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.