No one will read your dissertation (or master’s thesis…it’s the same genre, with the same nonexistent readership). No one will.
Seriously. No one.
OK, your dissertation advisor and your supervisory committee will. And maybe also your partner or your parents. But that’s really about it. And they don’t really count because they have to read it.
You’ve poured a lot of your life into this awful writing product. You’ve made your partner miserable by talking about it for so long. And you think it’s the most important thing in your life right now. I completely understand why you’re bummed no one will read your dissertation.
But the fact that no one wants to read it doesn’t mean you can skip it. You still have to finish your dissertation, or else you won’t get your degree. And without a degree, you can’t get the job you’ve been aiming for. So let’s get through this damn thing and put it behind you, sealed away somewhere where no one will read it. And you can move on with your life. Here’s some advice to keep in mind as you toil away at your dissertation.
Keep your entire degree pursuit in perspective, in the professional sense. Remember that the whole point of a Ph.D. is to train you to enter the academy, to become worthy of creating new knowledge through independent, rigorous research. The steps of a Ph.D. program – coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation writing, dissertation defense – are intended to gradually get you to this point, from mastery of a subject (hence the term “master’s degree”) to creator of new knowledge at the edge of what is known about a subject.
Coursework is to elevate your mastery of a subject to become intimately aware of the debates at the edge of what is known. Comprehensive exams are supposed to demonstrate that you know where this boundary of knowledge is (i.e., what is known and what is not yet known in a given subject). The dissertation proposal is where you propose to discover new knowledge beyond this boundary edge through rigorous research. The dissertation itself becomes that knowledge contribution. And the dissertation defense is your moment to stand behind the quality of your research contribution, to declare before a panel of soon-to-be-peers (your dissertation committee) that you are worthy of joining their ranks as a knowledge creator, as a member of the academy. The completion of your Ph.D. is a demonstration that you are an explorer, that you’ve discovered new terrain in a subject, that you are an unquestionable expert in something (even if that “something” is really narrow and obscure). And if you get a professor job when you’re done, you have the opportunity to “profess” what you know to others, who must demonstrate mastery of that content. It’s a pretty awesome process when you think about it. It’s an ancient ritual process whereby a society formally accepts new knowledge into the canon and formally anoints you a knowledge-creator.
As big and overwhelming as this process sounds, though, it’s comforting to see exactly what you’re doing in this process at any given step. Comprehensive exams, for instance, are quite nerve-racking for many people, but you’re not trying to know everything in the universe. You’re just trying to know a few topics so well that you can easily explain how various lines of thinking in those discourses are in tension with one another, and you need to know those topics well enough to know what is not-yet-known. By identifying this boundary, it becomes clear exactly how you can contribute to that body of knowledge.
The same goes for a dissertation. It’s about creating new knowledge through a sound, independent research study. It’s about making a new nugget of information to add to the pile in order to demonstrate to a panel of professors that you are qualified enough to keep making those nuggets for the remainder of your career, without their close supervision. There is no need to write the great American desk reference on all things relating to your topic. No need to discover a cure for cancer. No need to put forth a grand philosophy on life. No need to redefine the entire discipline with a groundbreaking manifesto.
Want to break free of the shackles of your Ph.D. program, move on, and get a job so you can be free to pursue research and teaching that you enjoy? Then start seeing your dissertation as one small step in a larger process, one conquerable objective in a string of objectives that will get you to where you want o be. Take small bites and chew them well. Keep it all in perspective.
Keep your entire degree pursuit in perspective, in the personal sense. Remember, too, that someone – or several people – is likely in agony while you pursue your degree. At minimum, you yourself are in agony. Your health may be declining, you may have had to sideline all your hobbies, you may have neglected your friendships, and so on as you climb this mountain of a degree. If you have a partner, especially one who uprooted his/her life to move across country with you while you finish your degree, then he/she is also in agony. People are waiting on you to finish your degree. Your body needs some exercise. And you’re probably definitely broke. No one gets rich in a Ph.D. program, and your partner might be idling in a mediocre job waiting to find out where the two of you are going to eventually settle down when you’re done with your Ph.D. So finish already. There’s physical, mental, spiritual, and financial health at stake the longer you stagnate in a Ph.D. program. It’s silly to let a little old dissertation get in the way of all of that.
Remember that a dissertation is more like an extended article, not a short book. For some reason, a lot of grad students think of their dissertation as a book they have to write. But it isn’t. In the social sciences, especially, dissertations are really just extended journal articles (or a few articles mashed together), not books. Dissertations are “extended” journal articles in the sense that they contain extra literature apparatuses in them to demonstrate to your supervisory committee that you are competent to pursue your own research.
In a typical journal article (in the social sciences, at least), you have 1) introduction; 2) literature review, which ends in a research question(s); 3) method; 4) results; 5) discussion; and 6) conclusion. A limitations section (the section where you disclose how much your research sucked and how you could do it better in the future) may be folded into the discussion or conclusion, though I’ve seen them appear in the method section, too.
In a dissertation, you still have all of these parts, except that two sections seem to be considerably extended: the literature review and the method section. Here’s how those two sections are extended:
Literature review: This section is extended in a dissertation because you’re trying to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the conversations and tensions happening in the discipline, tracing the contours of the discourse and identifying the boundary of knowledge that you’re planning to build upon. You’re also trying to explicate the concepts you’ll be operationalizing in your study, too. In a typical journal article, you may only do this latter part – explicating concepts – in order to efficiently move on to the method section and get on with the results and discussion. But in a dissertation, you can’t just get by with explicating the concepts at hand. You also have to trace those concepts back to deeper issues, sometimes all the way back to metatheoretical and philosophical concerns (ontology, epistemology, etc.). You may also have to explain the intellectual history of your subject – how you got to where you are today in your discipline. All of this is up to your committee, of course, but the point is that, yes, you have to write a longer literature section.
My advice? Just write an efficient journal article-type literature section and let your committee tell you where you need to elaborate. It’s easier to write concisely and be told where to expand than to go on and on and on and be told where to cut (and where you still need to expand). Remember that everything in the literature review needs to be relevant and needs to build and progress and synthesize. You shouldn’t have random tangents included just to make it longer. Aim for being exhaustive, not lengthy – very different concepts.
Method section: This section is expanded because you have to talk about methodology and method, whereas in a typical journal article you’d only really talk about the method at hand. The difference? Methodology is the discussion of the method you’re using in general. It’s like a meta-method discussion where you justify why your methodological approach is a good one. And method is where you discuss the procedures you’re going to be using in your present study. So while the method discussion may be about how you’re going to sample people and how you’re going to interview them for your study, the methodology discussion talks in broader strokes about why interviewing – or qualitative methods in general – is a better way to answer your research questions than quantitative or rhetorical methods. My advice? Conceive of your methodology discussion and your method discussion as two separate things. Write one and then the other, and stitch them together (usually methodology, which leads into method).
Remember that a dissertation is a bizarre, outdated form of writing that has no place in the publishing world today. You’ll go through the exercise of writing a really long literature review and a really long method/methodology section, only to find out down the road that a book publisher won’t be interested in any of that, and journals won’t either. You’ll basically have to slaughter all of the extra stuff you added to your dissertation in order for it to pass muster. If you’re clever, you can package this excess stuff into its own article (or articles) that might be suitable for more philosophical journals, journals devoted to deep understanding of methods, or review/survey journals. But for the most part this extra stuff becomes the casualty of dissertation writing. So just get through it. Jump through that hoop.
Be efficient. If you can pin down an idea for a dissertation project relatively early on – like in your coursework – then you can focus each class paper toward your dissertation project. You can effectively chip away at the literature review and method sections through these small papers. But at the very least, you can tailor your comprehensive exams toward these portions of your dissertation. If you have to write an exam question about some theory and your dissertation will be testing that theory, then you damn well better harvest your exam response to that question and polish it up for the literature review of your dissertation. This is common sense. Don’t take comprehensive exam questions that are unrelated to your dissertation. In other words, don’t test competent in one thing and then have to learn an entirely new thing to even begin to write your dissertation. One should flow into the other.
But being efficient is also about seeing your dissertation as a product, or, rather, as a snapshot of your production line. Say this to yourself: “Here, at this moment in time, lies my dissertation. It is a snapshot of what I’ve got in the publication pipeline at this moment and a glimpse at what’s to come.” When you’ve finished your dissertation and you have a professor job, you’ll be expected to slice and dice that thing into journal articles. It’s better to write your dissertation in the first place with this fact in mind. It’ll help you think of your chapters as packages that can be sent out to this journal or that journal. It’ll help you see a chapter as consisting of different modules you can move around and reassemble into new articles later. You can see the extended matter in your literature review that you had to include to satisfy your committee as a module that can be extracted and set aside, so that what’s left in the chapter can be sent out to a journal. You get the point. Your dissertation is a collection of potential publications, not a whole, discrete, single masterpiece.
You can also start sending chunks of your dissertation to be published in journals even before you finish your dissertation. The academic job market increasingly expects Ph.D. students to have publications when they graduate anyway, so get cracking.
Talk it out, teach it out, blog it out, walk it out, drink it out. Whatever. I found that people get in a rut writing their dissertation (or writing anything) when they keep it to themselves. Your colleagues may really be tired of hearing about your dissertation, and your partner certainly is. But sit down and talk about your dissertation to someone. Try to keep it simple and understandable (talking with a family member or someone who isn’t an academic is a good exercise in cutting through the jargon and clutter). Something that may seem really obvious to you may confuse the hell out of someone else, and this should be a signal that you need to explain this part of your dissertation better. And something that is really making you stumble may be crystal clear to someone else. You’ll only be able to figure out these pitfalls by talking about your dissertation with someone.
Consider teaching some sliver of your dissertation to undergrads, too. Nothing helps you boil down your dense dissertation into a digestible and clear lecture than by, well, writing a lecture. The very act of slotting your dissertation into a PowerPoint slide deck that undergrads can follow is, in my opinion, the absolute best thing you can do to get your mind clear about a tough topic. Odds are, you know your dissertation topic really well. You’re probably just having a hard time figuring out how to tackle all of that information in an organized way. Use a teaching opportunity as a way to get organized about your thoughts. Asking to guest lecture in a professor’s class is really easy to do, too, and it’s a CV hit.
You can also blog about your dissertation as you go, too, if you’re so inclined. Blogging takes a lot of energy and time (which is why I so infrequently update mine), but it’s a good way to make yourself write every day. Prolific scholars like Henry Jenkins make blogging part of their publication process, too. A collection of blog posts can quickly add up to a full-out journal article. Or, in your case, a dissertation.
As for the “walk it out” and “drink it out” bits of advice, I’ve heard these can help, too. I never found much help in either of these strategies, but I have colleagues who found exercising (or going on hikes) and consuming various substances (alcohol, etc.) to be important factors in getting their mind to wrap around a tough topic and get back to writing. Different strokes for different folks. Just figure out a way to rescue yourself from treading water in the cesspool of theory and research in your head. Getting away from other grad students for a while is a great plan, I think.
Access, assets, timing, and relevance are as important as sound research execution. You have to do sound, rigorous research for your dissertation. That’s a given. But you also need to be realistic in your pursuits. Everyone wants to do this big, awesome multi-method study for their dissertation, but it just may not be possible. Here are some things to consider as you progress:
Access: You probably have a research site in mind for your dissertation, but do you know if you’ll have access to it when it comes time to write? Studying prisons or a big Fortune 500 company or defense contractors or other sexy topics always looks good on paper, and your committee may be likely to approve your topic. But you may find there’s a lot of red tape to cut through before you’ll have access to the stuff you need to do your study. If it’s crucial that a company send out a survey on your behalf to its customers, then you should probably line that up before committing to it. And if you want to study some culture in Papua New Guinea, then you need to line up some travel funding before you commit to that. You have to have access to your research site, or your research simply won’t happen. And have a back-up plan.
Assets: In the Web design world (at least circa 2000), you called the “things” that went on your website “assets.” These included photos, video clips, and other content. Likewise, if you conceive of a dissertation study that involves analyzing the archives of some defunct newspaper, you need to be able to actually view those archives. You have to be able to access these crucial assets. You might also, quite literally, need some assets, as in money, in order to conduct your research. That same archive may be located in some obscure library somewhere and you can only use the approved library microfilm contractor to get copies of the archive. This may cost quite a bit of money. Who knows.
It’s especially important to consider access and assets in Internet research. A lot of times, there may be a wealth of data surrounding an online video game or Web site, but it may be almost impossible to get a hold of it if there’s no established method for retaining the data or no permission given to you by the site owners. These data are also fleeting. Web sites can be deleted in a blink of an eye, and you’re screwed if you don’t have a plan to retain this asset.
Timing: You hopefully have some target graduation date in mind. This might be when your fellowship funding runs out or a date your partner has basically warned you is a “must” for completion. Either way, you have a clock you’re racing. Make sure your dissertation progresses accordingly. If you’ve allotted only 3 months for data collection, then, realistically, can’t fly away to Papua New Guinea to live with a tribe for a month AND visit some obscure library archive in Kansas AND conduct a few dozen interviews. You need to pare it down, or you need to give yourself more time.
Timing is really important for job hunting and applying for dissertation funding. When you interview for professor jobs as a grad student, the school will want to know that you’re likely to finish on time (“on time” meaning before you would officially start on the job the next year). One way to convey this confidence is by having defended your dissertation proposal, or, better still, having already collected your data by the time you interview for a job. So if interviews start as early as October at some schools, that means you need to get past your proposal defense by like August and try to dive right into data collection in September. And all of this is to start a professor job the following August. Get cracking. Dissertation year funding works in a similar fashion. A lot of times, you need to be ABD (i.e., past the proposal defense) before getting dissertation monies from external foundations.
Relevance: I’ve discussed picking a good research topic in a previous post. The point here is to find a topic that has some traction with today’s news or issues. Relevant topics help you 1) finish on time, 2) engage others in discussion and debate about your dissertation topic as you write it, and 3) get you exposure and job interviews for your work.
Avoid an arms race and ignore tradition. One really absurd thing I noticed at Utah was how some of my fellow Ph.D. students felt the need to brag about how long their dissertation was, or how hard they were working on it, or how little sleep they were getting. This isn’t an arms race. No need to escalate a page count war among colleagues. There is absolutely no need to write a 300+ page dissertation. Especially since no one will read it. Mine was relatively brief (quite brief by Utah’s standards), and I finished on time with an equally non-readable dissertation as any of my colleagues. There’s no glory in writing a long dissertation just because it’s the tradition at your school. Just keep your head down and finish. Write as much as is needed to accomplish your task and appease your committee, and call it good.
Your dissertation may also be the very worst thing you ever write – the most unpolished and verbose and awful to read. Focus your energies on writing good journal articles instead. People will be in awe that you finished, not that you wrote an award-winning dissertation.
Beware of as-is publishing opportunities. When you do finish your dissertation, you may think publishing it as a book is out of reach for you. You may think your work wasn’t good enough or whatever. But then along comes a book publisher who wants to publish your dissertation in its entirety! You don’t need to change a thing!
Beware of these publishers, many of which are German publishing houses. The way it works is that they offer to publish your dissertation in full and without any editing. They assume that if it made it past a committee of professors, it’s probably good enough quality to publish. This isn’t a scam. It’s just a company trying to make money off your product. You can pursue this option if you want, but remember that 1) this will transfer the copyright over to the publisher, which means you can’t spin out other journal articles from it as easily, and 2) though it will technically be a book, it won’t count like a book on your CV really. In reality, no respected academic publisher would take a dissertation and publish it as-is. Why? Because – say it with me now – no one would read it. Academic book publishers will always require you to strip out considerable tracts of your literature review and method chapters and do substantial reworking before agreeing to publish your work as a book. In short, don’t pursue the publish as-is route, even if the offer is flattering. Because it isn’t flattery. They send bulk emails out to all recent Ph.D. grads.
Don’t take it personally when no one reads your work. Remember, no one wants to read your work in dissertation form. Not even a lot of your friends and relatives. Don’t let it get to you. Just be thankful your friends and relatives are still talking to you after the hell you’ve put them through while you went after your Ph.D. And just look forward to cranking out shorter, better publications later that people will want to read.
But you have to get your dissertation done first.