On Starting the Dissertation: The Reading List that Keeps on Listing

A few weeks ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a series of brief discussions about the third year of studying for a PhD. The title is what caught my attention: “A Common Time to Get Stuck,” by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong. The observation seems to be that the leap from coursework to exams or from exams to dissertation (typically the third year) causes a significant jolt in the way we’re used to learning and producing work, and I whole-heartedly agree. The third year for my department means that students have just completed their exams and are now faced with the daunting task of formulating a dissertation proposal and finally starting the long, hard work of diving right in. I thought I’d add my own two cents on what makes this such a pivotal, exciting, and (in some ways) frustrating and terrifying year.

Furlong says, “The familiar rhythm of reading lists, paper submissions, and semester-long deadlines gives way to a more ambiguous challenge—developing an original research project that meets the standards for scholarship in an academic discipline.” Familiar is the perfect word for it: we’ve all been in school for decades… we know what how class works, we know how homework works, we know how writing papers works. I don’t know that I’d call it easy, but we at least know all the dance steps and that, somehow, it all gets done no matter how many all-nighters it takes.

Vick adds, “It is also a time when students have to start answering to themselves more than to their professors and mentors. After comprehensive exams are passed they need to become their own taskmasters and work without, in many cases, external deadlines and demands.” So, suddenly you go from having packed schedules, syllabi, and exam reading schedules to… anything and everything. Or, at least it feels that way. Suddenly, you have years of work ahead of you without a set structure, constructing an argument that could take on a life of its own at any moment. Anything could be useful, so you must read everything. All the books. This leads me to my next point.

A few days ago, I came across a second piece of online writing—this one a blog article on Book Riot— which seemed to speak directly to the title of the article in The Chronicle: “When You Realize You Can’t Read All the Things,” written by Jill Guccini. All the frustration of this title realization comes through as she describes the many situations in which you find yourself acquiring new books… but not actually reading them as they pile up into “mini cityscapes on your floor.” This is especially true for academics in the humanities, for whom reading is both work and play, and getting new books is both extremely pleasurable and sadly stressful. What a crime to leave them, unread, to get dusty and yellowed on the shelf… but I know I am guilty as charged.

Now, bear with me: these two articles are related. When you’re working short term on coursework or exams, you can find some solace in that you only have to keep it up until the deadline comes and goes. We would all study for exams forever if there weren’t a deadline to stop us, and thank god there is. I’m wondering if part of the “getting stuck” Vick and Furlong talk about has to do with the few years of dissertation work begun in the third year feeling like forever and a somewhat narrow field feeling like “all the things.” So, if I’m writing about body parts in Frankenstein, then I have to read the novel and all the critical books and articles on it. Then I should read all about Mary Shelley and the Shelley circle and anyone who influenced that circle and maybe all of Shelley’s other work…and also follow up on this, this, and this footnote. Then, okay, body parts: I should read all the medical discourse when Shelley was writing and maybe what people thought before she was writing and also after she was writing, and maybe some of the current medical discourse on amputation and organ donations, and, why not, maybe some stuff on bodysnatching and army doctors. Now, what about any kind of literary theory: Kristeva and Lacan and Deleuze and Freud and Bakhtin. And theory on the history of the period and of novel form and novel circulation and the two different editions and where it was sold and how much it cost and what kind of paper it was printed on and who bought the first copy. And each article or book as an extensive bibliography that should be gone through with a fine-tooth comb. I’m being a little ridiculous, but see what I mean?

Beginning the dissertation is the ultimate in you-can’t-read-everything frustration because not only do you have a million things you want to read, but there’s the added pressure that you feel you need to read them in order to create something worthwhile. And Vick is right: yes, we’re answerable to our advisors and our committees and to future job applications, but at this point in the game, when all your work is chosen by you and made extremely important because of that, there is an incredible sense of self-worth but also a lot of nervousness in regards to living up to your own expectations. Can you ever read enough to satisfy yourself? The answer (and the point to this whole academic game we play) is no. I think what I’m learning as I’m still in this dangerous third year is that, no, you really can’t read all the things. Somehow that makes me feel a little better.

I would have loved to give better advice in this post rather than just some observations, but I feel too close to the beginning still to assess what is working and what isn’t. I’d like to invite fellow bloggers and readers to respond, though!

What worked for you when you were starting your dissertation that kept you from trying to “read all the things”?

3 thoughts on “On Starting the Dissertation: The Reading List that Keeps on Listing”

  1. Hi Laura – thank you for this. I had a discussion with a colleague on the bus last week about this very topic — trying to but being unable to read “all the books.” My first graduate course at CU was critical analysis, taught by Bruce Holsinger, who is a medievalist. His training taught us that we had to read *everything* and so I still consider this to be the benchmark — the impossible benchmark. My very sage colleague said, “In Medieval studies you can still read everything! It’s possible to read everything!” And as we have learned the hard way, in 18th-19th-century studies, it’s not. Throw an interdisciplinary topic in there (for me, media studies and book history with a DH addiction on the side) and you’re really in trouble. I still abide by my impulse to look through everything, but I am learning how to select the right parts of all of the books to survey without reading them cover-to-cover. In fact, I recently spent quite a bit of time researching Sir Walter Scott in order to determine what novels of his I absolutely had to read for a certain part of my chapter — he was so stinkin’ prolific that it took a considerable amount of time to make solid decisions about what novels are tangential and which ones are crucial. This felt like wasted time at the time, but it no longer feels that way.

  2. That’s an excellent point, Kirstyn! This kind of pressure does vary by specific field. Especially when you throw archival work into the mix and realize how much18th/19th-century writing still isn’t readily available… it just adds more possibilities to the mix. I think what you say at the end of your comment is so important, though: no reading time is actually wasted time. My problem is sometimes that I don’t feel ready to start writing until I feel I know enough about a topic. And I never know “enough.” I’m starting to learn to force myself to start writing in spite of my insecurity.

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