Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010


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by Danny

This past weekend, I returned to my graduate school for the first time in over a year. It was a typical visit; I met with my advisors, said hello to colleagues, and stayed with my little sister, who—hilariously and weirdly—is now a first-year in the same program and department as myself. It was great to be back, see the old haunts, and walk around the (soon-to-be) alma mater. Thankfully, I’m very close to finishing my dissertation, and the questions I received mostly concerned the project. In speaking to younger years, I realized that the dissertation is a largely mystical product. It is spoken about as something tangible yet unknowable.


Alma Mater

For this reason, I figured I’d post a short list of tips that I’ve learned while writing my dissertation. I don’t mean to imply that everyone will find these tips useful, and I’m well aware that people have very different writing processes. But, I think any advice on the issue can perhaps help those who are beginning this arduous task. Some of these tips relate to picking a topic, some relate to research, and some relate to writing. I hope they might be useful to my colleagues in earlier years. In no particular order, here they are:

If you can, take courses related to your topic.

This is a semi-controversial tip, as one of the joys of graduate school is taking classes on topics with which you are unfamiliar and expanding your intellectual horizons. I very much support this. However, graduate school is also about pre-professional training, and getting a jumpstart on your dissertation by taking classes in topics broadly related to your interests is important for completing your dissertation in 5-6 years. Reading the secondary literature in your field will also help you situate your dissertation, important for both the prospectus and the final product.

Pick a topic in which you are incredibly interested.

You will probably be working on your dissertation for 3-5 years, so it is incredibly important to pick a topic that you can imagine reading, writing, and thinking about for thousands of hours. The last thing you want is to awaken in the middle of your fifth year, as you’re slogging through the Russian state archives, to realize that you don’t really care about the intersections between space travel and class in the 1950s Soviet Union.

Pick a topic that can be researched and written about in a timely manner.

Everyone enters graduate school wanting to write a dissertation like William Cronon’s Changes in the Land. Unfortunately, this is virtually impossible. In my opinion, it is much smarter to choose a topic that you know contributes to the literature, produces new knowledge, and can be written about in 5-6 years. In an era of dwindling funding, where many graduate students are unsure whether they will have funding after their fifth years, this is perhaps the most important rule. Having ambition is important, but it is unlikely you will suddenly revise the way we understand the French Revolution. For a first project, modesty is best.


An Object That I Have Not Used Once While Writing My Dissertation

Know your topic.

This is why taking courses on your topic is important. A dissertation is very time-consuming, and you don’t want it to be your sixth year when you realize that you really aren’t adding very much new information to the corpus of literature with which you are engaged. Having a good, general sense of where your work fits in will very much ease the writing of your dissertation. That being said …

Don’t feel compelled to know everything about your topic.

It is too easy to get distracted by the fact that, as someone who has spent only half a decade ensconced in your research field, in many ways you barely know the literature to which you are contributing. This is an unfortunate fact, and part of the reason why it takes such a long time to transform your dissertation into a book. However, you should be careful not to distract yourself too much with reading all of the secondary literature on every topic upon which your dissertation touches. Be familiar with these literatures, of course, but don’t go down too many rabbit holes. If you do, you’ll never finish.

Know your archives.

Before you embark on a dissertation project, visit the archives that you think you’ll be using. This is important not only for knowing what is available—which is extremely important—but also for knowing the archival culture in which you’ll be working. For example, if it takes two months before you get to see certain documents, you’ll want to be aware of this; if certain collections you need are in the process of being catalogued, and are thus unavailable, you’ll need to know this. It is also important to begin developing relationships with archivists as soon as possible, as this will significantly ease your research process.


Too Many Documents

Enter the archives with an argument.

Although it is crucial not to be teleological when writing your dissertation, you also don’t want to enter the archives having no way to sift through what can often be a massive amount of archival material. This is why it is important to have some sense of what you will be arguing. Your argument will no doubt change as you become more familiar with your archival materials. However, without one, you will spend thousands of hours poring over documents that you don’t, and will never, need.

Don’t transform the dissertation into a mystical product.  

I see many graduate students falling prey to the temptation to transform their dissertation into something mystical, something so daunting that they cannot even begin to fathom starting to write it. It is true that a dissertation is a massive intellectual undertaking. It is also true that hundreds of thousands of people have written one. Be careful not to turn your project into something so built up in your head that the thought of beginning it becomes too difficult to contemplate. This is a cliché, but the first trick to writing is to write. You can go back and edit, and you will go back and edit, but start writing as soon as you can. It expedites the entire process.

Write every single day, when you can.

This is a very important tip, and helps one build up the necessary momentum to write the dissertation. As one of my advisors once said to me, if you write one page a day for a year and a half, you’ll soon have approximately 500 pages of written work; a great dissertation length. Write for the sake of writing. That being said …

Take time off when you need space.

You don’t want to begin hating your dissertation. This is why you must take time off when you feel you need it. If you start to notice your mind drifting from researching, reading, or writing, be sure to take time off. Personally, I have taken up to two weeks off at a time just to clear my head and step away from my project. I use this time to read on related but tangential topics, or to just relax. Although it may initially seem like you’re not working, you actually are; dissertations require an enormous amount of thought, and thinking about the topic can be difficult to accomplish if you don’t step away from it every now and again.


Taking Some Time Off

Don’t over-research, but research well.

I have heard many stories of graduate students collecting tens of thousands of documents they will never use. They spend months in archives, collecting, collecting, collecting, all the while losing sight of the forest for the trees. A dissertation is an exercise in producing new knowledge; it is not an exercise in showing the world you’ve visited 300 archives. It is an argument driven work. That being said, the best dissertations are built on good research. So, while you shouldn’t collect every document in the National Archives, be sure to be aware that the documents you are collecting are the ones you need. This is why having a coherent idea of your project, where it fits in the literature, and what you might be arguing, is very important.

The dissertation is the first thing you’ll write, not the last.

This may seem obvious, but it’s still important to remember. Most of us, or really all of us, do not have unlimited funding. Perhaps unfortunately, we have to get jobs and provide for our families and ourselves. It is therefore important to remember that dissertations end, and to always keep that endgame in sight. As an academic I once heard speak at a conference said, dissertations are the first, not the last, thing you’ll write. When you’re done, finish it. I doubt that 8th year will make it much better.

Keep your advisors updated with readable work.

I found this to be very important. Unlike you, your advisors have been working on their topics for decades and do know the secondary literature incredibly well. I have found that giving my advisors a fairly readable chapter, in which there is a coherent argument, greatly improved my work. At the same time, when I first started writing my dissertation, I would hand my advisors “chapters” that were little more than structurally coherent research notes. Do not do this. Handing your advisors material that is hot off the press will not be nearly as useful for you, and will bore them (or at least, it would bore me). Write a chapter, take some time to get some distance from it, edit it, and then give it to your advisors.

Tenacity is the name of the game.

Writing a dissertation is as much about tenacity as anything else. Just sitting down and writing it is the best way to improve everything about your project: its argument, its structure, its style. Do not be afraid of it. In fact, I’ve found that it is incredibly fun to spend your days, nights, and weekends thinking about whatever arcane yet interesting subject you’re researching. As many a Nike commercial has taught us, just do it.

I hope some of these tips have been useful. And if not, maybe they were slightly entertaining to read.


Written by Danny Bessner

March 22, 2012 at 14:51

3 Responses

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  1. Danny, I like this post. It’s useful stuff! But at the same time, I’d disagree wholeheartedly with a couple of your tips: (1) if you can, take courses related your topic; and (2) enter the archives with an argument. Nobody should know what their topic is going to be when they’re taking courses. You should have a rough idea of what you’re interested in, and you should take the opportunity to read widely and sharpen your general methodological toolkit. And entering the archives with an argument is perhaps the worst thing that anyone can do. In my experience, archives are usually large enough that if you’re looking for material to support an argument you’re going to find it. It doesn’t mean it’s right. You should know what sorts of questions you’re interested in, and you should pull up material that might help explore it. The track that you’re suggesting — taking course related to a topic that you know beforehand, and then going to find material to back up a prefabricated argument — robs the student of the adventure of learning, and more importantly, the surprises that they’ll encounter in an archive.

    To take my own experience: I took courses that I thought were related to my “topic” which ended up shifting around considerably once I entered the archives and figured out what I could actually say and what I couldn’t. Turns out that most of my coursework was completely useless in working through the dissertation. Good stuff to know generally for sure, but not very useful when the rubber hit the road. The courses I’ve taken SINCE I’ve started writing, though — those have been the most useful by far.


    March 22, 2012 at 16:30

  2. Changes in the Land wasn’t even Cronon’s dissertation. (Nature’s Metropolis was.) Changes was a seminar paper that he expanded for Hill & Wang, getting him promoted to asst. professor at Yale while he was still, oddly, a graduate student at Yale.


    March 24, 2012 at 23:28

    • My understanding was that Cronon got a D.Phil at Oxford, and effectively taught at Yale through the 1980s, before receiving a Ph.D from that institution in 1990. So, whether or not “Changes in the Land” was technically his dissertation, it was his first, major work, and the equivalent of a dissertation. It seems more like one could equate it with work produced in the German system, where “Changes in the Land” was Cronon’s dissertation, and “Nature’s Metropolis” was his Habilitation.

      Danny Bessner

      March 25, 2012 at 15:55

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