Recently, while working with a client, I was searching through old posts here on the site for the one I was *sure* I had written about the purpose of a dissertation.
While we have several posts that address different aspects of the dissertation process (here and here and here) and dissertation format (here) we don’t actually have a post about what the point of a dissertation is.
Simply put, a dissertation is proof that you can create new knowledge to the standards of academic rigor.
There’s three things to discuss here: what “new knowledge” means, why creating new knowledge is important, and why it’s so damn hard. Today, we’re going to address those topics starting with the last one first.
Why creating new knowledge is so damn hard: A Treatise
If you’ve made it to a PhD program, especially if you’ve conquered your coursework, survived your prelims, and defended your prospectus, then the odds are that you have over 20 cumulative years of being a student–minimum. In the US academic system this is usually K-12, a four year Bachelor’s program, a 2 year Masters, and at least 2 years of PhD work before you are finally All But Dissertation. This is in the most aggressive schedule in which you are completing your prelims and prospectus while simultaneously doing coursework which I have only ever seen one person do. Most people take longer than this.
That means that, even on the most truncated plan, before you start to write your dissertation you have 20 years of experience and training as a student.
This is important because students are consumers of knowledge.
Students read the things other people wrote. They criticize the arguments other people make. Students judge ideas.
The process of getting a PhD is the process of transitioning from a student to a scholar.
Scholars write new things.
Scholars make new arguments.
Scholars have original ideas.
The transition between student and scholar is, paradoxically, both minute and vast.
While there are a lot of reasons why people leave PhD programs after completing every step but the dissertation I’ve always thought that one of the biggest reasons is because of the transition of from student to scholar.
Many of us go into PhD programs, whether they be STEM, social science, or humanities, because we like being students–we’re good at it, and we want to keep doing it.
We’re not making this up, either.
On the rare occasions that grad students are depicted in popular culture we are often portrayed as old-students doing homework for professors rather than innovative research of our own or teaching classes or any of the thousand things we do.
[SHAMELESS PLUG: If you work for a media company and are thinking of portraying grad students in film, television, podcast, or radio please consider hiring me so I can make sure your depictions are accurate. I have very affordable hourly rates.]
As frustrated as I am with media depictions of graduate study, they aren’t making it up either.
The myth of the eternal student is precious in academia. It’s a story we tell each other about why we chose this life over others where we could make more money for less work. I think, at some point in time, there was an element of truth to this portrayal. If you are particularly privileged it may still feel like this for you.
People with PhD’s are not just really accomplished students. They are scholars.
Being a scholar means a lot of things but the most important thing is creating new knowledge. This is why creating new knowledge is such an important part of the dissertation process.
You might check out this hilarious, phallic, but still effective visual explanation from Matt Might.
For my money, my favorite look at what “new knowledge” can mean is the brilliant website lolmythesis.
What I like about lolmythesis is that it captures the funny, often underwhelming nature of what “new knowledge” means. It is very, very rarely a groundbreaking “Eureka!” moment.
Instead, it’s often more along the lines of helping to prove something that seems very intuitive. What can I say? Now it seems obvious that electricity is, well, electricity but we used to think it was something called phlogiston. Knowledge almost never changes with a lightning flash of undeniable insight. Instead, it’s a slow accretion of evidence that changes what we know.
THIS is what a dissertation is.
It’s not “new knowledge” that redefines the field (unless you’re Gayle Rubin). It’s new knowledge in the sense that it’s another track leading us down the most logical path, like so,
I’ll use my own dissertation as an example here.
In a sentence, the argument in my dissertation is: Virginity is the sine qua non of the patriarchal nation state.
In a paragraph, the argument of my dissertation is: Feminist scholars across disciplines have observed a consistent association with the advent of virginity for women and the rise of the nation states in several different societies over several different time periods. Feminist scholars have established that the patriarchal nation state is based on the control of women’s bodies and, particularly, their reproductive capacity. I argue that virginity is the first and most essential form of control of women’s bodies and that virginity is essential to the establishment of the sexual control of women and, therefore, the establishment of the patriarchal nation-state.
Is this a revolutionary claim?
I don’t think so.
It’s a pretty logical conclusion, all things considered, given what we know about how the patriarchal nation state relies on the control of women’s bodies and how virginity exists as a form of sexual and economic control of women.
The reason it counts as new knowledge is because I put two literatures in conversation with each other that had not previously been in conversation with each other in scholarly circles.
Believe me. I know. Because I read ALL the things about virginity.
That’s why the difference between being a scholar and a student can feel so very small. To be a good scholar you have to rely on all your training as a student to learn all the things that have been said about your topic so that you know what remains to be said.
You may have noted my small caveat above–that the literatures and historiographies I put in conversation in my dissertation had not been put together in scholarly circles.
That is important because the scholarly standards are the heart of a dissertation.
There are many, many smart people who, for various reasons, don’t do scholarly writing.
They may be writing very smart, innovative things. (My personal favorite example of this brilliance is Damon Young over at Very Smart Brothas.)
[SHAMELESS PLUG: I’ve published some stuff over at the Ms. Magazine blog and I’d love if you’d check it out here or here. In my case, I published these in non-academic spaces because both pieces were related to current affairs, but I digress.)
Given that people can and do publish smart, original things outside of the academic context why is it so damn important to the dissertation process?
It’s about standards.
I genuinely don’t know if there’s any way to explain this but I can try and give you some perspective from my experience as a ghostwriter of popular books. When you are pitching a book to a popular press, or a literary agent to take your book to a popular press, you are expected to compare your book to the five(ish) most similar to it. You give a two-sentence summary of the book and then a short paragraph of how your book is different. It’s a very, very truncated literature review. The reason you do this for the popular press is because literary agents and publishers aren’t responsible for knowing the relevant literature which is, in fact, the entire purpose of your dissertation committee.
It was less than a year ago that Naomi Klein’s book, Outrages, was recalled from stores by the publisher due to issues with her research that were spotted (by academics) in early interviews she gave promoting it. For my academic friends the idea that a major flaw in your argument would be revealed in a live interview was their worst fear. Many of them were left aghast wondering how this could have happened to Wolf. It happened because the popular press is so completely different from the academic press. It’s not the job of the editor or the publisher to check the veracity of the claims the author is making. It’s up to them to make the writing better and sell the book.
This is, of course, the complete opposite of academic publishing. During my MA a faculty member became the editor of a major journal in her field and she recruited grad students to help with fact checking. My job was to check out all the books the author referenced in their article and double check that the quotes were, in fact, on the page of the edition the author cited.
Academic writing is a whole order of magnitude different from popular writing in terms of checking one’s argument and one’s sources.
A dissertation is, fundamentally, designed to show that you can create new knowledge and new knowledge is separate from having a really good idea.
New knowledge requires proof and citations and review by experts.
That, beloved, is the point of a dissertation and why it’s so damn hard.
For the rest of the month we’ll be talking about what a dissertation is and what it’s designed to do. The point of these conversations is to help break an overwhelming task down to its essence so that it feels more approachable and more doable.
Come back Friday for a brand new post on what a dissertation is and is not. For now, I’ll leave you with this.