How to get excited about picking a dissertation topic?
July 7, 2010 7:48 PM   Subscribe

Academics: how can I be more excited about selecting a dissertation topic and writing the dissertation?

I am about to embark on the dissertation process (unlike this recent question, I am not to the "I can't finish it" phase yet as I don't have a topic). I have passed my comps, defended the MA thesis (not interested in continuing with this, really), finished coursework, etc. Now "all that's left" is the dissertation. Problem — I can't seem to get interested or excited about it at all and it's sapping my will to do anything constructive. This frustration is seeping over into other aspects of my life as well.

a) I can't seem to select a topic until I know if there's a "hole" in a literature or a question that is unanswered or not. I can't accomplish this until I have done some significant reading and researching, yet I don't really know where to begin and am totally unable to motivate myself to just "start reading." I have lots of little questions written down but none of them jump out at me as potential dissertation topics nor grab me in any way. I am in an inter-disciplinary subfield in the social sciences that doesn't have a tons of overarching unsettled theoretical debates or unifying questions. As such, projects are often more substantive in nature. A successful dissertation requires selecting a part or parts of the world, a period in time, a substantive topic, and a theoretical motivation. Then we get to data availability and tractability.

I am aware that the standard advice is to come up with a research question and then become an expert on that question. How do I get interested in a question?

b) I know that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation; and, normally I am able to push myself to get started on things and I develop interest as I go along. In this case, though, the idea of starting something I'm uninterested in is just driving me insane. My usual tricks aren't working (I still don't believe you either "like something or you don't and you can't force it"). I've been encouraged to think hard about what I find "fascinating" or "enthralling" and return to that. The problem is that nothing seems so right now. And, to paraphrase one of my advisors, if you're not at all excited about it now, you're setting yourself up for a really long, hard slog of a dissertation.

c) I have some history of depression and am using coping skills learned from therapy to try and not let this drag me down into a pit of despair on a daily basis. I feel like if I can get over this hump and get my wheels turning again, it would help my outlook a lot. So, I'm not looking for "see a therapist" here.

So, what's my next step? I feel like I really need to be getting on the ball here so I can narrow things down and get started constructively. How can I convince myself to just pick something and be done with it?
posted by anonymous to Education (33 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Pick a thesis supervisor. If you don't have one, now is the time to find one. The flip side of the finished dissertation is a supervisor who will get you through the program. Which profs in your department are working in your general areas of interest? Which prof's seminar courses were good courses which interested you? Go talk to them, and see what they have going in terms of their research, and you can be explicit that you're looking for a topic to settle into. They might offer one, or some ideas. Or if not, you might have a better idea who you might want to work with, or not work with, or what area you might want to work in or not.
posted by kch at 7:58 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Any chance you can start from data that's already available or obtainable and work your way back to questions that it can answer? It's not great science, but for my project (defended a few months ago) getting the data was the biggest time sink. I chose my topic, however, based on what my advisor would fund. I still think that was a great idea. Other people in my program use existing data AND topics their advisors like and "breeze" through. If you can pick a reasonable process and focus on churning it out, that might help with the motivational problems.

Once you have a clear idea of what kinds of questions you can answer, the process of setting them up with a literature review will seem less daunting. Trying to read "everything" on a topic before you settle on your research questions seems like just too big of a task. To add to the aphorisms pile, my advisor repeatedly told me "it's JUST a dissertation!"
posted by parkerjackson at 8:01 PM on July 7, 2010

Opps-- I meant "reasonable TOPIC", not process
posted by parkerjackson at 8:02 PM on July 7, 2010

Is it possible for you to take a week off entirely and not think about this at all then come back with a fresh perspective? You sound kind of burnt out with getting this far so maybe a break, one where you purposefully don't try to deal with this, will help you reconnect with your research field? It can go either way though, sometimes coming back to it just seems too hard and a break becomes an excuse to give up so hopefully you know if this idea resonates with you or not.

I agree that therapy in general probably isn't needed but your University should have some kind of academic support, either through the counselling services or through the graduate centre or academic learning unit, that will either give classes or one on one advice about choosing a topic and getting started. They'll have outside advice that you might not think of and sometimes getting a fresh perspective from someone who understand the system but isn't invested in your project specifically can be really helpful. My Uni is getting really aggressive about running 'how to start your thesis' type classes every year and they would be great for your situation. If nothing else you'll be in a room with other confused students which can be helpful on its own. If that kind of thing isn't available a single session with the University counselling services to discuss coping strategies for this one situation could also be appropriate and isn't the same as general therapy. Think of it as academic advice because that's what it should be.

Lastly sometimes the best way to get started is to not think about it and just ... get started. Grab whatever is on top of your pile and read it. Run a literature search on whatever general phrase you can think of and read whatever comes up first. I have used literally two papers of the hundred or so I read in my first year in my actual thesis and most of what I read was totally irrelevant. But it got me in the habit of moving forward and started me thinking about where I wanted to steer things which really helped. I'm in science so it's a bit different, my project outline and first set of experiments was decided before I arrived, but I also figured this process was the one time I'd be paid to read widely and think and learn about my field in general so nothing I read was a waste of time. And throwing out the 200 off topic partially read papers sitting on my desk a couple of years later felt kind of good, heh.

I definitely understand that feeling of casting around and not knowing where to start. I still struggle with it. The only thing that keeps me going is just grabbing whatever is on my desk and reading it. That gives me momentum and calms me down so I can then be more clear about what to read or do next. Just go read a paper, any paper in your field. You'll learn something new even if it's not something you care about.
posted by shelleycat at 8:03 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your comps didn't lead you to gaps in lit?

If not, go to your thesis discussion section and jump off from there.
posted by k8t at 8:16 PM on July 7, 2010

I'm not going to criticise parkerjackson's approach, because I know how academia works, but a dissertation-by-numbers can work in certain circumstances, and be extended torture in others. I am sufficiently idealistic, though, to think that you can come up with something that feels like it belongs to you.

You need an itch to scratch, and you don't have to end up scratching in the same place you started. I don't know how much leeway you get given on your topic, but you shouldn't feel compelled to have an exact route planned out, or even the start and finish. (The germ of my doctoral thesis ultimately got written up as a one-page aside in the final section.)

If you're in a position where everything is just "meh", and you don't have any motivating curiosity, then perhaps it's bound up with your wider depression, and it's worth stepping to one side and trying to regain that spark.

So take some time off the whole "thinking about your topic" and see if it'll sneak up on you. Perhaps spend a couple of weeks doing filing, sorting through your work going right back to your undergraduate days. If it's mostly in digital format, print it out, sit in the sunshine and flick through it with your favourite beverage. Reacquaint yourself with the work you were doing when you were at your most enthusiastic. Do the stuff you put off while you were preparing for comps. See if your subconscious kicks in.
posted by holgate at 9:03 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The book Getting What You Came For is often recommended for graduate students. You might see if your library has a copy.

It's fine to take a week or so and go through old papers, filing, etc. Chitchat with your fellow students, talk with your advisor, etc. Check out the kinds of sub-areas where jobs are being posted, and see if you can find an intersection between the stuff you're interested in and the marketable stuff.

But pretty soon you need to just grab a topic that you think might be ok, and start reading and writing on that topic, and see where it leads you. There is not One Perfect Topic. (Also your dissertation doesn't have to be The Final Word on whatever topic, or even the final word on your own view of that topic. If you're prone to perfectionism, you will need to rein it in or you will not finish.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:13 PM on July 7, 2010

I have lots of little questions written down but none of them jump out at me as potential dissertation topics nor grab me in any way.

Is it possible that you're putting too weighty expectations upon yourself in regard to what you think your dissertation topic should look like?

I had this really peculiar conversation with a stranger on an airplane once. Peculiar, in part, because I normally hate talking to strangers on airplanes, but never mind that. It was really peculiar because he started talking, unprompted, about the writing process. And it was really really peculiar because it came during a time when I was pretty much totally blocked, writing in the morning only to erase in the afternoon. I didn't tell him this. Hell, at that point, I had a hard time admitting it to myself.

He mentioned to me that, in his opinion, there were two basic dissertation models: the "magnum opus" (MO) model, and the "driver's license" (DL) model. The magnum opus model was a sort of grand gesture, a thesis organized around the sort of topic that would summarize everything you think as a scholar, and would attempt to place your stamp on the field. The driver's license model, well, that's a dissertation that shows that you're sufficiently adept at what you do to be given the keys to your field. This man's claim was that the magnum opus model was a pathway to madness.

I began to think about this a lot, worrying that I had doomed myself with an MO topic.

I've since come to think that my airplane stranger basically right on. But rather than having two ideal types, we might think of a sliding scale of dissertations, from MO to DL. Something like this:

MO |----------|----------| DL

Once that occurred to me, it seemed as if all the job talks I saw for potential hires at my program in Big State University X fell slightly to the DL side of the equation. They were here:

MO |---------*|****------| DL

And the ones that got hired seemed to be here:

MO |----------|**--------| DL

Me, I began to feel like I was stuck here, with an increasingly unworkable project, adrift in the MO abyss:

MO |-*--------|----------| DL

And so, with guidance from my adviser, I managed to move it more toward the center. I never quite got to the DL side, and my dissertation was a slog, but as I got toward the center, it got easier to conceptualize, to research, and to write.

I ended up about here:

MO |--------*-|----------| DL

But, man oh man, if I could do it again, I'd want to have started here:

MO |----------|-*--------| DL

In my experience, the dissertations on the rightmost possible points aren't very interesting. I couldn't have written one, as it wouldn't have engaged me enough to keep my ass in the chair. But the ones on the far left never get finished; their ABD authors just drift away. The ones just right of center are interesting enough to be worthwhile, and reasonable enough to get you to your goal.

All of this is a long way of saying that it's entirely possible that you might just need to adjust your expectations about what a dissertation topic should be. Dissertation topics don't have to fall on the MO side. In fact, most of them shouldn't. Maybe one of those "little questions" is interesting -- otherwise, why write it down?-- but you haven't given yourself permission to think of it as a dissertation topic? If that's the case, then maybe it's time to look at those with a fresh set of eyes. And maybe its time to share them with others, and talk about ways one of them might reasonably become an interesting dissertation project.

For the tl;dr crowd, my take-away is this: Conceptually: Make sure you're not being held back by unreasonable expectations of what your dissertation should look like. And practically: the more you talk with your adviser about this, the better off you'll be.
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:15 PM on July 7, 2010 [470 favorites]

Another trick is, suppose you do some reading and writing on a topic and end up with a modest little side project that won't work for a dissertation. Oh well. Actually, much better than "oh well" -- now you have a secondary line of research, maybe you can get a publication out of that in a modest journal now or in a better journal several years down the line. Maybe it will turn out to connect to something else later, maybe you'll meet other academics who are interested in that, who will be valuable contacts later, etc. So, if you do a few months' prep on a topic and it doesn't work out for the diss, it's not wasted effort.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:18 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

kobayashi, I would favorite that a thousand times if I could. Driver's License model FTW! Just enough to be "given the keys to the field" is exactly right.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:22 PM on July 7, 2010

Indeed, LobsterMitten, I should have thanked Random Airplane Guy in the acknowledgments section of the dissertation. Though we were seated next to each other, he unknowingly gave me quite the (necessary) kick in the ass.
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:24 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kobayashi - that was amazing. /Dissertating as we speak
posted by k8t at 9:28 PM on July 7, 2010

Very strongly seconding the first comment. Seriously. Talking to faculty members whose work you respect will probably help a lot. Most academics know very well (or least have a very strong opinion about) where the holes are in their fields of study. Someone in your department should be able to help you with this.
posted by Eumachia L F at 1:06 AM on July 8, 2010

I love kobayashi's comment.

I'd also second those suggesting a week off or so. In addition, if you're having trouble pulling back and seeing the field as a whole, there are often titles like Year's Work in Blahbity Blah or Annual Review of Stuff in Your Field or New Directions in Stuff Studies; these may discuss where new work is being done. Your advisor might be able to recommend something like that.
posted by lillygog at 4:33 AM on July 8, 2010

I'm a prof who has advised many dissertations (and whose students are almost all working at good jobs, minus one who didn't want to), hear me out.

At least in my fields, writing a "driver's license" dissertation won't help you much on the job market. The demand is out there for people who write very original dissertations that are obviously going to be important books, and that generate early publications, which generally also means the topic has to be original and compelling. So be careful. Replicative/normal science dissertations may be fine in some fields, but in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, there is a huge emphasis on the quality and originality of the dissertation in the very competitive process of finding a tenure-track gig.

Also, you *have to be passionate* about your dissertation topic to sell yourself on the market. Charisma stems from passion. Do not pick a topic you can't get excited about. That would be a terrible mistake if you are pursuing an academic career (perhaps different for the hard sciences, I don't know).

I wrote this advice in another recent grad school question, may be helpful here:

The market increasingly values early publication and that depends on having a relatively distinctive project early on in your grad school career. . . . . spend a lot of quality time with the ProQuest dissertation database, and see what dissertations at top programs have been about in recent years. You can search by program and adviser on ProQuest. You can learn a ton from doing that about what it takes to do this well, about what a well-formed dissertation topic might be, and about which programs and advisers are producing innovative work (take a look at the dissertations of junior faculty members hired in major departments in the last 5 years, as another pass).
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:52 AM on July 8, 2010 [11 favorites]

Also, run, do not walk, to the bookstore (or Amazon) and buy Howard Becker's *Tricks of the trade: how to think about your research while you're doing it.* It is the bible for my students. Howie is brilliant at motivating students to develop rich research topics systematically (among many other things he's brilliant at). It focuses on sociology, but it is relevant to ANY humanities or social science field.

You. Will. Thank. Me. Later. I promise.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:02 AM on July 8, 2010 [22 favorites]

Sometimes doing something a little extreme will get the juices flowing. If you're in a small college town head for the big city and walk around for a few days. If, conversely, you're in a big city, head for the woods or the desert or the ocean. Drive around randomly for a week. Shake those ideas loose by dancing up a storm.
posted by mareli at 6:07 AM on July 8, 2010

Nthing what Kobayashi said. My dissertation was a slog from start to finish. What helped me was just knowing that it would be. It isn't going to be fun, but if you don't finish it, you will have wasted a vast amount of time and money. I didn't catch your field of study, but in a lot of fields, true experiments are unusual. I was able to conduct one that I wrote up for my dissertation, and I felt it was much easier to write up than other types of research would have been (although it took some careful planning).

You said you know that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation--really take that to heart. This is something you need to finish so you can start on your career. It truly is more about perspiration than it is about inspiration. I went through many, many revisions on mine, but in the end, it did get done, and you can get yours done too.
posted by midwestguy at 8:32 AM on July 8, 2010

Another fervent second for .kobayashi.. Note that he's not saying "just phone it in" (doing a straight DR); he's saying it should be "interesting enough to be worthwhile, and reasonable enough to get you to your goal." While I love fourcheesemac to pieces and am sure his students are lucky to have him, I think he's unrealistic as far as academia in general is concerned.

Also, what kch said: don't you have a thesis supervisor? I can't imagine how I would have gone about picking my own topic without the help of someone who knew the field inside out, where the gaps are and what would be worth doing.
posted by languagehat at 9:11 AM on July 8, 2010

Realistic enough that my first adviser just got tenure!
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:56 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the driver's license advice is good for perfectionists who might assume that they have to have a fully formed Big Idea before getting started -- the point is to avoid paralysis and just get moving. The way to work toward having a big idea, if you don't have one to begin with, is to get moving - read, write, talk with people, try things out, etc -- not to sit around thinking "that one isn't good enough, this one isn't good enough".
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:08 AM on July 8, 2010

(ie, you may need to just get working on *some* idea -- without knowing whether it will be the one -- and follow your nose, and assess in a few months whether it's leading toward a dissertation or just a modest thing)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:10 AM on July 8, 2010

Trying to find a topic was the nadir of my motivation and excitement in my Ph.D. program, too, and I think it's a very common point to get hung up, so at least you shouldn't feel alone. Especially if you're surrounded by a cohort of more narrowly focused people, who either came in with a preselected dissertation topic or chose one along the way somewhere, it can feel very isolating. And, at least from a certain perspective, choosing a topic seems like something no one can reduce to a workable method or series of steps — it can seem like everyone, including you, is just waiting for you to have a big idea already.

One good strategy to get around this kind of waiting-on-your-Muse block is to try to work on several ideas simultaneously — keep a list of maybe half a dozen possible topics, and even if you're not totally sold on any one of them, keep doing some research and thinking/planning for one or more of them every day, building prospective tables of contents and bibliographies and so on.

For what it's worth, I think fourcheesemac is absolutely right to object to at least the most minimal version of the "driver's license" model: aiming to write a dissertation that suffices only to demonstrate credential-worthy competence is the same as aiming for unemployment in the humanities and humanistic social sciences these days, and showing some ambition is a must. But there are still a bunch of different ways of working toward an ambitious "big idea" without getting hung up on whether it's sufficiently "big," and there are a lot of smaller or more narrowly focused ideas that can be grown into a fascinating, engaging dissertation.

You can arrive at a dissertation-sized topic either by starting with a too-huge idea and slowly narrowing it down, or by starting with a too-small idea and slowly broadening it. The former corresponds pretty well to what .kobayashi.'s airplane guy was talking about when he emphasized how self-defeating the "magnum opus" dissertation model can be, and I think it can be a much harder way to go, so I'd suggest trying to get around your block by starting small and working outward.

So: can you return to some smaller pieces of work you've already done, or planned to do, and broaden from there? For instance, is there an article or essay you've written — or even a well-defined topic that you've wanted to write an article on — that might make one chapter of a good dissertation, surrounded by chapters that apply different methods to the same subject or the same method to different related subjects? If you start this way, then at least a few of the items of your list of requirements — "a part or parts of the world, a period in time, a substantive topic, and a theoretical motivation" — are already checked off, and filling in the others can be the work of the dissertation.

Good luck!
posted by RogerB at 11:48 AM on July 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

advisee, not adviser.

One writes a diss to get a job.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:53 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

RogerB wrote "I think fourcheesemac is absolutely right to object to at least the most minimal version of the "driver's license" model..." and that's absolutely right. It's also why I didn't find my airplane stranger's advice useful until I took his twofold typology and turned it into a continuum.

I've seen a few people write these sorts of dissertations:

MO |----------|-------***| DL

Some of these people started after me and finished before me. But, they were firmly ensconced in a sort of close-knit sub-sub-sub-field (and seemingly happy to speak only to one another) and/or they found difficulties once they entered the market. So, practically speaking, you don't want to move to the extreme DL side of things, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Of course, by the same token, I'm having a hard time imagining how such a project would be interesting enough to finish.

Nevertheless, I think it's the other side that people casting about for a topic have to watch out for. In my experience, at this stage of the game doctoral students are more likely to suffer from a surfeit of ambition than a dearth of it. And if you think that a dissertation topic has to be here:

MO |***-------|----------| DL

well, then you may end up paralyzed even before you begin. Or you might start out strong, and then begin to drift, as it becomes clear that your project would take years and years to complete. Or you might not see a perfectly good dissertation topic that's right under your nose, because you're convinced that only the extreme MO dissertations are worthwhile.

In other words, both extremes are bad. I think the MO extreme is a little worse, because people with these sorts of topics often take longer AND run a greater risk of not finishing. But the extreme DL is has its own dangers, which fourcheesemac & RogerB have explained well.

Don't shoot for an extreme DL. But don't let the desire for an extreme MO dissertation topic keep you from good topics that are near the center. While everybody has different skill-sets, I really think this:

MO |---------*|***-------| DL

is generally the range where most people ought to want to be. And to get there might mean not being unduly dismissive of "little questions."

Just wanted to clarify my point. I'm not defending either extreme here. In fact, I'd warn people off from either end. I just see the MO trap as the one that might be operating in the OP's case. A dissertation prospectus that only just lists to the DL side strikes me as a good way to go, one that's workable, marketable, and still rewarding.
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:11 PM on July 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

Or you might start out strong, and then begin to drift, as it becomes clear that your project would take years and years to complete.

I think that's about right: in the humanities and humanistic soc-sciences, you need to think "monograph" or "journal-friendly segments" rather than "extensive wide-ranging 900-page study". There's (ideally) always room to expand if you're looking to carve out an academic career, and the point at which you ought to draw lines is closer in than it sometimes feels during the process.

I have a different take on the OP's situation, though: it sounds like a post-comps ambivalence towards the field in general, which is why I recommended going back and reacquainting oneself with old work -- which serves as a kind of reacquaintance with the person who did that work.
posted by holgate at 2:39 PM on July 8, 2010

Wow some great answers. I love the MO vs. DL model. I finished my dissertation in good time and now I realise it was because on the sliding scale I pitched that sucker somewhere around here:

MO |----------|-**-------| DL

You need to care about your topic, but you always need to be practical. Write a bit every day. It's like climbing up a hill, it's rough until you get to the top, but at some point you will and then you'll pretty much roll down the other side. You'll never get up the hill if you're trying to answer every question in the known universe, the key is focus. I found that once I started really getting into my topic and discussing it with friends it became obvious that I should just paint a corner of a room rather than the whole house (sorry about all the analogies, it's analogy Thursday.) Getting a job and then looking back on your dissertation and thinking "why didn't I do x?" or "I can't believe I didn't talk about y" is the way it's meant to be. That's also why advisors exist. When he/she says it's done, it's done. A good advisor knows that this works both ways.
posted by ob at 3:14 PM on July 8, 2010

It really all depends on what you're aiming for, and what field you're in. Right now, tenure track jobs and good postdocs in the humanities are *extremely* competitive. The best programs are having trouble placing students. The curve is bending upwards even further.

I will second that you have to have an adviser involved in choosing a topic, even if it's not your eventual dissertation adviser.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:20 PM on July 8, 2010

He's talking about novel writing but I keep going back to what Michael Ondaatje says:

"For four or five years, I collect chance anecdotes overheard, the texture within a rumour (in addition to doing all of my research). At this point, I don't have too much of a governor at work. I reject nothing. I do this until I have a complete but rough first draft, by which time I've essentially discovered the story. I then put on a different hat and I start eliminating the wrong notes, the repetitions, the trails that go nowhere. I start merging and tightening the this stage three scenes can become one. I take this process as far as I can."

For me -- I write for academic publications -- that switch to the different hat is when all of the really enjoyable (yet still grueling) writing happens. The merging, tightening, deleting, dragging sections around -- that's the reward for all of the previous unpleasantness.

Ondaatje points out that this method isn't for everyone but I couldn't write (in any genre) any other way. I've watched some people who aren't meant to write page-by-page chapter-by-chapter do so anyways because they don't know other possibilities. One of which is to immerse yourself in the world/texts you are writing about, and keep filling up your document with your own writing and other peoples writing. Shape it later.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 8:18 PM on July 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a student in the humanities who has witnessed a few years' worth of job searches, and while I can't speak with fourcheesemac's authority, I can say that his advice is dead on. A job-winning dissertation is brilliant, original, consequential, and convincing. This necessarily puts it towards the MO end of the spectrum. I would suggest that a true DL-type dissertation (which I take to mean a demonstration of competence, of having mastered material, to satisfy some gatekeeper) isn't worth writing. I mean, the whole point of research is to discover new, important stuff and then persuade other people that you're right-- right?

RogerB gives excellent advice about starting up a pool of possible topics and then going from there. And for finding a topic that you're passionate about-- which I agree is really important for your sustained interest over the years-- maybe you could ask yourself what book descriptions, or article abstracts, you tend to be excited by. When you're surfing Amazon or leafing through bibliographies, what makes you do a double-take? What makes you say, "ooh, I really want to read that!"? And once you've found work that excites you, can you pinpoint what aspect stirs your lust? Is there a method, or a particular nexus of ideas (the relationship of X to Y in texts from period Z) that you could build on or re-apply? Good luck!
posted by ms.codex at 11:40 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

.kobayashi. Do I have to pay another $5 to favorite your comment again? I advise grad students and your post has just become part of my standard "welcome to grad school" speech.
posted by Fiery Jack at 7:24 AM on July 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Echoing kobayashi's MO/DL model here -- I got similar advice from my thesis advisor. He said, "you're treating this like you are going to get a letter grade; this is just pass/fail, don't overthink it." He pointed to a visiting postdoc as a cautionary tale -- they had been PhD students together under the same advisor, now the guy with the two-volume MO dissertation was still post-doc'ing and my advisor (who did the DL model) was on a tenure track. My advisor's argument for not doing the MO approach was three-fold: MOs didn't fit the pattern at that time of dissertations in our field; you are expected to switch to a different field after graduation to prove you aren't a one trick pony so you can't effectively build on the MO later; time spent on your MO is time leeched away from your active research years.

Lots of great advice already in this thread, so I would just add this one thing. Every field of research has its own culture, and it is probably worthwhile understanding what kind of pattern dissertations in your field follow. In my particular field, when I wrote my dissertation, the common pattern was a one chapter survey of your sub-field, a bunch of loosely connected chapters that each could be published as a stand-alone paper in the appropriate journal, and a conclusion that tried to tie together the papers and suggest future research direction. No one cared about the dissertation once it was done, the important thing was how many of those middle chapters you got published and where they got published.

Once I understood that all of the scientists around me viewed the dissertation itself as a hoop to be jumped through (and not even a flaming hoop -- just a garden variety hoop), I stopped worrying about the dissertation itself and focused on doing original research in discrete chunks and getting those published -- because that was the important thing in my field. Putting the dissertation together and defending it was anticlimactic.

Good luck with the dissertation!
posted by kovacs at 7:49 PM on July 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

A job-winning dissertation is brilliant, original, consequential, and convincing.

This must be one of those disciplinary things. In mathematics, at least at many schools, a job-winning dissertation is one about which you can talk enthusiastically and articulately, without sending everyone to sleep. Sure, there needs to be good content---but look, as a discrete geometer potentially on a search committee, I have no idea whether talk X about differential equations is "brilliant" or "consequential"; it's just not my field.

A good dissertation also probably doesn't answer every single question it raises---otherwise, how are you going to continue your research program after you graduate?

The MO/DL paradigm is fantastic.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:17 AM on July 12, 2010

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