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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.