Tag Archives: dissertation

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”?

Exploring the Genre of the Dissertation

During the hours that I assigned for my dissertation yesterday, I had a bit of a genre-identity crisis. I was editing and revising parts of a chapter in the morning when I discovered that I have been following no more than an idea *in my imagination* of what a dissertation should look like. Of course my prospectus outlined my chapters and my proposed argument, and has already been approved by my committee, but that piece of writing did not require me to think about the dissertation from within its draft or its guts.

I sought a model to consult — a concrete finished dissertation product to admire, toggle/flip through, and to orient my work in both form and content. Though I have read a small library of books and articles on the path to where I am now in my PhD, I have yet to read an entire dissertation. In fact, I haven’t even read a full dissertation chapter. In other words, yesterday I felt as though I was trying to compose a genre I knew nothing about and was not prepared to write. (Not true, I’ve since learned!)

The genre-identity crisis manifested in a swarm of questions. How much space should I allow to record the current critical conversation in which my argument intervenes? What belongs in a footnote and what belongs in my body paragraphs? Should my chapters be about 50 pages long and framed as long arguments/explorations of a single topic, or divisible into two articles of about 25 pages each, in order to make it easier to (try to) publish diss chapters as articles (the latter was my plan)? But is it prudent to write chapters as if they are articles, or multiple articles sewn together? How long should the arc of each chapter’s argument and investigation be? Why do I feel like I’m spelunking? Can I get away with writing shorter chapters that are the length of articles that I might submit to a peer-reviewed journal? In other words, what should the genre of the dissertation look like?

To prevent prolonged worrying and inefficiency during this busy part of the semester, I wrote to my dissertation committee co-chairs right away and posted some related questions on Twitter. I have received a collection of thoughtful and useful responses that I think are important to share.

I’m not writing a dissertation; I’m writing a book. This isn’t as pretentious as it sounds, I promise–I have no illusions about being able to produce a publication-quality book quite yet. However, I was advised to see the dissertation as the incunabulum, so to speak, of my first book project. “The dissertation,” I was told, “is a dead-end genre” and my future as scholar depends on my ability to write a good book. Furthermore, many scholars revise their dissertations to complete their first book project as a tenure-track professor.

Importantly, I was also cautioned against trying too hard to actually write a book –that is, a book both in form and content quality — while finishing my doctorate (see my disclaimer in the above paragraph). Efficiency and timely completion of my degree and entrance into the job market are important to me. While I strive to write a beautiful, organized dissertation that offers new ideas supported by a wealth of research in my field, I am also realistic about the time it would take (not to mention the learning curve) to do so as a proper book project and I’m cognizant of that fact that my funding will not last forever.

Numbers: The statistics I was given are the criteria for a book published by a university press: 75,000 to 90,000 words in length, and 4-6 chapters in length in addition to an introduction. Each chapter in typescript should run between 35-50 pages in length — I will lose about a third of my manuscript’s length when the book is typeset.

Chapters: Each chapter should focus on one major issue. Thus, it is unlikely that I will be able to derive two articles from a single chapter. Building this book project draft by thinking about each chapter as one slightly long article is a good idea, I was told. The difference between a chapter and an article is that a chapter allows for more exploration of a topic (so this is why I’ve been feeling a bit like an explorer, which I love).

Models: Find published books for models, not articles, dissertation chapters, or complete dissertations. These don’t necessarily need to be the books whose arguments I admire most–though they may be. Rather, they should be books that I would like my own book project to resemble when it is finished. The big questions are how do I want my project to resemble these works and how will my project differ?

The Department/Committee Factor: Each department has its own unique standards and each dissertation committee has its own set of expectations and criteria for what a good dissertation will accomplish within that department. These factors are more palpable during revision processes but it will pay off to consider them in advance as much as is possible and pragmatic. The expectations and precedents set by of the dept. and committee are also important when considering how to include or align work with digital projects or components of the dissertation. I do a lot of digital work on electronic texts and archives and will be putting a lot of careful thought into how my digital projects dialogue with my dissertation and how best to treat those projects to convey my argument and work as well as meet requirements.

Audience: One respondent on Twitter who is finishing her dissertation wrote that “a dissertation is for 3 people, a book has an audience.” At first, I found this depressing to say the least, but after some thought I have decided that I disagree and am therefore no longer depressed by this idea. Though the dissertation committee is the first audience that this project will see, it is not the only audience. As chapters will become articles and the work as a whole is an early draft of a book project, the dissertation’s components all “cook” together and will emerge to a larger readership than those on the dissertation team within the department. Furthermore, dissertation chapters are also the groundwork, potentially, for insightful conference papers as well as job talks.

Having solicited and received such useful advice, I have some reframing and planning to do with my current draft and I am on the hunt for five or so books that I hope to model my project on. What books would you pick as your models? How have you been conceiving of the form and content of your dissertation? As our department chair so cheerfully says, “Onward!”


Maze Image: By xOneca (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_made_dense_labyrinth.png

The Itinerant Scholar and a Bit of Sage Advice

Prologue: Advisor to Student


“You should apply to do research at the Huntington next summer, or at the NY Public Library.

Don’t you have family in LA, and New Rochelle? Or was it Manhattan? Both?

The Huntington is an amazing place to get work done—not just research but also writing. Everyone goes to the BL [British Library] but the Huntington also has outstanding holdings for scholars working on Romanticism.”


“Yes, I do have family near LA, but they live in Orange County. And you’re right about my relations on the east coast, too. My great aunt has a place on the island and her son, Michael, lives in New Rock City with his wife.”


“Ok, great. Draft your fellowship application materials and send them to me this weekend. Let’s start with the Huntington. If you get money, perfect, you’ll go there; if not, let’s shoot for NY since residing in OC would mean a commute. That’d be a waste of your time.”

Actual Log: Goodwill Huntington

The advisor was right. The rare books I consulted during my time as a fellow and reader at the Huntington Library’s Munger Research Center have proved invaluable to my dissertation project. However, from my first day on the Huntington’s sweeping and gorgeously curated grounds, the congenial spirit cultivated by the reader services staff impressed me most. After hearing a handful of stories about graduate students enduring long waits or general disregard at renowned research institutions, the Huntington handedly dispelled this academic urban legend.

Given my enduring interest in both Romanticism and science and the history of science and technology, I punctuated my visits to the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room with trips to the Burndy collection. The Burndy Library and Dibner History of Science Program house fascinating historical documents and artifacts that allowed me to supplement my archival research with necessary secondary readings.

When I needed to take a break from the reading room, I walked through my favorite of the Huntington’s botanical gardens. Otherwise, I strolled through the many beautifully curated exhibits on display. True to form, I was captivated by the permanent exhibit “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” now showcased in the newly renovated Dibner Hall of the History of Science. Additionally, during the month and a half that I was in residence at the Huntington, I was also lucky enough to explore various rotating exhibitions, many of which catered to my broader interests in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, I visited “Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame” and “Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811–1820.” Just before my time there ended, I took special pleasure in frequenting the exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from The Huntington’s Collections,” which was curated by my friend and colleague Matthew H Fisk.

All such glorious distractions aside, I’ll leave my reader with one very sage piece of advice. Returning again to borrowed words, I would like to share with you the most valuable and counterintuitive information my advisor imparted to me before I made my first foray into the Munger Research Center.

Epilogue: “Try not to spend everyday at The Huntington performing research”


“It will be tempting to spend your allotted time (in the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room, from 8:30 to noon, and more, from 1-5) on nothing but transcription, research, reading. I battle the same impulse myself. But I would never write a page if I left this impulse unchecked.

Break up each day. You have a dissertation to finish. Research is of course an integral component and necessary to the completion of your project, but keep in mind that mining the archive is only part of what you do, and thus should only be part of your daily routine during your 6 weeks on fellowship. This time will give you the opportunity to forge habits that will help you to remain productive and to lead a balanced life after graduate school.

If you still work well in the morning, settle into a schedule where you write in the productive atmosphere of the Huntington during the am, and then, in the afternoons, gather your documents as ye may.”