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.

Hanging over the computer as I wrote:
"That is beyond the scope of my research."
repeat daily. hourly, if necessary.
Your roommate sounds like a very wise man.
Admittedly on a smaller scale, I learned a similar bit of wisdom when writing my undergraduate thesis. In the beginning, I had visions of ground-breaking research, acclaim, and great personal growth.

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.)
Thank you! I think I needed to read your last post in a big way. As someone who has been struggling with "finishing" those last two chapters, this post has inspired me to take it my advisor by the end of the week. Regardless of his availability (could still be out of the country) or my issues with the writing! It is time.

Also, I agree with vito wholeheartedly!
Oh, this is excellent, excellent perspective. DD, you have a way of distilling all the bullshit until only the most crucial and undeniable elements remain. Thank you!
As always, Dean Dad, you nailed it.

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.
Thank you X 1,000 for this post!! I'm printing it off to put above my desk - and that will be my last avoidance tactic, I promise.
Thank you for this post. I still have nightmares about my terrible dissertation. I can't even bear to look at it. But it is DONE, and I have the degree. I find it reassuring to know that others hate their dissertations too.
My wife made me a cross-stitch of my newly adopted motto: "Making the muse my bitch since 2005." It hangs above my desk and when I stall on the diss, I look at it, take a deep breath, and get back to work.

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.
What they never tell you in grad school...the whole idea of a dissertation is to determine your threshold of BS. As a doc student, it is not your job to write earh-shaking research. It is to prove to five people (or however many is on the cmte) that you can take a body of research, find something new, research this new area, crunch the data, and spit out a coherent response to the data you collected.
Amen. Luckily, I had a very motivational (pushy?!) advisor and the mantra at my uni was "Done is good." Don't stive for perfection, for life-changing scholarship.

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.
clearly a needed post no matter how many times we read it.
Way to go....
I'll be quoting you...
I'm weighing in on this a bit late, but my advisor was like Cheeky's: "A good dissertation is a done dissertation." BTW, I was hired by a four year, small university with only 3 chapters written. I finished the last three chapters in a month, half-way through my first year on the tenure track. It took THE FEAR (oh s***, if I don't finish, I might not have a job) to get me past my perfectionist problem. (As it was, I ended up winning an award for it. Go figure.)
Digging up an ancient post, I know, but it's the first I've seen it and wanted to add my advisor's version:

There are two kinds of theses: perfect and finished.
Your roommate certainly sounded wise after reading your conversation, DD! Well, I think it is certainly a good idea what he said. You never know what would be the problem unless you go for it and pass the dissertation paper. I think the lesson to be learned here is that, sometimes, failure can be the best lesson you can learn in life, and these lesson can help you take the first step and move forward. :)
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I agree that failure is not actually a bad thing. It can actually help with thesis as you would know what the paper would still need and what you can do about it. Opinion and critic from other can help out as they can pinpoint some of the mistake you can overlook while writing the paper. Anyway, your best friend was amazing friend by the way!
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