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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Write the Dissertation as a Book

... if you can get away with it. If your committee is fine with it, just write it directly as though it were a book. Skip the literature review, or make it something that you can simply remove with one click of the mouse. Address scholars in your field of study, making arguments that they will respond to. Don't waste your time with summaries of what everyone already knows. I finished my dissertation in 88 and published my book in 90. My wife did pretty much the same thing. Neither of us had to revise much at all from dissertation to book, because we both had publishable manuscripts all but ready.

All you are really saying is that you want to write a more readable, polished book rather than a typical academic snooze-fest. What you are doing is harder, of course, because you have to write work that is publishable, not just acceptable to a committee of 5. But it is also easier because you are streamlining your career.

Another piece of advice is to choose the hardest possible director, the one with the highest standards. The idea is not to get the PhD the easiest way possible, but to get a meaningful PhD, one that actually trains you to be a publishing scholar.

I've noticed students regressing from seminars to the dissertation, writing worse and becoming less interesting. Why? Because the Dissertation with a Capital D is so Intimidating. The big theoretical introduction; the overgrown 40-page chapters. Everyone complains about the same things, but for some reason they all perpetuate the system they hate.

People will tell you the dissertation does not have to perfect; don't sweat it so much, it's just something you have to do to get the degree etc... Those people are liars. Starting a second project as a beginning assistant professor is much harder than publishing the dissertation as a book. I've seen a lot of careers start off on shaky footing because the new professor cannot easily get publications out of the dissertation.

It may be that, despite your best efforts, the finished dissertation is still a long ways from a book. In that case, we can talk about that.


Clarissa said...

I think this is brilliant advice.

However, this is exactly what I did: wrote the dissertation as a future book. And you've seen the result.

As for choosing the hardest thesis director, even my Ivy League school only had one person in Peninsular Lit. In our small departments, you most often do not get a choice.

Clarissa said...

By "you" in the previous comment I meant Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

I'm wrestling with this distinction now. Of course, part of the problem as a graduate student is learning what makes a book a book when you've never written one.

What has become clear is that many of these formal genres (prospectus, dissertation, etc.) are really weird and sometimes just downright unproductive given the current state of academe.

For instance, during my transition from prospectus to diss. writing I couldn't decide what was worse: a form that asked be to distill an entire project that did not exist, or a form that would communicate the most complex ideas I have developed in a fashion that no one else in my field might read.

Jonathan said...

I'd recommend finding books (or even dissertations) that might serve as explicit models structural / methodological models. Tell yourself: "I'd like to write a book like ________ . "

Anonymous said...

I have adopted just this strategy. I had been doing it kind of without thinking over the last year. Reading a work of criticism and saying to myself, that's the kind of voice I'd like to cultivate.

More recently, my advisor (who is tough to be sure! but also has incredible foresight) has pushed/encouraged me to read monographs in my field to get a sense of what they're doing and what I want my eventual book to do.

Jonathan said...

You have a good advisor then, not only tough but helping you to look forward to the next step.

Andrew Shields said...

Wish someone had told me that when I was writing mine!

But in the long run, the problem (from an academic perspective) with my dissertation was that it was one long essay, much too "literary" in a sense, despite all the academic trappings. Perhaps that explains why I have since sidestepped academic writing while still finding a niche at the edge of the academy.

Shedding Khawatir said...

My field isn't one in which people usually write books from their dissertations (a series of articles, maybe) but my topic and method happen to be one that could turn into a book, so I've really never considered anything else. The idea of finding a book structure that I like and using that as a guide is a great one. I also have a demanding advisor, but this was more luck than anything else, since like Clarissa I pretty much had only one choice based on the type of research I wanted to do.