Tuesday, August 09, 2005
The Best Dissertation Advice I Ever Received
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?
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
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.
"That is beyond the scope of my research."
repeat daily. hourly, if necessary.
Later I had visions of "outstanding adequacy."
Finally I became a believer in the axiom "Done Is Beautiful," and went to my advisor for help.
My defense could only have gone worse had Nazi paratroopers burst through the windows and taken hostages, but dammit, I finished.
(And yeah, the paper sucked. William James, I am not.)
Also, I agree with vito wholeheartedly!
A friend of mine from another program has a dissertation mantra that he picked up from one of his professors: "It doesn't have to be good; it only has to be done." I repeat that one to myself quite frequently.
I may have to make myself another cross stitch of featuring your wisdom. This is the academic year during which I become the proud new owner of the first type of dissertation, after all.
Of course, when applying for jobs during my dissertation year, this was the biggest concern of any search committee. I later found out that even after receiving an updated letter from my advisor promising all was in place and I would be defending in May, my current institution almost didn't make me the offer because they were burnt by a new hire in my dept. 2 years before me who had just finished.
There are two kinds of theses: perfect and finished.