Monday, March 07, 2016


Katie Shives’ piece in IHE on dissertations is well worth the read.  It’s an attempt to bring the dissertation down to earth, so folks in the midst of writing them don’t lose perspective.

From a hiring perspective, I can attest that there are exactly two kinds of dissertations: done, and not done.  I’ve heard all sorts of variations on “not done,” but they all boil down to “not done.”  Not every job requires a doctorate, of course, and that’s fine.  But for the ones that do, or for the ones for which it’s strongly preferred and the field is strong, “not done” is just not the same as “done.”

That sounds simplistic, and in a sense, it is.  But dissertations have ways of expanding to overfill available time.  I’ve seen too many people distracted for years on end as they try to slay the dragon that they swore would be done in a semester.    

The catch, of course, is that graduate student funding is often predicated on still being enrolled.  When graduate funding expires with the dissertation, but the real job requires that it be done, the strike zone gets forbiddingly narrow.  And a gap year (or more) is not a pleasant prospect, given typical adjunct wages.  That’s one of many design flaws in the academic job market.

In grad school, I remember being initially terrified of the prospect of writing a dissertation.  It just seemed too big a task.  The idea loomed large for several years -- a cause of no small number of sleepless nights -- until I got the bright idea to go to the library and actually look at a dissertation that a colleague had written a few years before.  He had done quite well, the dissertation had won awards, and people spoke of him in an “I knew him when” sort of way.  It seemed like a good place to start.  I found it and took a look.

And it was...fine.

It was a long, perfectly competent, humanly-produced piece of work.  That’s all.  

Suddenly it seemed possible.

Still, for my money, the wisest words on dissertations belong to The Girl.  This exchange happened in 2012, when she had just turned eight.

The Girl brought a hardcover copy of my dissertation to me as I was typing.

TG:  Daddy, did you write this?

Me:  Yes.

TG:  So you just wrote your second book?

Me:  Well, no.  That’s my dissertation, not a book.

TG:  What’s a dissertation?

Me;  It’s like a really, really long paper that you have to write to get your Ph.D.

TG:  Who are the characters?

Me:  It doesn’t really have characters.  It’s more like an article.

TG:  That’s a long article.  It has a cover like a book.

Me:  Yes, it does.

TG:  But it’s not a book?

Me:  No.

TG:  That’s silly.

She wasn’t entirely wrong...