Blog Post

Beyond Wishing: What I Try to Teach My Dissertators

I’ve been amped up all afternoon after having read this blog post, “6 Things Your Dissertation Director Wishes You Knew,” on the Chronicle.

Although there are some nuggets of somewhat useful advice to be had there, there are two serious problems in the post’s approach.

First, the title is presumptuous. When I consider my own dissertation advisees who are most likely to read this, they are already the most nervous and uncertain group to begin with—conscientious and already worried about my time, etc. So no, advisees of mine: I don’t wish that you knew these six things. You know my parameters and expectations, and I’m always willing to clarify them.

Second is the problem of “wishing,” which pairs nicely with mind-reading as a pedagogical strategy. If any piece of information is so vital that students absolutely must know it, then it deserves a better treatment than being the contents of a wish.

I don’t have anything I wish my advisees knew. I was the first person in my family to go to graduate school and I can say that 1) nobody is born knowing how to be a graduate student, let alone a dissertation writer, and 2) I remain grateful to this day for my own mentors’ explicit setting of boundaries and expectations in getting me through the program.

Instead of wishing things, I have those things that I need to teach my advisees. And I do my best to do just that (granted, sometimes they need gentle reminders, and granted, sometimes I could be better at it).

So what do I tell my advisees? What do I try and teach them? Here’s the main list. If you’re a capital-A academic, some of it may offend your sensibilities. Scandalize you. I’m a pragmatist, though. I’ll be frank, though: most dissertations suck, and aren’t worth the anxiety and effort to make them “great”—especially when doing so delays graduation by a matter of months or years. There’s nothing great about that. But maybe you will find this more helpful than the Nike-like “Just do it” regarding writing the dissertation:

  1. It’s just a dissertation. All of this talk about “original contributions,” sometimes even “significant original contributions” either in lore or sometimes even in graduate handbooks just builds anxiety. It’s just a dissertation. It’s not your life’s work, and it’s certainly not your best life’s work. It’s not even your first work as a professional; it’s your last work as a student. It has to be your own, of course, in that sense of “original”—but you are not going to revolutionize your field of study with your dissertation.
  2. If the topic seems too big, that’s because it is. You will never hear a (reasonable) dissertation adviser say, “There just isn’t enough material to make this topic viable.” The number-one thing I spend time working with my advisees is paring down and focusing. Again: it’s just a dissertation. You aren’t going to have everything to say that there is to say about your topic, let alone a stack of related sub-topics. Keep stripping down your topic until you can express it in a single commaless sentence. That becomes your guiding star for judging the reading and writing you’re doing.
  3. You don’t need to write your dissertation, or that chapter. You just need to write something toward your degree today. Most of the paralysis I feel in my own struggles to write, and that I detect in my own students, is that it’s so tempting to think in terms of units that are bigger than the lived experience of writing: nobody really “writes” chapters, dissertations, or books. The only unit we really control with writing is time, the moment-by-moment composition of sentences, then into paragraphs; be gentle enough with yourself to accept that some days are better than others.
  4. Share work early and often. This is a hard one. I still struggle to let things go in early form. I don’t want people to think I’m dumb, and the last thing dissertation advisees want is to be seen as dumb. But submitting early and often has a two-fold benefit: as an adviser, I’m much more capable of quickly responding to smaller chunks than entire chapters. And for my advisee, I can catch problems and encourage good work earlier on, before there’s an entire chapter (or more) to rework and rewrite—one that an advisee has already spent far too much time massaging and polishing.
  5. Mindless work is still work. Keep up with citations, formatting, all of that stuff. Some days, the writing just doesn’t come. Take the time to do something with your diss, even if it’s the thankless work of conforming with university style guides or APA or whichever. If you’re lucky, dispassionately going through the text looking for formatting problems will cause some bit to catch your eye, stir some thought—and then you’ll be writing again. Even if just for a moment. And even if you’re not so lucky, that work has to be done. You really don’t want the frustration of fighting with Microsoft Word as the final act before depositing your diss.
  6. A great diss, a good diss, and a passable diss all get you the same degree. I’d love for my students to write great dissertations, or even good dissertations. But that ultimately doesn’t matter to me. I want done dissertations. My own dissertation was not very good (it’s posted here). It was never destined to be a book; and frankly, once I made my final edits after my defense, that was it. It’s only purpose was to spring-board me into my research that I’d do after leaving graduate school. What mattered wasn’t the diss as an artifact, but the diss as a bed for ideas that I could talk about in job letters and interviews & pursue, in different forms, as a faculty member. Put simply, it’s better to be done and to get onto your next project than to think you have to write something that’s ready to be a book—when you yourself are still an apprentice researcher. I have plenty of friends who did turn their dissertations into books, but I don’t think they had any easier of a time with their books than I did writing mine from scratch.