Dissertation Advice

I was back at BYU over the summer and went to lunch with several of the Finance faculty.  Hal Heaton, one of the early graduates of Stanford’s Finance Ph.D. and one of my personal favorite MBA teachers, gave me some dissertation advice.

The more obvious part of the secret to a successful dissertation is to choose a topic that excites you.  You will spend at least one year of your life (and probably 2-3) on this paper.  This topic will go a long way toward defining your early years as an academic, and you may be asked to referee papers on this topic, teach this topic to graduate students, etc.  Don’t pick something you’ll want to change in six months.

A less obvious part of the secret, and the part Professor Heaton was talking about, is to choose a topic that interests your advisor.  He or she is very busy and has many things to do other than helping you graduate.  Hal told me a story of a student who was working on a topic on which his advisor was not thrilled.  The student sent the paper to the advisor for comments, and it sat there for weeks and months.  Finally, the advisor felt that after all this time he had better make some critiques, so he read over it and recommended that the student essentially rewrite the entire paper.  He didn’t tell me whether or not the student finally graduated, but in either case this is not the ideal way to spend you fifth year in the program.

To be fair to the unknown advisor, in the absence of any other information about any of the parties involved, my thoughts suggest that perhaps there are some topics that an advisor may find somewhat interesting, but with which he or she is not familiar enough to be of real help.

In summary

  • Choose a topic that interests you, and that is broad enough for you to spend the first few years of your career mastering.
  • Choose a topic that interests your advisor.  Pick something as least related to their line of current work.
  • Make sure your advisor and your dissertation area are a good match.  You don’t want an advisor with great name recognition (in another area of finance) that can’t help you make your paper great.