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Section 2 Becoming a Researcher/Scholar / Chapter 3 The Doctoral Identity

The expectation of all doctoral learners is that they add to the existing body of knowledge and literature through their own independent research and publication.

Learners may already be familiar with the phrase “paralysis by analysis,” which simply means that thinking too much about something can result in a lack of action.

5. Becoming an Independent Learner


Imagine the number of circuits, processors, and transistors in a tablet, such as an iPad or a Surface, and what it took to invent and make those components. Doctoral work is not necessarily like constructing electronics, but there are similarities with regard to learners figuring it out all the details on their own and exploring new territory in which they create new knowledge. The expectation of all doctoral learners is that they add to the existing body of knowledge and literature through their own independent research and publication. Learners will find enthusiastic faculty members who are interested in their topics; however, those same faculty members will point out the number of times that learners' topics may have been replicated in one form or another. One question learners will hear numerous times is, “What prior research has been done on the topic, and what gaps have been revealed?” An independent learner is one who can take nebulous or limited guidance, sift through tremendous amounts of data, and look through the reference page of a tertiary article to discover resources related to the topic of interest.


This is not to say that there are no processes, milestones, guides, and policies to follow as doctoral learners move through their course work and dissertation. Leaners need to be aware that there may be many obstacles to negotiate because they will be conducting original research that may not have any prior protocols or paradigms. This is really the crux of becoming an independent learner. The role of faculty and dissertation committees is to help the learner to hone a topic that is manageable and to create a dissertation proposal that can be completed within a reasonable time frame.


Although learners will find faculty with similar interests and background in their research topic, ultimately, this is the learners' research/dissertation, and they have complete ownership of the results. Taking ownership does not mean that doctoral learners will not receive extensive feedback, critical edits, and strong guidance from their faculty now and their dissertation committees later. What it does mean is that learners are responsible for answering that feedback, making the necessary edits with the highest possible quality, being proactive in responding to feedback, managing their time along to the way to avoid delays, and listening to the guidance from faculty who understand how to successfully complete the doctoral journey. Learners who need detailed and sequential instructions will have to change their approach a bit. Being an independent learner also means defending an approach and position based upon sound academic research and literature, not opinion. That is what will be expected of doctoral learners when they have to justify their assertions and claims through relevant and recent literature.


Realistic Approach to Conducting Research

Creating new knowledge sounds formidable—and it is—but it happens every day. It will be the learner's responsibility to forge ahead with the research, to examine the existing body of knowledge, and to determine how this particular study can contribute to what has been written and researched before. For example, the concept of leadership is a very popular topic in the social sciences. A quick search of the literature will show thousands of peer-reviewed works. Exploring new territory on this concept would take strong analytical and critical-thinking skills. Where would you start if the topic has already been researched and written about? What are effective ways to review and understand the massive amounts of literature to have a better understanding of what can be researched and tested from an original perspective?


This is where a doctoral learner will need to break existing paradigms and look for gaps in the literature that are reachable and contributory. For example, take the idea of personality and leadership: A quick search of an electronic library using the search terms “personality AND leadership” resulted in 7,628 peer-reviewed journal articles on this topic. Should that dissuade a learner from researching the two components of interest? Perhaps the learner is interested in what types of personality characteristics are most prevalent in strong leadership styles. This is where learners can become independent, looking for uncharted territory and thinking out of the box to continue to hone an original research topic.


However, the learner should not try to read all 7,000-plus journal articles to find gaps in the literature. A more effective way to approach this might be to look at a single personality component, such as the concept of intuition, and pair that with leadership to see what the search results look like. The learner has read prior research noting that intuitive leaders have a greater impact on an organization than individuals who are less intuitive. Another search of the electronic database using the search terms “intuition AND leadership” yielded 270 peer-reviewed articles on this topic, which is quite a reduction from the previous 7,000. The learner may feel it is possible to read all 270 articles in about six months, but is that practical? This topic is still too broad and needs even more fine-tuning.


Therefore, to break this down even further, the learner has read that leaders who base decisions primarily on intuition are effective in certain types of organizations and that they are successful business leaders. The learner adds all of these phrases and finds there are 13 articles that match at least all three of the phrases identified. This is significantly more manageable. In a matter of minutes, the learner's small search has yielded relevant and reasonable results.


As learners read these articles, they may become aware that research has already been completed on the topic in which they are interested. Since their responsibility is to create an original research question and new knowledge, what options do they have now? As independent learners, they should start to look through the reference pages of each of those additional articles to find the roots of the research. When they find those articles, they look at the references of those articles to find gaps in the research and literature that can provide several ideas about what direction to take their own research topic.


This is just a small example of some of the research and topic hurdles learners may face as they begin their doctoral journey. As learners start their course work, it is important to remain flexible in identifying an appropriate research topic, because there is a very high probability that it will change along the way. If learners are inflexible and only pursue what they have in mind from the beginning, they may find themselves frustrated by suggestions from faculty throughout their journey. Remaining flexible will allow them to take ownership of their research and will help to eliminate stress if they find out their perfect research topic has been replicated more than 10 times.


Persevering Through the Dissertation Phase

There are countless stories at every doctoral college across the nation in which learners who have been adept at completing course work have been halted in their tracks with the dissertation process. Learners may already be familiar with the phrase “paralysis by analysis,” which simply means that thinking too much about something can result in a lack of action. Many learners have constructed a study with strong alignment from the problem statement through the methodology, and they have robust data, but they become stuck when it is time to write the dissertation. This is where taking ownership of the research project comes into the equation. The dissertation committee is responsible for providing learners a compass to stay clear of the hazards and pitfalls in their journey. That compass may not only cover true north but may lead to other territories that are uncharted; however, it is the learner's responsibility to determine the right course of action.


Financial Responsibility

One last part of becoming an independent learner is the financial responsibility for doctoral education. Paying back what is owed is the expectation of those providing the loan, the doctoral community, and fellow colleagues, and it is what learners should expect from themselves. This expectation of financial responsibility to one's education fits into the doctoral dispositions discussed earlier in this chapter and into the ethical considerations of becoming a scholar-practitioner.