grad skool rulz #12 – writing your $^#@@ dissertation, part 1

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Ok, here’s the biggie in the grad skool rulz series: how to actually write your dissertation! I’ll break it up into two posts. This post is about a very subtle point – what a dissertation actually does for your career. The dissertation works very differently across departments, subfields and disciplines. You should get a grip on what it’s about in your area before you start writing. Here are some options:

  1. Dissertation as useless distraction. At some programs, the faculty have taken the attitude that it’s much more important to author articles than work on the dissertation. Thus, some students may not write a single word of the dissertation until after they get the job. The dissertation in some cases is just a slightly altered version of the published articles that got you the job.
  2. The “job search paper” model. In some fields, like economics, there is less expectation of publication pre-PhD. Placement depends mostly on faculty recommendations and a single writing sample called the job market paper. This is sometimes a published article or a strong dissertation chapter, so you need to show some progress on the dissertation, but few people expect much progress beyond one or two strong chapter drafts.
  3. The dissertation as article drafts model. In this model, you don’t worry about pre-PhD publications. The dissertation is supposed to be a handful of essays on a topic, which are then sent to journals soon after graduation. In this case, you need to have extremely strong samples, or even a complete draft, upon entry into the market, so people can be pursauded that you are worth betting on.
  4. The dissertation as book draft. This is the model in the humanities and qualitative social sciences. You might publish an article or two in grad school, but your real mission is to write the first draft of the book that will rock your area. When you enter the market, you need to have a lot of it worked out and if you want a top job, a contract with a good press. Otherwise, no one will believe you can actually publish anything.
  5. The “sui generis dissertation.” As you will learn in the next installment, the dissertation is a pedagogical tool designed to help people master the research techniques of their area. Therefore, it has lots of stuff that you would never publish. In some departments and fields, you are expected to go through the motions and conform to the genre, even if the result is essentially unpublishable. Think of the “sui generis” dissertation as a very ugly car you are required to build and then completely reassemble.

Once you understand the model you are working with, it will help you develop a healthy attitude towards your dissertation and you can formulate a rational game plan. If you are doing #4 (diss as book draft), you are probably looking at a multi-year project and it has to be good enough to attract the attention of a major scholarly press – before you go on the market. You should really just concentrate on the diss and getting funding to see you through. You might even spend some time chatting with editors to get a sense of which presses might like your work.

If you doing #1 or #2, you might be looking at less than a year of work. Once you place an article or two in decent journals, you immediately become a plausible job candidate. You might not even bother with a formal dissertation proposal unless the school requires it. If you are living in situation #5, just do your best to go through the motions until the committee approves the final product and be prepared for a complete rewrite soon as you finish. Work from “sui generis” dissertations is often rejected, or if it’s published, it’s relegated to journals and presses that specialize in quick dissertation conversion (names ommitted to protect the guilty). You don’t want that.

What you should learn from this post is that “dissertation” can mean very different things. To get the most out of your graduate experience, compare the dissertations from your program with what is actually published and highly valued in your area. If you don’t, you could expend much effort on work that is completely useless.


Written by fabiorojas

July 3, 2007 at 6:04 am

7 Responses

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  1. Seems like you’re either missing a model or need to clarify the description of #3. In this model, the dissertation is a cohesive collection of articles or soon-to-be-articles, not a “handful of essays,” which underestimates the task. And, cf #3, you do worry about pre-PhD publications. A lot. You’re expected to have one self-contained article off the diss in publishable shape (even if not published yet) AND at least one other article published, preferably solo-authored, whether it’s diss-related or not.

    I’d guess that this model is the most common, at least among top-20 Soc programs. Most programs are well aware that in today’s market, a student who comes out with nothing but a draft of a dissertation-related article is going to find it *extremely* difficult to get a job. (Well, at least in sociology: b-schools are less focused on pre-PhD publications, but that’s a different comment.)



    July 3, 2007 at 6:26 pm

  2. Good point, Kim. In writing the rulz, I’ve tried to make it generic. In some fields, you can do #3 with no publications, especially if the field has notoriously long review times, like some physical sciences. If you have one awesome result in the diss, it can get you a job, even if it might not be published for 3-4 years. But you are certainly correct about sociology. My guess is that the most popular diss models in top soc programs are:

    #3 with pubs, #4 (for ethnography or qualitative folks), #5, #1, #2


    Fabio Rojas

    July 3, 2007 at 6:59 pm

  3. In some fields, having published before graduating can be an impediment to getting a good job. A publication is tangible evidence of how good you are, whereas without one you are still all hype and thus potentially a genius. When faced with two otherwise indistinguishable candidates, one of whom has published a perfectly good article in a good journal and the other who has not, departments may irrationally prefer the one without the publication, because quality in potentia is easier to overestimate than quality as manifested in an article you can read and critique.



    July 3, 2007 at 9:34 pm

  4. When you enter the market, you need to have a lot of it worked out and if you want a top job, a contract with a good press

    Book contracts for ABDs from good presses are getting extremely hard to come by; the presses aren’t offering them. A candidate in a book-draft field should typically still be thinking about articles while in grad school– which chapters of your future book make the most sense as stand-alone pieces?


    Jacob T. Levy

    July 9, 2007 at 8:15 am

  5. […] UPDATE:  Tip 12 is now available:  Writing your dissertation, part 1 […]


  6. […] time, we discussed the importance of knowing your dissertation’s genre. Once you’ve figured it out, you need a plan to help you produce that final manuscript. […]


  7. […] #11: What to do while you are working on the dissertation. […]


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