as planned, and some variables may have to be dropped, requiring modification of subsequent steps of the study. Experiments may be inconclusive, requiring additional alternations to the research program. Every component of a scientific study has multiple outcomes. The number of potential outcomes of an entire dissertation-scale scientific study is enormous.

A complex flowchart is a better representation of science than is a simple linear sequence of events. By designing a flowchart for projects you consider seriously, you can identify a reasonable subset of the posible outcomes of the project. You cannot hope to anticipate the entire universe of possibilities, but the subset you do identify is likely to be representative. The critical question you must then ask is: Just how interesting are each of these potential outcomes? In other words, if your study terminates with outcome #1, #2, or #3, how competitive are you likely to be in the job market?

How does this exercise enable you to select a dissertation project? If you anticipate 20 alternative outcomes of a project, only one of which is likely to make you competitive for jobs, then you have not, in my opinion, identified a good dissertation project. It does not matter how exciting and revolutionary that one outcome might be. Do you really want to gamble your chance at a career on the possibility that your research will proceed along a single path?

Be attentive and flexible

The unpredictable nature of biology research leads to two inseparable characteristics of an excellent dissertation program: attentiveness and flexibility. Do you treat your research as you would a computer program that you can write, initiate, and walk away from until the program run is complete. Once you begin collecting data, you should continuously evaluate your research progress so that you can modify your program in the early phases of the study, when it is most beneficial.

Two factors may lead you to adjust the design of your study: First, problems encountered in conducting your research may make an experiment or even a whole study impossible. Second, you may need to modify your study in response to an unexpected discovery with profound implications. You should constantly evaluate your progress not only to detect problems but also to identify tangential lines of inquiry that may be more fruitful than the one you originally selected. Recognize golden opportunities and be flexible enough to pursue them.


Although search committees look primarily at a candidate's dissertation research and resultant publications, there are two additional considerations: the ability of the candidate to be successful in the nonresearch component of the job and the range of expertise the candidate is likely to bring to the staff. You should view your dissertation as an opportunity to acquire a wide range of expertise. Depending on the type of job you seek, good skills to develop include teaching, grant writing, scientific writing, popular writing, presenting papers at meetings, supervising personnel, fund raising, and public speaking. In addition, maximize the range of techniques, organisms, habitats, and geographic areas with which you have experience. The emphasis you place on each of these items should depend on the kind of jobs that interest you.


If you select a dissertation focused on broad issues, it is likely that your work will appeal to an audience beyond those scientist interested in your study organisms. By selecting a broad conceptually based dissertation that has many interesting possible outcomes, you increase your chance of success in the job market. If you constantly reevaluate your progress while conducting your research, you should be able to identify and correct problems as they develop. By constantly reevaluating your progress you maximize the probability of recognizing and pursuing significant discoveries. As you strive to acquire a broad array of expertise, you become more likely to fit both the stated and unstated objectives of search committees. Finally, by selecting concepts, organisms, and techniques that are of inherent interest to you, you make it easier to commit the time, energy, and intellect required to produce an excellent dissertation.

Do not squander your opportunity to prepare to enter the job market. You should determine the kind of jobs you want to pursue when you graduate, identify the characteristics needed to compete successfully for those jobs, and design your dissertation and graduate career to guarantee that you develop those characteristics.

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Última actualización: 17 de agosto 2017