Last month we covered the fundamentals of dissertating: what a dissertation is, why you have to do one, and different ways of thinking of your dissertation.
This month we’re going to give you some tips on how to overcome writer’s block and make progress.
Before we dive into that, though, it might be worth spending a little bit of time talking about why it can be so hard to make progress.
One of the biggest problems is that very few people read a dissertation before they write one and it’s incredibly hard to write in a genre you’re unfamiliar with.
SHAMELESS PLUG: This is why we created the Dissertation as Narrative webinar which we will be hosting again soon. Use the Contact form to reserve a seat!
Aside from the multiple problems with the dissertation genre and how it’s taught to Phd candidates, there is a problem with the process as well.
Many, many, many people I have talked to found that the PhD process stole the sense of wonder they had around their project.
I said “people” there because I don’t just mean clients or friends. I mean faculty. I mean tenured faculty.
I spoke to a professor who was crushing it: she had recently become the director of her program, she was publishing, she was teaching, she was an in-demand speaker. By every marker of academic success she was making it and she told me that, by the time she deposited her dissertation, she didn’t want to look at it ever again.
She did, eventually, look at her dissertation again and edit it and publish it, but if you are getting a little sick of your subject you are not alone and it does not mean you are doomed to be an academic failure.
Even if you still love your project, you might be struggling to maintain the balance between what you really want to say about it and the feedback you’re getting from outside sources. Sometimes, in trying to make your project “marketable” you lose your compass and don’t know how to move the argument forward.
Sometimes you just lose track of what you’re trying to say. There are so many important points its easy, and common, to lose track of what the most important one is.
These are some of the most common reasons that people stall in their writing.
Well, the most common reasons are that life rudely keeps happening like you aren’t trying to write a fudging dissertation, but, assuming life is manageable these are the most common reasons people stall.
The good news is, I went through several of these in my own writing process, and I’ve coached clients through the rest. For the next month we’ll be sharing tips and how to work through each of these. Progress guaranteed or your reading time back 😉
A few days ago I offered to record some lectures on my areas of expertise for any of you looking for online teaching resources suddenly.
The response was bigger than expected so I did something I never thought I would do–I created a YouTube channel.
The first video on the connections between virginity and the patriarchal nation state is up now and you can find it here!
The YouTube comments have suggested pre and post lecture discussion questions and the external sources I drew from most heavily in putting together this lecture.
My goal is to get a new lecture up every through this weekend. The videos are stand alone, you don’t need to bring anything else to them to understand them, but together they will form a short series on virginity in the contemporary United States.
I hope these help with your online teaching adventures!
Come back tomorrow for the link to our next YouTube post and our regular Friday post. Our upcoming theme is overcoming writer’s block!
Yesterday I offered to record video lectures related to my areas of expertise for y’all to use in your newly online classes.
Due to the volume of response I’ve decided to record a series of videos and put them on a soon-to-be-created abd2phd YouTube channel.
Each lecture will be stand alone–you won’t need any other material for context–but I’ll also structure them as a short series covering virginity in the contemporary United States.
My goal is to have a lecture out every day starting with a lecture tonight on virginity and patriarchy. I’ll also provide some discussion questions and open source articles for you.
HOWEVER. I’ve also been telling people about Kanopy. Kanopy is one of my favorite things. It’s a film database that most universities subscribe to. It has documentaries on *everything.*
If you’re teaching about gender and sexuality I have a couple of recommendations below:
The Purity Myth: The Virginity Movement’s War Against Women–Just shy of an hour long this is a great overview of virginity in US politics and life since the early 2000’s. It covers a lot of ground is narrated by Jessica Valenti who wrote the book the film is best on. My problem with the documentary is the same as my problem with the book. Women who choose to engage in purity culture aren’t dumb–purity culture fills a real need that they have and to portray it otherwise is, at best, problematic, which is why I often pair this with . . .
A Courtship–This is an in-depth, balanced look at an extreme version of purity culture. It does a great job of showing why people embrace this type of life. For people not familiar with Christian purity culture or thing that modesty culture is only an Islamic thing this documentary is a fucking trip. There’s a lot of subtle things that are easily missed. Watch it twice to catch more things to discuss with your students. In particular, watch for the signs of white-supremacy woven into this version of Christianity.
Virgin Tales: Evangelical Christians and Virginity–This documentary takes an in-depth look at the first-family of purity culture, the Wilsons. The Wilsons created the first, most well-known, purity ball in the United States. The documentary crew spent a year with the Wilson family so there is a lot of depth here. Things to watch out for in particular are the differences between the lives of the Wilson sons and daughters as well as father Randy Wilson’s full time job with the Family Research Council. This is a great one for discussing how purity culture isn’t just a choice individuals make it is something that is being actively pushed through political families like the Wilsons and the Duggars. SHAMELESS PLUG: You can check out my article about the Duggars and their political importance here.
How To Lose Your Virginity: Myths & Misogyny Around A Rite of Passage–A great look at the increasing cultural importance of virginity in US culture since the early 2000s. This really focus on the policy and federal spending around educating and enforcing virginity. It’s great to pair with Virgin Tales. Filmmaker Therese Shechter also created an online archive of virginity stories organized around unconventional markers such as “first time doing X” or “first same sex experience” and stories of deferring experiences. Together they provide a great new way to think about our sexual experiences.
Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm–Did you know that the vibrator was created as a medical device? Did you know it was seen as less sexual than the speculum? Women’s medical history is a fucking trip. This documentary digs into a fascinating medical history around hysteria and it’s treatment. There’s a narrative version of this history in the film Hysteria starring Maggie Gyllenhaal which you can sometimes find on YouTube.
We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Fransisco–Do you want to cry? Do you want to fucking sob?! Well, get the tissues. An important documentary for all Americans. Perhaps particularly timely as some of our students are grappling with how the government can be mishandling an epidemic so badly.
Screaming Queens: The Riots at Compton’s Cafeteria–A few years before Stonewall drag queens rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria. Susan Stryker’s documentary interviews several of the people who were there and it does not go where you expect with some of the characters. A great documentary all around it can also be a good way to dig into how we categorize folks. For instance, several of the folks who were labeled as “drag queens” we would now call trans*.
This is a tiny, tiny, tiny representation of documentaries on Kanopy, but they are some of my favorites. It’s definitely the best teaching resource you may not have known you had!
Like many of you, I’ve spent the past several days trying to switch my teaching completely online for the rest of the semester.
The dirty truth of online teaching is that it is either WAY harder or WAY easier than teaching in person.
If you do it right, it’s way harder. You have to put in a lot of extra planning and work to simulate the in-class experience of discussion, lecture, and in-class experiences.
To all of you out there struggling to do online teaching right and wondering how you’re going to find the time and energy to do the extra work I’m here for you.
After all, abd2phd is here to make your life easier in as many ways as possible.
If you are teaching a Women’s Studies or Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course; or a women’s history, american history, or WWII history class I’ll send you a recorded lecture you can upload to your online teaching platform.
My area of expertise is the rhetoric of virginity in the contemporary United States. In particular, I look at the mutual constitutive nature of the rhetoric of virginity in medical, legal, and popular cultures in World War II and the War on Terror.
Specialties related to these areas include sex education in the United States since 2001, Christian Nationalist politics, and women in popular culture.
Lectures I have prepped are:
How virginity contributes to rape culture
Why virginity is the foundation of the patriarchal nation-state
VD propaganda in WWII (this is a great one if you want to talk about mishandling a viral threat)
Sex Ed in the US (a great one for talking about handling and mishandling of public health)
Virginity, Christian Nationalist Politics, and the Rise of Donald Trump
For each lecture I’ll send you a half hour video lecture along with links to two open-source supplementary materials. I’m also happy to record a follow-up video answering any questions your class has.
This is completely free to anyone who is interested. I’m just trying to help out other instructors during this time.
P.S. Sorry if there are tons of typos here. I’m posting without proofreading to get this out as soon as possible.
This month we’re talking about what a dissertation is. Why do you have to do one? What does it do for you? Why is it so damn hard?
Today, we’re going to look more closely at that last question.
We’ve already covered many of the aspects of what a dissertation is: a dissertation is an institutional document, a dissertation is a story you’re telling, a dissertation is proof that you can produce new knowledge to the standards of academic rigor, a dissertation is a thousand cranes.
Among all of the things that a dissertation is it is also a little piece of your heart and soul.
This may be one of the biggest differences between the humanities and the sciences, both social and hard.
In the hard sciences you often apply to specific labs to work with specific professors who do research you are generally interested in. The work you do in the lab is often dependent on the funding that the lab is receiving. I’ve known many, many PhDs in the hard sciences who are broadly interested in their dissertation research–certainly interested enough to do it–but it isn’t their passion. In many of the hard sciences the expectation seems to be that you don’t get to work on what you’re really passionate about until you have a lab of your own.
In the social sciences you often do research that is an extension of your advisor’s research interest.
As in so many things the humanities are . . . different.
For instance, my committee had broad interests in the intersections of women’s lives and the state but that was it. None of them were particularly interested in virginity. None of them knew a thing about Christian Nationalism. My research was its own little bubble. This is the case for many humanities PhD’s and it changes the dissertation process in two important ways.
First, your committee can give you general but not specific guidance. In practical terms, this often means that many PhD students find themselves in the odd position of educating their committees on their dissertation topic while simultaneously being evaluated by their committee on the argument we’re making about said topic. In the best case scenario, a supportive committee can encourage a PhD candidate to take ownership of their role as a leading expert in their topic. Unfortunately, it’s much more common for a well-meaning but busy committee to leave their candidate in the dark not knowing how to navigate being both the expert and the person with the least power in the room.
Following from the first, the process of writing your dissertation is more isolating and isolated. For example, I briefly shared an office with two other PhD candidates who shared my advisor. Even though we all shared the same advisor our dissertations had nothing in common. I don’t just mean we had different topics. We used different methods. I combined feminist theory with rhetorical analysis under the framework of Gramscian common sense. One of my office mates did oral histories, participant observation, and autoethnography. My other office mate used interviews, medical journals, semiotics, and autoethnography.
Sure, there are some similarities which clearly drew us to the same advisor, but even when we used similar methods we applied them in such different ways that we weren’t really able to help each other in substantive ways. We could certainly be sounding boards or commiserate about the process in general but, unlike folks sharing a PI/dissertation chair in the sciences, our work was not related enough for us to share sources, methods, data, or even disciplinary conferences.
These three things: your dissertation being a part of who you are, having to educate your committee, and feeling isolated in the process are three of the biggest impediments to dissertation progress at the ABD level.
It is hard enough to offer up your research and your writing for critique.
It is harder to offer your research and writing for critique when it is tied to who you are.
It is still harder to offer up your research and writing for critique when it is tied to who you are and the people critiquing it may not know much about it.
It is hardest to do all of that and feel as if choosing this path has left you isolated with few professional support networks.
If you’re feeling frustrated, angry, or isolated because your work, a part of you, has gotten intense criticism from a committee or chair who isn’t very familiar with your topic just know that you are not alone. It is not something you did wrong in choosing your topic or your committee.
It is part of the current system of how we get PhDs. It is part of why I founded abd2phd.
What’s about to follow is something between a soapbox rant and a shameless plug so keep reading at your own peril.
I had a committee member who always used to tell me “T the P” or “trust the process.” It was only at the very end of my dissertation that I began to realize the process itself was not trustworthy.
I’m grateful for so many of the things I gained from my PhD process. I’m grateful for the way it honed my mind and made me a better thinker. I’m grateful for the expertise and for the chance to do this really rare, incredible thing.
But being grateful for what I gained from the process doesn’t mean I don’t think the process needs some serious changes.
One study puts the rates of mental illness in PhD programs at a third. One in three.
Yes, can gain some great things from the process of getting a PhD, but that doesn’t mean the cost needs to be so damn high.
And that’s why we’re here.
In a perfect world, what we do would be services expected of your committee, but faculty members are struggling to navigate the neoliberal university too.
My own experiences are what prompted me to start this site. I want to help other PhD students move towards work-life balance (to the extent they can), get sh*t done, and know that somebody is on their side. That’s what we’re here for.
I know you want your dissertation to be good, BUT YOU NEED TO WRITE A BAD DRAFT.
[Releases lapels. Pours you a sparkling water.]
The absolute BIGGEST problem that I have with every client is that they work on their dissertation for too damn long.
I don’t say this to you as someone who magically understands dissertations. I made this mistake when I was writing too.
I think it has to do with your perspective on the process as you are going through it compared to when you’ve completed it.
When I was writing my dissertation I really wanted it to be good. I wanted my committee to be awed by it. I wanted it to be smart and well-written. I wanted it to be impressive. I wanted it, in short, to need no revisions.
Here’s the truly wild part: I passed my dissertation defense with NO REVISIONS.
Yup, you heard that right, I made a thousand cranes and I got what I wished for: a pass with no revisions after my dissertation defense.
AND. FUCKING. YET.
Even though I lived the dream there were still significant problems with my final dissertation. Due to a weird series of formatting errors there was a 15 page section that was, inexplicably, repeated in Chapter Three. There were typos.
It was not perfect.
But it passed.
(I may owe a significant debt of gratitude to my chair’s belief that a dissertation is an institutional document.)
Even dissertations that are passed without revisions have flaws.
A friend of mind deposited her dissertation with a typo in her motherfucking title.
This isn’t because there aren’t smart people proofreading the document and I don’t think it’s a problem of too many chefs either.
What is much clearer when you are out of the process is this:
Your dissertation is a draft.
In an ideal world, your dissertation is a manuscript that you will turn into a couple of articles and a monograph. It’s a basis for future work not a final thing.
For all of the blood, sweat, and tears we put into our dissertations the hard truth is that they are the beginning of our scholarly careers, not their culmination.
Nobody cares about your dissertation.
And that’s not because it isn’t great or valuable. It is both of those things!
It’s because your scholarly career is built on the things that come after your dissertation: the articles, the anthologies, the monographs, the classes, the postdocs, the professorships, and all that jazz.
So, let’s scale this backwards.
Your finished, passed, deposited dissertation is a draft of your future scholarly work. What then is the draft of your dissertation you turn into your chair for her feedback?
It’s a draft of a draft.
Given that we turn it multiple drafts of our dissertation to our committee we are, at best, turning in a draft of a draft of a draft.
Let me use my own dissertation as an example.
My deposited dissertation was meant to be a draft of my future scholarly career.
This means that the draft that I submitted to my committee before my dissertation defense was a draft of a draft.
Which means that the final draft I submitted to my chair, before I got her approval to submit it to defend, and therefore submit it to my committee, was a draft of a draft of a draft. And that was *the* most finished product my dissertation chair saw.
But I submitted so many other drafts to her! I think I sent her 5 drafts of chapter 5 which means the first draft I sent her was actually a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a motherfucking draft.
We spend so much time working to get our drafts as perfect as possible without realizing that our most perfect draft is, at best, a draft of a draft of a draft.
It’s hard to see this when we are in the process, but when you understand that the draft you are working so hard to make perfect will never be the final draft but just one iteration of your project it can significantly decrease your dissertation anxiety.
When you submit a near final draft to your chair she’s going to give you feedback. Then you’ll write another draft incorporating that feedback before you submit it to your committee who will also give you feedback which you will incorporate before you deposit. And that’s when you are almost done!
Every other draft is even more stages of revision from being done and yet we tend to treat them as if they are the final judgment of our scholarly prowess.
At a certain point our desire to make our draft as perfect as possible doesn’t significantly improve the draft but it does significantly delay our timeline.
Without knowing your writing style I can’t give you a hard and fast number of when you should let go and let your advisor edit but I can tell you that for most of my clients that number is 80 percent.
That is, when you feel you are 80% done with your dissertation draft you are 100% ready to send it your advisor and get feedback.
We keep talking about what a dissertation is and what a dissertation does for two reasons. First, because our mission is to move you from All But Dissertation (ABD) to becoming a PhD and the dissertation is the sine qua non of that process. Second, because a dissertation is a hard thing to wrap your mind around. It’s both similar and wildly different from things you’ve written before.
A dissertation is unlike anything but itself and so we use analogies and metaphors to get a grasp on it. The metaphor or analogy that works for you, that finally makes it click, like, “Oh! This is how I do this thing!,” is going to be different for everyone so we keep cranking them out hoping that you’ll find yours.
My PhD advisor used to say “A dissertation is an institutional document.”
She said this to me for four years and I never once understood what the hell that meant.
Until one day she told me that, for her dissertation, she had this idea to start each chapter with a short story and got lost in a creative quagmire which she was only able to pull herself out of when a friend told her, “A dissertation is an institutional document.”
That’s when I got it.
What she was telling me was that a dissertation was like any other institutional document:
An Ikea furniture manual
A Job Ad
What institutional documents have in common is that they are meant to check off a series of boxes.
A passport establishes your citizenship and ability to travel as a citizen of a certain country.
An Ikea furniture manual is a legal document that prevents you from making a million dollars for suing Ikea because you didn’t know that the floof went in the florb.
A job ad is designed to recruit a qualified candidate while representing all of the interests of the parties contributing to the funding of the line.
A CV is designed to show off your experience in the three categories of an academic job: teaching, research, and service.
Teaching evaluations are designed to make sure that you don’t do anything that the university could get sued for in your classroom.
In some ways, thinking of the dissertation as an institutional document can be helpful. It can free you from the paralyzing fear that your dissertation has to be beautiful. Institutional documents are not beautiful. They are neither elegant nor eloquent. They check off boxes.
If that idea helps you get rid of some dissertating insecurities then take it with you.
The problem I see with thinking of the dissertation as an institutional document is that most of us don’t read or write institutional documents with any regularity.
As any successful writer will tell you, reading widely is an essential part of writing well.
It’s difficult to write well in a genre you’re not familiar with.
Familiarizing yourself with your genre is important for any writer to do. This is why we’ve previously advocated that, if you have time, you read the introductions of a few dissertations to familiarize yourself with the conventions of the genre.
However, you may not have time to look up and read dissertations in addition to everything else you’re doing.
That’s why we’ve come up with another technique that has helped our clients.
Instead of learning a new genre so you can write in it think of your dissertation as a story you’re telling.
The reason this works is because you are familiar with stories. From commercials to movies to novels stories are part of every day life.
You know stories. You know their benchmarks and how they progress. When you think of your dissertation as a story you’re telling you put yourself in familiar territory and writing your dissertation transforms from wandering lost in a dense wood to a magical adventure.
If you’d like to learn more about how to think of your dissertation as a story join us this Wednesday, 2-26, for our FREE Dissertation as Narrative webinar at noon PST. To receive your spot send us a message through the Contact page.
It shows that you have the resiliency and resourcefulness to conduct research and translate it to other experts.
It is proof that you can find and assess relevant secondary literature. It shows that you can identify and address a gap in your field. It shows that you can make a compelling, original argument.
Among all the other things that your dissertation is, it is, also, a story.
All good arguments are stories. They start by telling you how the world is. They end by telling you how the world should be different. Throughout, they tell you why things were the way they were and why they should change.
Because a dissertation is so many things the story part of the argument can get lost.
The biggest problem for writers at all levels is forgetting that other people aren’t in their own heads. I see this in my freshmen students, in myself, and in my coaching clients. In my experience this problem, endemic to all writers, is exacerbated in people who are writing dissertations.
The dissertation process is designed to turn you into an expert in your field. In practice that means that you’ve spent years learning more and more about your subject and it can be all to easy to forget that the things that are basic knowledge for you are not widely known.
For instance, in my own work, I often have to remember that, while most people have a working definition of virginity, they don’t know that virginity is a term that has no fixed medical or moral definition.
I guest lectured on this in a colleague’s class yesterday. I was doing a basic lecture I love to give about how virginity is far more important to your life than you think it is.
[SHAMELESS PLUG: I would be happy to video conferenceand give this lecture for you and/or record a version for your class.]
To do this lecture we first start with federal guidelines surrounding sex education in the United States and explain how they are related to the ideology of virginity. From there we look at how virginity, in practice, is a concept only applied to women’s bodies. Then we talk about women’s bodies and sexuality in patriarchal systems.
This is often the part where I find myself educating a room full of legal adults on the difference between the vagina and the vulva, what a hymen is, and where there is no fixed definition of virginity in either medical or religious literatures.
All of the concepts in the last paragraph are foundational to my research and my dissertation argument. None of them are common knowledge (EVEN IF THEY SHOULD BE, DAMMIT).
At the dissertation level, our research is so specialized that even our committee, made up of experts in related fields, often don’t know a lot of the basics of our subject.
In the meantime, we, as researchers and authors, can feel like we are drowning in details that NEED TO BE SHARED WITH THE WORLD and we run into twin difficulties. First, we forget what our readers don’t know. Second, we forget how to prioritize the information we need them to know.
Approaching your dissertation as a story you’re telling can solve both of these problems.
In addition, approaching your dissertation as a narrative can help you break down a complex, difficult process. Because we are all familiar with stories, because stories are the fundamental form of human knowledge sharing, conceptualizing your dissertation as a story takes a process you will only ever do once and allows you to conceptualize it in terms of a form you are intimately familiar with.
I’ll show you how thinking of your dissertation as a story can help while using my own dissertation as an example.
When you’re telling a story the first step is to decide what genre your story is. Is it a romance or a mystery? Is it a biography or an autobiography? Is it a suspense novel or a how-to manual? Is it a mix of genres?
In my own case, my dissertation was mostly a manifesto with a little bit of autobiography and a little bit of how-to manual thrown in.
Once you know what your genre is you can move on to step two: plotting your story. Whatever type of story your dissertation is there are some things are common to ALL stories. The first thing you have to do is establish the stakes for your audience. Why is this story interesting? Why is it important? This is also the place to introduce your key actors, essential concepts, and necessary definitions just as a good fiction author would.
For example, in the introduction to my dissertation, I establish that the stakes of not understanding virginity are both national and personal and effects both women and men. I define how I use the terms “virgin” and “virginity” throughout and I briefly discuss the key actors/concepts I will discuss in later chapters. A little thoughtful foreshadowing, if you will.
In step three, you work on your plotting. For instance, do you tell the story straight through like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe or do you shift point of view between chapters like A Game of Thrones? Do you follow a linear timeline or do you move forward and back in time? Does your story need an appendix like the Lord of the Rings series needs The Silmarillion?
Once you know these things you can start to organize all of your data so that your reader can follow the story of your dissertation.
In my dissertation I proceeded in a mostly linear fashion but shifting point of view slightly between chapters.
Thinking of your dissertation as a story you tell can help you make progress when you’re stuck because, while we rarely read dissertations, we consume stories constantly from novels to commercials. Knowing how to proceed with a dissertation can be difficult but knowing how to proceed with a story is, while not necessarily easier, much more familiar.
Even if you’ve made significant progress on your dissertation you can use the story framework to help you in your edits. Read it as a story. Does it make sense? Do you know all the characters and all the story points you need to follow the plot/argument?
If you want more help on how thinking of your dissertation as a story can help you make progress and make your writing stronger use our Contact form to sign up for our FREE Dissertation as Story webinar!
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.
For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re remixing a post about how the skills you developed as a student might be hurting you as a dissertation author. Enjoy!
Last week we talked about the role of executive function in your life/dissertation.
While executive function in adults is understudied we do know that problems with executive function are part of ADHD, ASD, and anxiety.
I’m not a neuroscientist, or a psychologist, but as someone who lives with anxiety I’ve noticed two important things. First, most of the PhD students I know are neurodivergent in some way. (I know, I know–there’s all sorts of caveats here: maybe all my friends are neurodivergent because I am, maybe it’s a self-selecting population, etcetera–but I’m not worried about the mechanism here.) Second, it TOTALLY makes sense that people with anxiety, ADHD, ASD and other brains impacted by executive dysfunction are really good at PhD programs.
Our brains are really good at finding connections other people might not see and weaving them into arguments to create knowledge.
This natural propensity is enhanced by the structure of a PhD program itself which encourages us to think not in five paragraph arguments but in five chapter monographs.
When we train brains that are already good at making connections to make more connections we really shouldn’t be surprised that we have a bunch of people who struggle with the executive function skills of breaking a task down into parts, planning, organizing, and completing it.
I would argue that humanities students struggle with this more than STEM PhDs because STEM PhDs are often based on fieldwork, an equation, and experiment, and so on. In short, STEM PhDs have a definable start and finish in ways that humanities projects often do not.
For instance, in my own project I was looking at how U.S. doctors and legislators talked about virginity in World War II and the War on Terror. Part of my committee, the part made up of historians, wanted me to do a longitudnal study instead of a comparative study. Even when I got them to agree to a comparative study there was still the problem of how to define WWII and the War on Terror. For instance, did I define WWII as when the US entered the war? When the war started in Europe? Or when the US army started preparing to enter the war? Defining the War on Terror was even more complex as a War on Terror is, by definition, and endless war.
My point here is that breaking our projects into workable pieces is HARD and it’s made harder by the fact that our job and our training are teaching us to look for connections between those pieces.
When you look at your project you see all the connections. The inside of a dissertating brain usually looks something like this:
If it feels crazy-making that’s because it is.
You are not crazy or dumb for having difficulty sorting through the connections. It’s antithetical to everything you’ve been trained to do. That’s why, sometimes, you need someone else to come in take a look at your project to help you sort it into doable pieces.
In theory, your committee should be able to do this for you. That is, after all, what committees are for. In reality, there are a lot of reasons you might not seek this sort of feedback from your committee. Maybe they’re on sabbatical. Maybe they only read finished work. Maybe their feedback is contradictory or unhelpful.
Fellow graduate students can be a great resource to give you this type of feedback as well. I’ve known graduate students who have been able to get reading/writing groups together that meet regularly and give each other feedback. This has been extremely successful for them.
I tried, several times, to set up a graduate student reading group during my PhD. It never worked out.
In general, I’ve noticed that reading groups tend to work out if you have a group of people who are on fellowship. If you have a group of graduate students who are teaching or TAing it’s a little harder to get going and may never take off.
Sometimes graduate students can offer you much needed sympathy and support but not the perspective you need. Sometimes you need the help of someone with more distance from your project and your program. And that’s okay.
Getting a PhD isn’t about how smart you are. Getting a PhD is about persistence and persistence is, among other things, about knowing when to ask for help.
If you need it, or think you might need it, we’re here for you.