Finding a Topic for your Dissertation

Like many other people I know, I got seriously hung up in grad school at the dissertation stage. Writing term papers was one thing. I knew how to do that. But writing a dissertation? I felt more or less completely lost for about 2-3 years. Because I’ve seen so many grad students get stuck at roughly the same stage, I thought I’d make a multi-post tutorial on how to write a dissertation. Please be forewarned: the tips I will give are purely lessons/suggestions that I believe may be helpful. I have little doubt some of you out there will disagree with some, or even much, of what I have to say. Hopefully, those who do disagree will post comments. My hope is that, if anything, my posts on the subject will generate some discussion.

On the Importance of Dissertations

I’m going to begin my discussion by getting on my soap-box for a minute. I’ve heard that many departments — including my alma mater (Arizona) — are moving away from requiring actual dissertations, and are instead accepting a handful of papers (so-called “star papers”) as sufficient for the PhD. I think this is a mistake for at least two reasons.

First, as I’ve written elsewhere and others have remarked as well, our entire discipline is arguably becoming overly specialized. There seems an ever-growing trend in the direction of “smaller”, nuts-and-bolts-type thinking, and away from grand, systematic ideas. I don’t think this is a good trend, and I think the “star paper” approach only feeds into it. Learning how to put together and develop a Big Idea is an important thing to learn, and I think it needs to be learned early on (i.e. before one becomes a prof). If you don’t learn how to develop a Big Idea in grad school, when will you learn? Your first several years after grad school you’re trying to publish standalone papers, so you won’t learn it then. What about after you get tenure? Will you suddenly learn how to develop Big Ideas then, after you’ve spent your entire time in grad school and your professional life before tenure developing Small Ideas? Again, probably not. Our discipline should try to generate Big Thinkers, and there’s just no better time to begin developing Big Thinking skills than in grad school, through writing a dissertation.

Second — and I’m sure I’ll take some heat for this — I think dissertations build character and are important as a test of will. Writing small papers involves a certain amount of discipline, stress, and risk. It’s very hard to write a good paper, as we all know, but if a single paper “goes down the tubes” one can always write another one. Not so for dissertations. There are times during a dissertation when it looks like the whole thing will crash and burn, and when this happens one must find a way. Or sometimes one must scrap the whole thing a begin again. Writing good “star papers” is hard. Writing a halfway decent dissertation is very, very, very hard. It is a surpreme test of will, and a test that I think benefits us in the end. Because if you think grad school is hard, you have no idea. Being a professor is far more difficult. One needs to know how to really push oneself to the brink. This is no joke. You never have enough time as a professor. You need to learn how to do more than you think you can. And I think writing a dissertation helps one learn this. I can’t tell you how many times during my dissertation I thought to myself, or even said out loud, “I don’t think I can do this.” I’ve never said this about single papers. I’ve always thought I could do those. And it’s because of this difference that I think dissertations are important. It’s because, next to a dissertation, the only thing that’s ever led me to say, “I don’t think I can do this”, is being a professor. It’s better to learn that one can do what appears “impossible” as a grad student than to try to learn it as a professor. Because if you didn’t learn how to do the “impossible” as a grad student you may well sink instead of swim as a prof. Those, anyway, are my thoughts. Dissertations are horrible to suffer through…but I think they enable one to swim later on.

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