What is a dissertation, anyway?

Definition of DISSERTATION

: an extended usually written treatment of a subject; specifically : one submitted for a doctorate (m-w.com)
The word “thesis” comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning “position”, and refers to an intellectual proposition. “Dissertation” comes from the Latin dissertātiō, meaning “discourse.” (wikipedia)
(I know, I know, quoting definitions is lame! But the word nerd in me just can’t resist dictionary definitions and etymologies.)

While the holidays are never exactly restful, I have taken the opportunity to get some distance from my dissertation (and the fellowship proposal I’ve been writing for weeks). I’ve also been making some headway on reading some books about long-form writing; unlike the books I often use in my undergraduate writing courses, these are books specifically about writing books, theses, and dissertations.

I’ve started with How to Write a Better Thesis. Written primarily for students in the physical and social sciences, and based on the standards at the University of Melbourne, the book is not an exact how-to guide for every graduate student (nor is it intended to be, as the authors point out). Rather, it’s an interesting mix of pointers for students not in my discipline, along with broader principles-based discussion that extends to academic writing more generally. For example, the authors discuss the tensions between rational and creative modes of thinking and writing, and outline strategies for making that tension actually productive, rather than paralyzing. (And actually, reading about the conventions governing dissertations in other disciplines has helped me to crystallize the expectations in my own.)

But what has really caught my attention is their opening discussion: what is a thesis? Evans and Gruba start with the guidelines identified by their institution (the University of Melbourne). Here are the attributes of a passing thesis:

  • The thesis demonstrates authority in the candidate’s field and shows evidence of command of knowledge in relevant fields.
  • It shows that the candidate has a thorough grasp of the appropriate methodological techniques and an awareness of their limitations.
  • It makes a distinct contribution to knowledge.
  • Its contribution to knowledge rests on originality of approach and/or interpretation of the findings and, in some cases, discovery of new facts.
  • It demonstrates an ability to communicate research findings effectively in the professional arena and in an international context.
  • It is a careful, rigorous and sustained piece of work demonstrating that a research ‘apprenticeship’ is complete and the holder is admitted to the community of scholars in the discipline.

As Evans and Gruba point out, most of these criteria are really about the PhD candidate, not the thesis itself.

This observation seems pretty obvious/basic, but it really opened my eyes about the role of the dissertation in graduate education and, more specifically, the point of a dissertation for someone who does not intend to join the “community of scholars in the discipline” in any traditional sense. As a PhD in English (in a program which only accepts T-T positions as a successful outcome), I’ve been trained to see that the dissertation is really a book draft. Given the ever-increasing expectations about publication history (in both the job market and for tenure review), it seemed clear that the dissertation had to function as a book draft. Having this context in mind while trying to write the dissertation is obviously a tad overwhelming, and absolutely contributes to the sense that as a graduate student, one never actually accomplishes anything: I finished coursework! (Quick, study for exams.) I passed my exams! (Good, you can finally start writing that dissertation.) I finished my dissertation! (Sure, now start revising it. You need to publish a book to get a job/tenure.)

Of course, this paradigm was shattered when I finally realized that I don’t want a traditional academic career: I plan on either leaving academe or pursing alternative paths within it. So with this new roadmap, what’s the point of a dissertation? As a faculty member recently asked a friend of mine with the same general plan for herself: why finish the program/write the dissertation at all?

I have a few answers to that. First of all, although my career path will not be traditional, I am invested in the academic community. And even if my dissertation won’t need to function as a book draft, it does need to establish my credentials as a member of that community. In that case, it’s less distressing to think that all of 5 people will ever read it.

Secondly, even if I completely transition out of academe, the dissertation still demonstrates my skill set: research skills, communication, ability to synthesize complex information, large-scale project management, etc.  But since I am interested in pursuing hybrid positions within the digital humanities, I also now have the luxury of writing a somewhat untraditional dissertation, one which deals directly with the digital humanities, media history, scholarly editing, and electronic editions, areas in which demonstrated expertise (in the form of a dissertation) will hopefully serve me well in the kinds of positions I will be seeking.

And finally, there’s also the personal challenge of whether I can do it (although I suspect this might be the least productive/unhealthy? reason). As a writing tutor, I’ve been working for several months with a PhD student in Physics. He’s entering his 10th year, and has not made much progress on his dissertation. The experiments are finished, he’s completed lots of background reading, and has even published some articles, but he struggles to write the thesis itself. As he explained to me in one of our first meetings, this is his only chance to produce such a long piece of writing, a synthesis, the whole of everything he knows. (He expects to go into research or industry, where no one expects him to publish his dissertation as a book.) Unlike the view of the dissertation as a book draft (which emphasizes process and denies a sense of completion), he sees the dissertation as the endpoint, the finale, his Last Chance.

As my career goals have changed, my dissertation has taken on these same qualities: it’s my last chance for long-form writing. Since I have funding until the summer, I feel comfortable with my decision to continue working on it. But, if I don’t get funded for next year, I am going to have to make some tough decisions about how, when, or whether to finish.

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7 Responses to “What is a dissertation, anyway?”


  1. 1 Michael January 5, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Wow. We are in very similar positions and dealing with very similar issues.

    I don’t see my dissertation as a book draft. I see it as a requirement to graduate. As a matter of fact, I don’t ever want to see it after I finish. Honestly, if I ever saw it in print, I would be embarrassed that I spent that much time on that crappy of a project of that little significance.

    I also don’t see it as my last chance for long-form writing. As long as I am able to develop ideas and write them up, I can do whatever form of writing I please. I don’t have to be an academic to write. (As a matter of fact, I prefer to be called a scholar. To me, scholar carries with it a similar meaning (knowledgeable), but without all the negative baggage as being called an academic. Being called an academic kind of makes me feel worthless. Being called a scholar, on the other hand, seems to have some redeeming qualities. Does that make sense?).

    I am kind of jealous of you, however. I wish I could write a non-traditional dissertation. I’m stuck with the traditional whether I like it (or it is beneficial to me) or not.

    • 2 alternativephd January 5, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      Yeah, I think I agree about the academic/scholar divide.

      Re: the diss as a last chance for long-form writing: True, I could certainly continue to do this on my own regardless of my employment. And yes, I could go on to revise the diss into a book, even if it wasn’t required for a job/tenure. But I think I see it as a last chance because (at this point anyway) I never want to do this again. =) For me, scholarly contributions will have to come in other forms — either short-form writing, or scholarly editing, or through digital projects, etc.

      Writing a less traditional diss does come with its own risks and challenges, of course. For example, my advisor is onboard (and has directed other non-trad dissertations, like scholarly editions), but I’m not sure how supportive the rest of my committee will be (to say nothing of the program/dept). But I do enjoy the rebelliousness of it. =)

  2. 3 M-H January 5, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    There is so much I could say about this post – it’s terrific! But I will make only one comment, and it’s about the distinction between the thesis and the scholar: in Australia, when it comes to examination of the thesis, there has been quite a bit of work that shows (inter alia) that, generally, examiners of a good thesis will praise the student as a person, whereas if the thesis isn’t up to par they will criticise the work. So they might say “You have shown very clearly where the…” or “This student has written a thesis which cleverly demonstrates…”. Or, “This thesis fails to demonstrate…” or “In this thesis, the link between… and … is not fully developed.” They may say that the student is brilliant or insightful, but they won’t say s/he is lazy or inadequate. So the student passes, but the thesis fails.

    I dunno, this just struck me as interesting when I read it…

    • 4 alternativephd January 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm

      Interesting observation, M-H. I’m actually not sure about the rhetoric in the US/my program, and whether success or failure is more often aligned with either the researcher or the dissertation.

      The relationship between the text and the scholar is a more central focus of the next book I’m reading: Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision. I’ve only just started it, but I’ve really enjoyed it so far (even though doctoral advisors are the intended audience). Authors Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler approach writing as a social practice, in which the work of writing the dissertation is also the work of forming a new scholarly identity within particular personal, institutional, and cultural contexts.

      Anyway — thanks for stopping by!

  3. 5 Anthea January 6, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    I’d say, based on my own experience, it definitely was the draft for a book (gosh no)..but it demontrated how I developed, applied a specific methodogy informed by a clear theorectical structure to a specific sets of problems. It made it much easier to write and I planned everything in a detailed plan right down to the content of different paragraphs in each chapter. At the time that I wrote I had not made up my mind what I was going to do after the PhD. I was just concerned to finish.

  4. 6 WorstProfEver January 8, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Great advice to ask what the ‘product’ aims to achieve. This is another area where I wish more honesty was displayed…the diss really is a mere requirement, as Michael says, but the unspoken assumption for a long time has been that it is going to be turned into a book when you get that tenure-track job (ha!).

    These definitions compete, because some profs are adamant that the diss be a ‘perfect’ finished product (which is stupid IMHO) while others understand it as one point in an ongoing work. I lean more and more towards the latter approach. Good academic thought is ever ‘finished’ — the whole point is ongoing dialogue — and I think the obsession with producing a perfect end product is both silly and archaid…I mean, I’m sure (e.g.) Galileo thought he was writing the definitive treatise, but no there will always be other work to supercede your so why obsess about it?

    And then there’s the crazy idea that, if you’re supposed to write a book, maybe that should be the requirement anyway, and maybe the book could be something that’s actually readable…but no, that’s just too crazy.

    • 7 alternativephd January 9, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Ah, good point that advisors and committee members also have different/competing definitions about the dissertation. Lately I’ve been thinking of the cheesy motto: the only good dissertation is a finished dissertation.


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