The Best Kept Secret About Dissertations

Gather round, my friends, and I will tell you the best-kept secret of dissertating.

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This is a secret I only learned in the last semester of my PhD as I was putting the finishing touches on the dissertation and sending it to my committee.

It is a secret I wish to God I had known much, much earlier because it would have saved me so much time and so many headaches.

If I could only give you one piece of advice for writing your whole dissertation it would be this secret, but not hidden, truth about dissertating:

DISSERTATIONS ARE A TRASH GENRE!

No, I’m not kidding.

Most dissertations, and I very much include my own in this, are awful.

They are not awful because you are a bad writer or a bad researcher.

They are awful because the genre is terrible.

A dissertation is a very specialized book that no one ever reads. You will read it. Your committee might read it. Your chair will probably read it.

That’s about it.

Imagine, for a second, how truly terrible your favorite book would be if it was written for an audience of five people one of which was the author and the other four were paid  to critique it.

Now imagine if that book had to tell its own story while simultaneously referencing most of the books in related genres and explaining how its story was different but still important.

On top of that, imagine if that book did not have the benefit of a professional editor and had to conform to a bizarre set of formatting standards.

See what we’ve done here? We’ve taken your favorite book and turned it into a trash fire.

When you write a dissertation, that is the genre you are writing in.

One of the biggest hurdles to sitting down and writing the first draft of your dissertation is the haunting question, “Will it be any good?”

This is not the right question. In fact, a lot of the most prolific authors openly talk (or talked, if they’re dead) about how the first draft is awful. You may have seen the following image, from time to time, on our site:

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When you’re sitting down to write a first draft don’t concern yourself with whether or not it’s good.

How would you even know?

Unless you’re Bruce Banner, you probably haven’t done this before. That’s part of why you have a committee! Their job is to tell you what’s working and what’s not. In reality, committees do this to varying degrees with wildly different success rates, but that’s a post for another time.

I said at the top of this post that I had one very important piece of dissertation advice for you. Here it is:

In the early stages of your writing carve out times to read dissertations in your field.

Search for 3-5 of them and read the introductions then, maybe, skim an interesting chapter. Don’t devote a whole lot of time to this but do devote some time to it.

I didn’t do this until the absolute end of my dissertating process when I was revising the pop-culture chapter and I wanted to see how dissertations in media studies were citing TV shows.

The first dissertation I tried to read was, shall we say, disappointing and, also, seemed to have no consistent way of citing the TV shows they were referencing.

I figured I’d just gotten a lemon so I found another dissertation that seemed relevant and read part of it. It was also not great (e.g. obvious spelling and grammar errors, some logical slight of hand) and it cited sources in a completely different way than the first dissertation.

At this point, I needed a tie-breaker so I found a third dissertation which cited their TV sources yet another way and was also generally bad.

At around this same time a guest lecturer assigned a dissertation in their field to my class to familiarize them with the material they would be covering. That dissertation was truly awful. Not only did it have the spelling and grammar errors I had come to expect but the person was less conversant with the strains of feminism she claimed to be critiquing than my 200 level students were. That guest lecturer had to cancel at the last moment and my students and I engaged in a “deconstructive exercise” where we tore that dissertation apart.

I also personally know someone who deposited their dissertation with a typo in the title, so . . .

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “But my dissertation will be different! Mine will be special–a joy to read.”

To which I would ask you, “Why, tho?”

I say this to you as someone who wanted my dissertation to be beautiful . . . to be delicious in the way that good writing can be both beautiful and delicious. I say this to you as someone who had some moderate success in this realm. I am proud of the work I produced and I love my dissertation.

I also say this to you as someone whose dissertation has been read by fewer than 10 people and that includes people who have only read portions of it.

There is a subtle, but important difference, in your dissertation being a joy to write and a joy to read. Your book should be, ideally, a joy to read. But your dissertation is not a book and it will not be read by a wide audience.

Let your dissertation be a joy to write but don’t worry about whether or not it’s a joy to read. To master the difference the absolute best thing you can do is skim 3-5 dissertations in your field to get a realistic idea of where the bar is for what your reader is expecting. After that, as much as you can, have fun with it.

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