The Public Administration Doctoral Dissertation Reexamined: An Evaluation of the Dissertations of 1998

Article excerpt

This study reports the results of a survey of 1998's public administration doctoral dissertations that examined the quality of the research presented in these studies. Questions about the quality of public administration doctoral research continue to elicit comments and further queries. Is the doctoral dissertation in public administration a quality product? And is the quality of our dissertations, whatever the response to the previous question, improving over time? Is the PA professorate doing a good job of using the dissertation experience to train graduate students to do quality research in our field?

The issue of what makes a good dissertation in the field of public administration, raised in these pages by Howard McCurdy and myself some 15 years ago, continues to attract scholarly attention. In a recent summary report on the state of the public administration doctorate, Claire Felbinger, Marc Holzer, and Jay White write that recent research in the field has found that the "quality of dissertation research has been viewed as questionable by any standards of quantitative or qualitative research" (1999, 459).

After analyzing 47 of the 56 NASPAA-affiliated doctoral programs in 1995, Gene A. Brewer, Rex L. Facer II, Laurence ii. O'Toole Jr., and James W. Douglas concluded that while most had a strong research requirement, they "report that they are trying hard to improve the quantity and quality of their research," including their emphasis on dissertation work (1998, 133).

Guy B. Adams and Jay D. White, building on White's 1984 assessment of dissertation quality (see especially White 1986a), reexamined the quality of doctoral research in public administration. Using the PA dissertations of 1992 as their research base, they compared these studies to dissertations in four other practice-related fields (planning, management, criminology, and social work) and in women's studies. They concluded that dissertation research in these fields could be characterized as set in a "theoretical wasteland." In addition, after comparative assessments of the six fields, they declared that public administration dissertations showed "low quality" on such indicators as the presence of an explicit theoretical or conceptual framework, research design, and the importance of the research (1994, 574--5).


The original McCurdy-Cleary research analyzed 142 doctoral dissertations listed under the heading of public administration in Dissertation Abstracts 1981, based on their methodological rigor and their relevance to the field (McCurdy and Cleary 1984). This analysis was repeated in 1991 for the 165 studies listed under the heading of public administration in Dissertation Abstracts 1990 (Cleary 1992).(1)

This study again replicates the McCurdy-Cleary methodology used in 1981, this time to analyze 168 doctoral dissertations listed under the heading of public administration in Dissertation Abstracts 1998. The focal point of the study is whether identifiable changes or improvements in dissertation quality have occurred in recent years. I again analyze dissertations on the six evaluative criteria presented by McCurdy and myself in 1981: research purpose, methodological validity, testing of theory, causal relationships, importance of topic, and topic on the cutting edge.

To do so, I repeated the survey questions of 1981 and 1990:

* Did the study have a research purpose; that is, did it set out to conduct basic research and report on the findings?

* Did the study have a rigorous research design?

* Did the research test an existing theory?

* Did the study conclude with a causal statement (of any kind)?

* Was the topic of the study an important one in the field of public administration?

* Did the study involve the development of new questions or the creation of new experience? (For an explanation of these questions and their use as criteria of research quality, see McCurdy and Cleary 1984, 50). …