Part four of a five-part series on the dos and don’ts of thesis writing by PhD Candidate Eric Jardine.
IV: How to Make Friends and Write a Thesis
Dissertation writing should also be a social exercise and the process will be easier if you treat it as such. As many of my colleagues know, I like to talk about my research (especially if I can use a whiteboard to diagram my ideas). I got a tremendous amount out of these conversations. There are two general reasons why people wouldn’t talk to their colleagues. Either they think their colleagues are stupid and could not contribute to their project or they are worried about talking about their project for fear of appearing dumb because it is still a work in progress. I am going to ignore the first reason because it is just wrong. We are surrounded by very smart people who could contribute to any research project in a number of ways. The second reason is also wrong, but I understand how people could be concerned that they are somehow out of place in a PhD program. It is pretty easy to feel that everyone else belongs and that you are just faking it somehow and slipping through the cracks.
My advice is this: don’t worry about seeming stupid. Your research is ongoing and sometimes you need to talk through the bad ideas to get to the good ones. For this process, your colleagues are a great sounding board because they have nothing invested in the project and are, most likely, working on another area. Together, this combination of divestment and distance from your research area means that you really need to present a clearly defined problem and to fully flesh out all the links that you are playing with. If you fail to do either of these two things, you will know it. If you don’t provide a concrete problem, the conversation will drift aimlessly. If you don’t specify all the links, you will be challenged about all the things that you are assuming in your argument. Both of these happened to me on a number of occasions. Each time it happened, I learned where I was not being clear enough in the problem or leaving too many of the needed causal links implicit. Recognizing these issues carried my research forward by leaps and bounds.
Writing a good dissertation also really requires good organizational skills. If you cannot organize your thoughts, writing, and evidence in a logical fashion, you cannot write a dissertation. Despite the state of my office, which is usually crowed with piles of books and articles, I am a huge fan of organization and I think that it is really the key to a good piece of research. At NPSIA, many students are attracted to the so-called “three paper option,” where, instead of a book length project, you are asked to write three papers on the same subject. I am sure a lot of people are attracted to this option because it seems easier. On the face of it, three papers seems like it will be less work than a book length dissertation. Three papers at, say, 25 pages a piece is certainly a lot shorter than the 342 pages that my own dissertation came in at. I am not a fan of the three paper option, but taking this path may make sense for some people, depending upon the nature of the project in question. In the end, I am not a fan of this option because I am not convinced it is really “less” work and I think that political science still looks to a person’s ability to turn their dissertation into a book as a signal of competency. I could well be wrong, but that is the impression that I have for better or for worse.
All that being said, I think the three paper option is attractive for another, far more subtle, reason. The three paper option does some of the organizational work for you. When you have to write three papers that are only loosely related by a common theme, it becomes easier to think about how you will organize your work. Each chapter will be a paper, with an intro and a conclusion slapped on both ends. In contrast, organizing a book length project is more daunting, largely because none of us have ever done it before.
In my dissertation, I overcame the organizational problem by specifying specific research questions that each chapter had to answer. Answering these questions, as is always the case, led to more questions. These additional questions were the topic of the next chapter. This process continued until I had linked my initial building block (rebel mobilization) to the final variation I aimed to explain (conflict outcome). In the end, this resulted in 4. 5 theory chapters, which is an strange number and not the usual form of organization that you see in most political science books. My committee has noted the discrepancy, but are comfortable that the way I proceeded worked in my case. I am not sure if this approach is replicable, but it certainly worked for me. However you do it, the key to effective dissertation writing is sound organization.
For Part I. the Lulls click here.
For Part II. The Value of Putting Words on a Page click here.
For Part III. Publishing: The Gift that Keeps on Giving click here.
Part V. Save it for the Book to be posted on April 12, 2014.