Tuesday, August 09, 2005


The Best Dissertation Advice I Ever Received

I’ve been corresponding with some folks who are struggling with their dissertations. Dissertations are hard to explain to the uninitiated. They’re a funny combination of a magnum opus, a maiden voyage, and a big honkin’ paper.

About nine years ago, I was at my wits’ end with my dissertation. I had drafts of each chapter, and a sort-of conclusion, but it just didn’t seem to gel. I had proofed it to death, but had simply hit the wall conceptually. I knew it needed something, and I knew it didn’t quite work, but I just didn’t have anything. My funding was running out, I was deathly sick of my topic, and the whole starving-grad-student thing was more than slightly old.

One evening, as I was angst-ing about it*, my then-roommate gave me the best dissertation advice, ever. The conversation:

Roommate: How many chapters do you have?
DD: Five.
RM: How many do you need, overall?
DD: Well, five, but...
RM: Turn it in. Make them tell you what’s wrong with it.

Eureka! I did, and my advisor’s response upon reading it was “when do you want to defend?” The rest is history.

Looking at it now, it’s still not very satisfying. It’s still sorta half-baked, with a particularly weak conclusion and a few cringe-inducing moments, but it has something it didn’t have then. It has signatures.

Now that I’m on the hiring side, I can say with even greater confidence that there are exactly two kinds of dissertations in the world.

The two kinds of dissertations in the world:

1. Done, Defended, Degree in Hand

2. Other

As an administrator, this is even clearer. My college (and many others) has been burned enough times with new professors swearing on everything good that the dissertation is _this close_ to finished, that it will be done any minute now, etc., only to drag on for years. From a hiring perspective (at least at this level), you either have the degree or you don’t. And if you do, we don’t care so much if it was a close call. In fact, we’ll probably never know.

Don’t try to make it perfect. It won’t be, and it doesn’t have to be. Get it done, and move on.

*From the verb, 'to angst.' I angst, you angst, we angst. Commonly used in graduate school.

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