The Humanities Are Harder

Happy Halloween!

Our goal for this month was to make dissertating feel exciting rather than terrifying.

There is, however, a fundamental truth of dissertating which we may have mentioned before: It is hard.

Even if you love your project, even if you have the world’s best committee, even if you have a generous funding package–writing a dissertation is difficult.

As it should be.

The old adage about getting a PhD remains true: it’s 10% intelligence and 90% perseverance.

What I’m about to say next is a little controversial, but I believe it completely:

Humanities dissertations are harder than other dissertations.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is.

In general, humanities dissertations are longer than dissertations in other disciplines. A friend of mine in the social sciences had a ten-page chapter. Ten (10) pages. Another person I know had a four-page chapter. Four (4) pages. In fact, that four-page chapter was for a person in STEM where the dissertation was not new, original research but four published articles bound together with an introduction and conclusion. Those articles? They weren’t solo pieces. They had several co-authors and, of course, the reputation of the lab of which the person is part can play a significant role in their ability to get published in the first place.

Is this the standard in all STEM programs? Probably not.

Is it difficult to write a dissertation, even one with a four-page chapter? Of course it is. I’m sure my STEM friends would want me to point out that a lot of work went into that four-page chapter. It can summarize hundreds of hours in a lab and dozens of hours of research. I’m not trying to say that STEM dissertations are easy in any way.

What I am saying is that humanities dissertations are harder.

Aside from the general length of the thing, though, the formatting can be more difficult. At the beginning of this month, I encouraged you to read a couple of dissertations related to your field to get a sense of the genre (and, importantly, remind yourself that you are definitely good enough to do this thing). We also noted that you can find a dissertation you admire and use it as a model for your own dissertation. One of the reasons you might want, or need, to do this is because there’s no formula for a humanities dissertation.

In most social science and STEM programs the structure of the dissertation is quite rigid. Many of them follow some version of this outline: introduction (chapter 1), literature review (chapter 2), methods (chapter 3), results (chapter 4), conclusion (chapter 5).

Using my own dissertation as contrast, I went through that process above (intro, lit review, methods/documents, results/argument, conclusion) in each of my chapters while trying to weave the broader connections between my arguments together so that the overall dissertation followed that same pattern in a wider arc.

Again, I’m not saying other dissertations are easy. I’m saying humanities dissertations are harder.

Finally, humanities dissertations are harder because of the types of questions we deal with. The types of questions you are asking in a humanities dissertation don’t have easy answers. They are questions of ontology and epistemology that have been argued and fought over for as long as humans have been around.

As someone who has worked in both STEM and the humanities I find it incredibly disappointing how often my STEM colleagues forget that many of their heroes did not perceive a rigid division between science and metaphysics. Descartes was both a mathematician and a philosopher whose work on intersecting planes is part of introductory study in both fields today. Newton was an alchemist, and not a proto-chemist-alchemist, but a turn-lead-into-gold-and-find-the-secret-to-immortality-alchemist. Sure, he wrote the Principia which is a great achievement but it was also part and parcel of his questions about how to understand human life.

What I’m saying here is that many of the great minds in both the sciences and the humanities did not percieve a difference between the sciences and humanities. Moreover, while they contributed greatly to our scientific knowledge they didn’t come up with a lot of concrete answers to the humanities part so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. Those questions are just harder, at least in part because people and societies have the alarming tendency to change much more quickly than the physical properties of the universe.

Writing a dissertation shouldn’t feel scary but it is hard and humanities dissertations are harder.

Don’t make the process harder than it has to be by being hard on yourself. The work is hard enough; treat yourself with kindness and, if appropriate, half-off Halloween candy ❤

 

 

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Do It For Love; or Dissertation Advice Conveyed Primarily Through GIFs of Elle Woods

Congratulations!

You were admitted to a PhD program, you completed your course work, you survived your prelim exams, you defended your prospectus and now you are, at long last A. B. D.

That moment can feel like this:

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Embrace it. Celebrate it. Take at least a week.

Then, right before you feel really ready for it, begin dissertating.

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It is impossible to describe to you just how difficult writing a dissertation is. Within this difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first draft of the dissertation. Within that difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first chapter.

This is true no matter who you are. It’s true if you’ve written a lot. It’s true if you’ve been published before you start writing your disertation. It’s true if you like to write. It’s true if you’re good at writing. It’s true for everyone.

Previously, we’ve discussed how your prelims are the last big exercise you go through as a consumer of knowledge. Your dissertation is your first big exercise as a producer of knowledge. Nothing in your academic life can quite prepare you for it. You have, after all, spent well over a decade as a student and now you are being asked to create new knowledge. It’s a little bit of magic and a whole lot of difficult.

You may enter with an Elle Woodsian sense of confidence but throughout the process you will feel like this:

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And like this:

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Feedback from your committee will have you like:

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And that is all not just in the realm of normal but damn close to a best case scenario.

You will want to quit.

Statistically, many people do quit.

There are many good reasons to quit and no part of this business exists to shame people who leave graduate school. What we are here to do, however, is to help people who want to get through their programs minimize unnecessary difficulty.

To that end, there is one thing you can do before you ever start dissertating that will help you cut through all the bullshit that dissertating will throw at you:

Love.

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I know, I know! It seems cliche and unhelpful to simply say that love will get you through dissertating, but it’s true.

There were many, many moments throughout the dissertating process when I wanted to walk away. What kept me from walking away, every time, was the love of my project. Simply put, I wanted to be the person who did my project. I didn’t want to bequeath my research to someone else and go do something else.

On particularly bad days the thing that I always turned back to was my project. When I was writing the rest of the BS just seemed to fade away.

Being able to pick a project you love, or a project that has elements you love, is one of the great privileges of the humanities. I’ve spent a lot of time with STEM and social science grad students and their projects are often dictated by what lab or research group they get in which is, itself, dictated by what lab and research group get funding which, of course, is influenced by a whole nexus of factors.

While I loved the topic of my dissertation I’ve known people who have a genuine love for the practical applications of their research or the methods they’re using or where their archive was located or the population they were working with.

You don’t have to love every element of your project but I can promise you that your dissertation journey will be a helluva lot easier if you love something about it.

Loving something about your project will make you happy, even in some of the darkest moments of dissertating and

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Well, that, and they’re much more likely to finish writing their dissertations.

Now, it’s possible you reading this and thinking, “Fucking great. It’s great to know this now but I already defended my prospectus and there was nothing in there that I loved so how the heck am I supposed to love something about my dissertation?!”

It’s a fair question.

Remember, your dissertation is supposed to change between when you defend your prospectus and when you defend, well, your dissertation. Even if your committee has already approved a prospectus on a project that feels doable but doesn’t have elements you love I promise that there are still ways to add a little of that most magic of ingredients to your project.

Again, it doesn’t have to be the subject material. It can be a whole host of things. It can even be the sheer challenge of it.

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On Thursday we’ll be discussing how to think about writing–a crucial step into turning that ominous blank page into a first draft.

Until then, think about what you love about your project and remeber

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