One of our PhD students defended his dissertation proposal yesterday, and he got challenged on whether his puzzle was really puzzling or not. Yesterday evening, my PhD dissertation proposal workshop met and pondered this--what makes a puzzle a puzzle? This led to my ranting about such stuff, so I thought I would share what I thought about all of this.
Long ago, before the internet and barely after the invention of electricity (or so my daughter always thought as a kid), we did not focus so much on puzzles but on "so what?" Or, as they put at UCSD in my time there, how would someone who does sewage maintenance (either study it or do it?) care about your project. Since that ancient time, it has become a ritual in poli sci (and maybe other fields) job talks that one introduces the project by saying: here's this puzzle that I seek to understand. This puzzle is supposed to be the hook to get folks engaged in the project. That in most job talks, the audience consists of some people in your subfield and most people outside of it, so how do you get those folks engaged? This is important.
However, sometimes I think this is the tail wagging the dog. The point of doing a dissertation is to....
complete an original research project. The question can be but need not be original. The answer can be but no need not be original. The method can be but not need not be original. But the parts as they fit together must be original. So, you can take an existing theory and apply it to an original question, you can take a new theory and apply it to an old question, you can take an existing theory and question and test it in a novel way. But the point is that the research project is really about the research, not the hook. So, I tend to find PhD students starting their dissertation proposal hung up on the puzzle, which is somehow apart from the question, rather than on the question itself and then the proposed answer.
Indeed, the puzzle thing is really about marketing. I actually used the sizzle of the steak thing last night when talking about it. In much of our introductions, we make a big stink about how our work is counter-intuitive. That our work is provocative because it runs against how people think about things. Again, this is about marketing--that our work is important because it is making people re-think things. And, indeed, the work I remember the best is the stuff that made me see the world differently, such as Kelly Greenhill's Weapons of Mass Migration. But most work is actually not that counter-intuitive.
For instance, a certain random academic decided to argue that countries took sides in other people's ethnic conflicts, and the choices they made were driven by whether the key constituents had ethnic ties with one side or the other. Oh, that was me. I thought it was counter-intuitive because the existing wisdom (that I never did quite defeat in the minds of observers) is that countries do not support secessionists elsewhere if they face secessionists at home. That vulnerability and international norms prohibited such stuff. My dissertation aimed to disprove it (and I did, but not everybody has read it yet...) and provide a "counter-intuitive" alternative. My alternative was actually pretty damned intuitive. Indeed, I intuited it from existing work on the comparative politics of ethnic conflict (I borrowed Donald Horowitz's work).
Anyhow, the point is that graduate students have to come up with a hook to get others engaged. But we advisers may want to keep in mind the aspirations of the students. If they want an academic job, then, yes, they will need to conform to the intersubjective reality that we have created--that to make the project appeal to search committees and then to hiring departments, it needs to identify a puzzle. If, on the other hand, the student is seeking a job in the policy community, maybe being counter-intuitive and having a flashy puzzle is not the key. Maybe instead, the way to sell the project and the student is to position the project as addressing a key policy issue in that community. Rather than saying I have a puzzle, the student can say I have research that can help us develop policy better. Damned if I know, as I have not had long discussions with those in the policy community who hire PhDs.
Still, it comes back to this: we can probably retrofit a puzzle onto any project, isn't it the project itself--the question, the answer, the methods, the execution--that should matter most?