Monday, May 23, 2011

60. The tyranny of the dissertation.

The image of Sisyphus eternally moving a great weight uphill has already appeared in Reason 9, and a similar image accompanies Reason 50. Another appears here, because the experience of Sisyphus is so much like that of the graduate student. There are many weights to bear in graduate school, but the greatest weight of all is the dissertation. In academe, a person who has finished everything necessary to complete a PhD except for his dissertation is known as an ABD (“all but dissertation.”) People complete years of coursework, write and defend master’s theses, pass written and oral comprehensive exams that require hundreds of hours of preparation, and even pass exams in foreign languages that they did not know when they started graduate school, and yet they find themselves as permanent ABDs, because the last mountain proves just too steep to climb. 

What makes the dissertation so terrible? First of all, it is long. It is much longer than anything the typical person has ever written in his life. Worse, however, is the kind of writing it entails (see Reason 28). You cannot begin to write a dissertation until you have done a great deal of research, and every day there is more research to consult in every academic field. The entire project is on your shoulders alone, yet the finished product must satisfy a whole committee. Then there is the added pressure of knowing that if you want tenure someday (assuming you can land a tenure-track position), you will have to turn your dissertation into a book (or write a different book from scratch) that a university press will actually publish. Unless you have a fellowship or you’re amassing debt, you have to write your dissertation while somehow making a living. As the reality begins to dawn on you that you might never find a tenure-track position, you will be tempted to abandon the great weight and move on, but the burden may remain even if you do (see Reason 11).


  1. ugh--the whole thing gives me the heebie jeebies.
    i can hardly get through this article-length MA thesis and people i know who can barely assemble a competent sentence are graduating. i think you have to write poorly to succeed in academia.

  2. I have never had any desire to write a dissertation, but isn't writing a dissertation the point, more or less, of a PhD program? (which is why the category ABD does not make sense to me) I can't imagine anyone would start a PhD without reading at least one completed dissertation and considering the huge amount of work its creation required. Not that not wanting to write a dissertation isn't a very good reason to avoid PhD programs, but "You have to write a book at the end of it" isn't exactly a closely-guarded secret of graduate school.

  3. In the sciences, if you have been fortunate enough to have landed a fruitful research project and have some data, the dissertation is actually a fairly easy exercise. One simply plasters together any number of papers that have already been prepared/submitted to various journals, and declares this hobbled together assortment of "chapters" to be their dissertation. The "ABD" is thus quite rare in the sciences.

    The nice thing about the sciences (aside from almost always being paid to go to graduate school as a TA or RA), is that almost anything you do in the laboratory is likely to generate some data. This data begats a plot or graph. The graph begats one or two paragraphs of prose, and so on. The papers basically write themselves as long as there is this endless source of data and some kind of trend in the data.

    I can't imagine the horror of having to do write anything "new" in the humanities. All you can do is sift through the reams of material and ideas previously published by your countless predecessors and hope to find some niche argument that nobody has made before.

    And then knowing that you must subsequently publish your argument as "a book" (only to make niche-hunting all the more difficult for those who come after you) seems like a ridiculous requirement that only serves to further crowd the shelves of academic libraries. (Note: The same can be said regarding most of the scientific literature as well.)

    For the graduate student in the sciences, each new paper or project can be counted on to generate many more questions than answers. Happily, the atoms, molecules, cells, and organisms of our universe are always more than ready to spawn reams of "new" data.

    This new data provides endless fodder for future generations of science graduate students to write papers that nobody will ever read. The graduate student in the sciences enjoys an infinite "information space" from which to write new stuff. The humanities student, on the other hand, is stuck in a world where the finite set of words left to us by some prior author or historian is endlessly rehashed.

    And please don't get me wrong here. The exercise of writing a dissertation is as much a waste of time in the sciences as it is in the humanities. It is just another meaningless hurdle no different than a fraternity hazing ritual. I'm so glad I'm done with mine!

    1. Well this is mostly true. In almost every field of science there is an applied aspect and a theoretical part.

      From what I've heard you're completely right for applied sciences. Basically you run some experiments get some results and publish those results. Often you can even publish if your results came out inconclusive, unexpected, or wrong. Experiments that come out wrong actually help the community because someone else will know not to try a similar experiment.

      However on the theoretical side of sciences results must be rigorously proved. This means no experiments. Everything you do must be completely new in the field. The experience is akin to writing a book where every sentence in the book requires a PhD in your sub-sub-field to understand (this is very difficult).

      The point is the attrition rate is still pretty high in science in general, but significantly lower in applied science due to the way a thesis is made.

  4. Eileen, I think the point is, like many of the other reasons listed here, one doesn't fully grasp the horror of the experience until one is faced with the reality of it. I don't know what discipline you are flirting with (you've posted elsewhere on this blog that you read the Reasons as a prophylactic against succumbing to the temptation of filling out grad school applications), but in social psych there is a field of research on "affective forecasting" or colloquially, "miswanting." It turns out that humans aren't very good at figuring out what will make them happy in the future. I think that pointing out what may seem obvious to some, draws attention to nuances of the actual lived experience which other may ignore when attempting to imagine what the experience will actually be like.

    That said, there's nothing inevitable about this whole "writing a book" thing. If you are a social psychologist, for example, your will spend your career writing journal articles, not books. Some grad programs have wised up and allowed their grad students to submit a portfolio of 3-4 empirical articles of publishable quality in lieu of one tome. The book-thing is just part of the hazing process--unnecessary, antiquated, and cruel.

    Oh, and writing the dissertation isn't "the point, more or less, of a PhD program," but rather it's the culminating experience. The point of a PhD program, at least ostensibly, is to become an independent scholar. The dissertation is often an ineffective and painful path to that goal.

  5. "I can't imagine the horror of having to do write anything "new" in the humanities. All you can do is sift through the reams of material and ideas previously published by your countless predecessors and hope to find some niche argument that nobody has made before"
    "The humanities student, on the other hand, is stuck in a world where the finite set of words left to us by some prior author or historian is endlessly rehashed."

    It's actually a lot easier than you might think, because you can just come up with any idea or combination of ideas that you can think of doing, it's not "finite" as you suggest, in fact I'd think there are more options because you read any piece in a million different ways using millions of types of analytical approaches.

    The big problems with it are -
    a) checking to make sure no one has done what you're doing, which takes a load of time to check everyone else's arguments.

    b) trying to make an argument you WANT to make and involving things you're interested in... you could end up just picking a randomly obscure book and an obscure way of analyzing it to make sure it's original and there will only be a bit of checking of other's ideas to do, but you might not like that book or that approach particularly

  6. @anon 10:32 History. So, yeah, I would have to write a book (after first running off to a foreign country to look at its archives). And as interesting as that could potentially be, I know I don't want to do it.

  7. Good, Eileen. You are smarter than the rest of us, and I really do mean that. If history continues to interest you, you can be a journalist/writer and have a much bigger impact. The history folks I know at my school are smug, rotten bastards (of course, the folks in sociology, feminist studies, English, etc. are too). Good luck, and don't succumb to temptation. The only people who are impressed by doctoral credentials are dummies and other academics. And the Washington set, but if you're not already a heavy hitter (gone to the right prep schools and Ivy undergrad, well-monied family connections already in place) it's unlikely that you'll be able to scrape that together on your own anyway. Enjoy your life, eschew this "mosaic of misery."

  8. As much as a majority of this blog's entries make sense, this one tends to beg the obvious (question). One of the key reasons one should consider doing a PhD (at least in the social sciences if not the humanities) is precisely to come up with a contribution to the corpus of knowledge which is often (but not exclusively) the province of what is the dissertation. The dissertation, by the way, also allows a grad student to showcase his/her ability to use new material, new methodologies of research, and make an intervention in the debates of the field. Is that easy? No. Is it necessary if you want to enter the elite club of academics? Yes. And yes, the dissertation is a difficult piece of writing to do, but this is precisely what all grad students have signed up for in the process. Complaining about the length, the nature of the work entailed in writing the dissertation and so forth are somewhat jejune at this stage, cynical and ruthless though I may sound.

  9. Jejune? Certainly not.

    The comments on this blog indicate that a sizable minority of its visitors don't even understand the difference between academic graduate school and professional school (My boss sent me to grad school!--No s/he didn't. S/he paid for you to pick up a professional credential/degree).

    Some folks have this whole thing All Worked Out, but most people don't really understand what it's like to do X until they are actually doing X. Wagging your finger and telling someone they shoulda known better is neither helpful nor compassionate.

    On the other hand, as previously noted, the diss doesn't have to be many of the things that it often is: long, tedious, irrelevant. You can make your contribution and prove your stuff by preparing several empirical articles. In fact, you'd make a better contribution, because academic book publishing is the slowest of all, and journal articles can get published faster. If you really have something important to share, you don't write it in an academic book, which won't likely reach the public for years. A journalist can bang out a book on world events and have it on the shelves in a matter of months. My last peer-reviewed book chapter took 3 1/2 years from acceptance to reach the shelves. It's neither current nor relevant any more. And once the sucker goes out of print, it will be much harder for future scholars to retrieve (not because it's great, but maybe because some mentor makes them). Academic books are (sometimes) a money maker for academic presses--that's about it. The diss is a hazing exercise that trains you to think academic books are necessary and relevant.

  10. I stalled for the better part of 2 years prior to cranking out my dissertation in an 11 month sprint. The stall occurred because I had too MANY ideas, not too few.

    Nonetheless, until I had gotten through the courses and the rest, I didn't understand just how rigidly stylized a dissertation was. I was never intimidated by the idea of writing the document.

    What also scared me was the idea that, once complete, I would be an "expert" on that topic. I may know more on this topic than the average academic, but I don't consider myself an expert.

    I've posted on this on my own blog - knowing then what I know now I wouldn't have bothered to even start the PhD let alone finish it. It's a losing proposition on a lot of levels. But there is a reason for the 50% completion rates in the social sciences and the high number of ABDs. The classes are the easy part.

  11. OH NO!

    Please don't peter out on us, beloved blogger.

    I know you deserve a week off here and there, especially when there's a holiday, but I really missed my Reason fix this week.

    Still 40 to go! We can do it together!

    Devotedly yours,
    Anonymous Grad School Almost-Dropout

  12. @AGSAD We'll say it's a week off to give us an opportunity to laugh at the fact that all of the ads that Blogspot has put on this page are for graduate schools.

  13. Why is it or should it be tyranny? Writing the dissertation was the icing on the cake. I had a huge and interesting data set and a research advisor/committee who are experts in their respective fields and truly interested in my work. The key for me was to write under the assumption that all of my research would be published (will actually be about 95%) and to publish early and often (no reason not to publish BEFORE your defense!). If you have something worth writing about, writing is the fun part! It's supposed to be long and it's supposed to be hard, but it's the chance for you to show the research community, your committee and (and most importantly) yourself that YOU are the expert. That's the ENTIRE point of dissertation research.

  14. One who simply plasters together any number of papers and declares it a dissertation needs to collect more data...

    Anonymous said on May 23 @ 6:43pm:
    In the sciences, if you have been fortunate enough to have landed a fruitful research project and have some data, the dissertation is actually a fairly easy exercise. One simply plasters together any number of papers that have already been prepared/submitted to various journals, and declares this hobbled together assortment of "chapters" to be their dissertation. The "ABD" is thus quite rare in the sciences.

  15. anon@10:15AM wrote: "One who simply plasters together any number of papers and declares it a dissertation needs to collect more data"

    Sorry to disagree, but this plastering exercise happens all the time in the sciences exactly because you have collected so much data.

    You do some work in one area, you do some work in another area, and you generally end up submitting/publishing multiple papers between your 3rd and 5th year of graduate school to various scientific journals. Then after 5 or 6 years of such activity, you and your adviser decide it is time for you to graduate, so you simply plaster all the previously submitted/published papers together and call it a dissertation. In fact, in many cases, you usually get a few more publications out of your final sets of experiments in the lab which you didn't have time to squeeze into your dissertation, but which you and your adviser submit after the dissertation is finished.

    The real business of academic science is churning out a continuous stream of journal articles based on your latest and greatest experiments in order that your adviser can continue to look prolific and so that he/she can continue to bring federal grant money into the university. A graduate student willing to become a cog in this system and help churn out the necessary data should have no problem at all in being published during the third to fifth years of graduate school. After that, the act of submitting a dissertation is just a formality required by the university, and the prolific graduate student literally just "plasters together" the previous submitted/published works.

    Easy as pi.

  16. re: easy as pi
    Well, my huge data set (Biology; EEB) and resulting dissertation tell a compelling story. Guess I was lucky...

  17. ...That's what she said.

  18. Sorry to contradict all the negativity, but I actually really enjoyed writing my dissertation. I chose an interesting topic, saw it as a real privilege to have time to write something substantial on something I found so worthwhile etc.

    The more I got into the writing, the more I realised that 80-100,000 words is actually a very short piece of work (in terms of saying something particularly meaningful that covers a lot of information). I looked on it as six chapters of 15,000 words, which made it feel much more manageable as a writing project.

    I was quite sad to finish it, though it was very rewarding.

    I think having a positive frame of mind is very helpful in writing a good dissertation.

  19. try having a positive frame of mind when you've been defunded.

  20. I find this piece to be not especially accurate, which is surprising, since many of the other reasons given in this blog have been spot-on.

    Maybe in some fields, the dissertation is as tyrannical as you describe. If so, all I can say is, boy I'm glad I don't work in those fields. In my field (let's just say it's a STEM), the dissertation is relatively quick and painless. It took me exactly two calendar years, from first contact with my eventual supervisor to final defense. My doctoral dissertation was under 100 pages (double-spaced!), and my advisor's was under 30 (again, double-spaced!!). In my graduating class the theses ranged from 80 to 200 pages in length, so no, it's not just me, as much as you'd like to think otherwise. Finally, there's certainly no requirement to write a book. I just got tenure this year and I don't have a book, and the same holds for the majority of my cohort.

    I might also add that the term ABD is meaningless outside of the US, since in most countries and most fields of study, the only requirement for a Ph.D is the thesis. Effectively every Ph.D student is ABD from day one. As for me, I got my degree in the US, but again, in my field, the term ABD is all but unheard of. A typical student just doesn't spend enough time working solely on their thesis for this phase to merit any special mention.

  21. "I find this piece to be not especially accurate...Maybe in some fields, the dissertation is as tyrannical as you describe. If so, all I can say is, boy I'm glad I don't work in those fields. In my field (let's just say it's a STEM), the dissertation is relatively quick and painless."

    This blog isn't geared for STEM folks as much as for humanities and social science folks. As one of these students I have to say it's really a drag to have STEM folks post comments marveling about how fast they got through, how well funded they were, how it wasn't so bad--kinda fun even! Yes, I admit I'm stupid for attending grad school at all, and especially outside of STEM, but there's really no need to rub salt in the wound, is there?

  22. I can infer from the content that this blog isn't geared towards STEM folks, but I don't think that I should have to deduce this fact by inference. Can we please have a little truth in advertising here? If you really mean for this blog to exclude STEM folks, then the title of this blog should be changed, unless you somehow want to argue that STEM graduate school is not graduate school. My request is especially ironic considering that it seems the primary complaint that most of you have with graduate school is that you were lied to. Why not set a good example on your part, by being accurate in your own postings?

    The title of this blog is not "100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School in the humanities and social sciences." The title of this blog is "100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School." Furthermore, I don't see anything in the argument made in this post that restricts the discussion to humanities and social sciences. Since many of the 100 reasons so far ARE applicable to both STEM and humanities/social sciences graduate school, it's fair as well as informative to point out the instances where that's not the case.

  23. Yeah, but the subheading is:

    This blog is an attempt to offer those considering graduate school some good reasons to do something else. Its focus is on the humanities and social sciences. The full list of 100 reasons will be posted in time. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

    I don't mind hearing from the STEM people - it's nice to be inclusive, and there probably are certain miseries that overlap - but the blogger did give fair warning that you are not the intended target.

  24. Dear STEM-ers,

    Try to think of it like this:

    My partner and I completed this incredibly difficult hike. We'd trained for a while in advance and thought we were ready, but when we actually did it, it still took us 9.5 hours. Sure we took some breaks and didn't power straight through, but most of the time we were hiking our butts off. It was really exhausting--the altitude got us--and it was an "upside down hike" (you hike down first, then at the end when it's really hot and you're wiped out, you have to hike back up).

    We went out to dinner with another couple that night. Proud of our accomplishment, we told the other couple about it, how long it took, how tired we were. At which point the man in the other couple, who is quite an athlete, piped up and said, "Really? I did that hike today too! In 5 hours!" It turns out he even ran part of the way. Apparently he found it fun and easy.

    We were genuinely happy for him, that he's in the kind of shape that he can do that. But he pissed all over our victory. Certainly he had a "right" to speak, but he could have been just as proud of himself and kept his mouth shut. It's called consideration and compassion.

    Get it? STEM folks go through the programs faster, have better funding, and better job prospects on the back end. When the rest of us are miserable and struggling, it's kind of a kick in the 'nads to hear that gosh, I didn't think the dissertation was bad! I didn't have to write a book--not me! Guess this blog designed for people who aren't me doesn't include MY experience! But boy did I have fun!

  25. Dear Anonymous @10:41,

    Your analogy is borked. We're not doing the same hike. My claims of easiness, if you want to call it that, don't apply to you. (For the record, I didn't think grad school was easy, but rather merely that it wasn't a living hell.) Humanities people have it much worse. But you shouldn't try to tar STEM departments with the same brush. It's not the same, especially when it comes to the dissertation.


    I agree that the subtitle constitutes fair warning, but such a blanket statement still does nothing to distinguish which posts are humanities-specific. I'm glad you are inclusive-minded with respect to such instances.

  26. @DJ:

    So if
    1) you admit that what STEMsters are experiencing is fundamentally better than what the humanities folks have to endure, and since
    2) this blog is delineated as targeting an audience of prospective humanities and social science grad students,
    why post to crow about how "relatively quick and painless" your dissertation is? Because you "find this piece to be not especially accurate" for STEM folks? IT WASN"T MEANT TO BE. YOU AREN'T THE INTENDED AUDIENCE OR TOPIC OF THIS BLOG.

  27. 1:16,

    This blog is delineated as having a "focus on the humanities and social sciences." If as you say it is really meant to be exclusionary in the absolute sense, I recommend changing the phrase to "exclusive focus" and changing the title of the blog as well.

  28. "focus" says it all. no amendment needed.

  29. Look, I can certainly take a hint, and consequently will take my leave since I am clearly so unwelcome. (But the subtitle also says "Your comments and suggestions are welcome" which I guess no longer applies?)

    You say no amendment is needed? There are certainly a lot of unwelcome STEM posters out there participating in the comments threads. It's not just me. Where I come from, if a large percentage of the readership is misinterpreting a piece of text, then it is the fault of the writer, not the readers. A stronger exclusion would help make your point more clearly, and it certainly wouldn't hurt your goal of dissuading STEM comments. The absolute worst that can happen is that STEMmers are idiots and continue to post here even after being explicitly told to keep out, but this is no worse than the current situation.

    I must also say, however, that your goal of exclusion strikes me as absurd. There is clearly something deeply flawed with the institution of graduate school in the humanities and social sciences, as it currently stands. I mean, that's the whole reason why this blog exists. Why not look to other departments to see what they're doing differently that might help? If I were in your shoes, I'd be reaching out for reform, rather than dismissing all attempts at dialogue.

    STEM vs. humanities is not a dichotomy. It's very much a continuum. There are STEM fields (such as mathematics) which have always been considered full-status members of the liberal arts, and conversely many areas of social science qualify as science. I don't think this us-vs.-them attitude on display here in the comments thread is helpful in any way.

    But hey, if you want to be on your own, I respect that.

  30. Gimme a break.

    I, for one, feel VERY confident that:

    1. IF there were a cluster of humanities/social sciences folks posting their experiences on a blog which stated, "This blog is an attempt to offer those considering graduate school some good reasons to do something else. Its focus is on the STEM disciplines,"
    2. IF we lived in a bizarro world where the experiences (funding, time to degree, job prospects, length of dissertation) of humanities/social science students were generally better than those of STEM folks in the aggregate,
    3. IF despite a preponderance of justified complaints from STEM folks about the difficulty of their grad school experiences (on a blog which is meant to focus on STEM experiences), those humanities/social science posters nonetheless decided to plow ahead and post lots of perky perspectives about how the dissertation isn't so bad, and wow! I finished so quickly, and I had great funding
    4. IF those same humanities/social science folks made a point of noting that Reason X isn't such a great reason not to go to grad school because it doesn't apply to us in the humanities/social sciences...


    And there should be.

  31. Sometimes I think the comments--not even the postings--on this blog should be mandatory reading for prospective graduate students, perhaps with a big sign that says "You will have to live with these people."

  32. @ Anon 5:19
    "Sometimes I think the comments--not even the postings--on this blog should be mandatory reading for prospective graduate students, perhaps with a big sign that says "You will have to live with these people."

    Who do you think YOU are? Aren't you "one of these people"?

  33. I guess the main thing I'm getting from reading this blog is an appreciation for how lucky I am that grad school actually was good for me. I feel great empathy for those who dive in and have their expectations dissapointed, especially for those who get screwed over to one degree or another by maladjusted faculty. But I think it's important to emphasize that these are matters of fit more than some inherent evil of graduate school. I sure didn't love being poor, it was incredibly hard work at times, and I'm still not completely stable job-wise two years after graduating, but going to graduate school was a fantastic decision for me, life-wise. It has given me a mission in life, allowed me to meet amazing people, and put me on the path to some truly significant contributions to the world. I went to school with a good number of people who felt and feel the same way . . . but also, admittedly, people who didn't. I'm just a little mystified why people regard the idea that grad school didn't work out for them as either a) a failure on their part that left them scarred or b) some indictment of the graduate school system as a whole as exploitative and evil. People spend a lot of time finding their path in life - sometimes their whole lives. Getting upset because the one you chose when you were 23 didn't end up carrying you all the way through a happy and productive career is completely counterproductive. Move on, do something different, find your real self.

    Oh, and as to the topic of this post . . . I loved writing my dissertation. I wrote about something I cared about, in the way that I wanted to, with an advisor who was supportive and a committee who were impressed by my work. I say all this mainly to remind people, after reading all the stuff on this blog (most of it at least potentially true!) that yes, grad school CAN be an immensely positive experience, even if not for every single person.

  34. At first look, it's really hard to go to graduate school. It's like putting your one foot in a tomb. You need to be ready for the dissertation writing challenge. But for me, it's still worth trying. :D

  35. 100rsns has lucidly described many of my own experiences and frustrations as a doctoral student over the last two years as I finished and then successfully defended my dissertation. My grad school life had many ups and downs. Many of my own "downs" are in this blog. But the final phase of finishing & defending exacted enormous personal (physical, emotional), financial, and family costs.

    A few weeks ago, I bumped into an old friend who had completed his doctorate many years before me. He was aware of my own challenges trying to finish. When I told him I had finally graduated, he smiled, held out his hand, and said "My condolences". Any graduate student who has paid the heavy price of getting close to finishing will understand.

  36. You are never really done with the dissertation! I finished mine in about a year, 196 pages, 51,000+ words.
    Then I had to defend it, I passed w/minor revisions.
    "minor revisions" added 10 more pages.
    Now I have to get it ready for publication by UMI. major format change, need to do some edits, will add a chapter and revise a chapter.
    After that I need to publish at least 2 articles based on it, another 40+ pages of work.
    Then the book...will it ever end?

  37. I'm in the process of writing my dissertation and it seems to all work out in the end. Remember, this isn't the local factory. You're not just showing up to get a paycheck. You're doing all this so-called grueling work because you "like" the subject. If you want a job where you love the work, you're in for a huge disappointment. That's why they call it "work."

    Also, some dissertations aren't so bad. I have a friend who defended his last year (something about molecular biology and curing cancer) and it ended up being 90 pages or so. Plus, half of it consisted of articles and papers that he'd already written.

    Then again, a girl in my department just finished hers and it was 500 pages long. Hehe... But, again, she was flying back and forth from Asia, working on something she was passionate about, and finishing the last stage of grad school. Not exactly the life of a famous actor or a 500k per year business manager, but, as a person who came from humble beginnings, it's a lot for me.

  38. the problem with it is that no one is going to read it and it is a whole lot of work for nothing. the other problem is it is a pointless exercise.

    if I am going to be a doctor, do I truly need to know how to put together a 200 page research paper? I mean really?

    but in a way it highlights the entire pointlessness of grad school. One could easily become a doctor by trade with 3 years of school + internships and on the job observing and experience with a mentor versus the 12 years it will take starting from undergrad all to way to a PHD. in a way a 200 page academic book that no one will read sort of sums up the entire experience no?