I recently stumbled across this statement by Don Carson about two ways to approach a dissertation and it is insightful for students looking forward to doctoral research, those of us currently in progress, and professors who advise and prepare future researchers. Carson writes:
‘I frequently tell my doctoral students as they embark on their research that dissertations…can…be divided into two camps. In the first camp, the student begins with an idea, a fresh insight, a thesis he or she would like to test against the evidence. In the second, the student has no thesis to begin with but would like to explore the evidence in a certain domain to see exactly what is going on in a group texts [sic] and admits to uncertainty about what the outcome will be. The advantage of the first kind of thesis is that the work is exciting from the beginning and directed by the thesis that is being tested; the danger is that, unless the student takes extraordinary precautions and proves to be remarkably self-critical, the temptation to domesticate the evidence in order to defend the thesis becomes well-nigh irresistible. The advantage of the second kind of thesis is that it is likely to produce more even-handed results than the first, since the researcher has no axe to grind and is therefore more likely to follow the evidence wherever it leads; the danger is that there may not be much of a thesis at the end of the process, but merely a lot of well-organized data.’ (RBL review of Vanlandingham’s Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul, see http://www.bookreviews.org).
I have come to this sort of conclusion myself but Carson obviously articulates it very well here. In fact, my own research falls into the second camp where I began only really with questions and methods, but I let the evidence go where it will. Drawing a ‘thesis’ and ‘conclusion’ from the evidence has proved immensely difficult. The first kind of thesis (where one tests a hypothetical argument) is exciting and the kind that has the potential to make great waves in scholarship (and it is easy to articulate and summarize). But it is prey to exactly the things Carson mentions and also if a new piece of scholarship challenges it and (wins), it can be catastrophic!
The second kind of thesis is often more thematic such as the topic of adoption in Paul, or the importance of the letter closings and openings, or the theme of night in the Gospel of John. The conclusions are often multiple and difficult to centralize and summarize. But, these kinds of studies end up being very useful as reference resources for other researchers.
It is useful to think this through when you choose a research topic. I actually began with the first kind (where I test a hypothesis). I was so dead-set on finding evidence to support my thesis statement that my supervisor cautioned me against proceeding with this topic because there simply was not enough evidence and I would be in danger of making the kinds of mistakes that Carson identifies. I changed to a more open subject with research questions (and not answers yet) and I am getting very close to some of the answers (here as I near the end of my doctoral journey). As you read published theses, I encourage you to take notice of these two approaches and their strengths and weaknesses, although Carson (later in the review) admits that many dissertations fall somewhere in between these two.
We have seen, I think, too many theses that clumsily work with Jewish and Greco-ROman texts trying to ‘domesticate’ them (as Carson puts it) and force them into a mold that serves the main argument. So, the imperative here is to be circumspect and have a number of good scholars ‘test’ your work and point to weak areas. For those who enter the second camp, and do a more ‘open’ or ‘thematic’ study, the real challenge, I think, is keeping the thing together as one thesis. So, the imperative here (and I am preaching to myself) is to continually reflect on how bring the bits of insight together. Summarize often and try to do some synthesis where it is possible. Also, be careful not to try and do too much. Don’t make your one dissertation project into 3 or 4 loosely connected ‘mini’ theses. The way you can test this is in the cogency and clarity of your dissertation abstract. Do you cringe when people ask ‘what is your thesis about’? Can you summarize it in 4-5 ‘normal’ sentences? In fact, if you have done it right, you should be able to summarize it in one sentence.