Tuesday, October 15, 2013

David Petraeus on Your Doctoral Project

When David Petraeus met with some doctoral students he emphasized again and again how your doctoral project should serve your long term needs. The professional doctorate encourages this. Petraeus's PhD dissertation at Princeton was about the counsel the brass gave after the Vietnam war, and the caution they expressed. He had a chance to interview top people, who would otherwise not be available to him since he was a captain? at the time. In reading his dissertation, I was struck how he had found subject matter experts to guide him and to argue with him, his greatest thank-you was to a Princeton professor who was on the other side of many issues. Be sure your chair is expert in your field. By the way, it is a good read, albeit encumbered with all the stuff that dissertations require in terms of surveys of the field. On the other hand, the footnotes are very interesting.
General Petraeus was, as I said, enthusiastic about the projects he heard about, glad they were of use to people’s actual work. In reading his dissertation, I was struck by how important it was for him to have the right advisors, early and often. They knew the fields, they knew the literature, and they could challenge him. Make sure you choose your advisor(s) with the same criteria. I mentioned this yesterday, but I was struck last night in recalling the dissertation’s acknowledgments how important that was. Of course, someone had to make sure he did all the right things bureaucratically, and I suspect that was not his advisor--  But what mattered was the substantive argument he received from his advisor.
One other thing. About methods courses. Make sure they suit the work you are going to do. People in education or psychology or perhaps economics think statistics as the methods. Or survey methods. But if your work is not quantitative, and involves other skills, maybe a course on how to write up cases, or a course on history writing, or… will serve you well.

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