From a Prospectus to a Dissertation Draft: My Reflections on the PhD Process – Part V

Part four of a five-part series on the dos and don’ts of thesis writing by PhD Candidate Eric Jardine.

V. Save it for the Book

Finally, as a last point, it is important to recognize that constraints (both short run and long run) and dissertation quality interact to determine when you are likely to go to defence. This interaction is best summed up by the adage, “Save it for the book.” When I first started hearing this, I was not impressed. Books are the better version of a dissertation so why not shoot for the best work possible? After the first few times that I heard the saying, I stopped thinking about it that way. At a certain point, there are time limits on how long you should be doing a PhD. The most obvious constraint is financial. I run out of university funding in May of this year, for example, so I was pressing hard to complete everything in time to avoid paying Summer tuition. Everyone’s financial situation is different, but the point stands that there are constraints on how long you can reasonably spend on your dissertation without running up huge debts.

Taking a dozen years or something to finish your project has longer term effects as well. SSHRC post-docs, for example, take the “timely completion of your doctoral studies” into consideration when allocating awards. The way I see it, taking a long time to complete your research sends a signal (whether the signal is correct or not depends upon the quality of the final product). This signal speaks to your productivity. If you take forever to complete a dissertation, it looks like you have a hard time handling the research process. You might not be good at time management. You might be unable to handle research and working. You might have a hard time managing the inevitable work-life balance. You might just be lazy. There are always extenuating factors that work against completing a research project (life, work, life again, research, and so forth). But, everything else being equal, the more productive you are, the faster you get things done. I am not sure if those hiring assistant professors look to see how long it took you to complete your degree, but it is certainly possible as it could foreshadow your productivity as a professor. Why hire someone that looks like they won’t succeed?

Now, the fact that there are pressures, both short run and long run, that suggest you should try to complete your dissertation as fast as possible does not imply that a shoddy piece of work will do. You cannot browbeat your committee into letting your defend, as they won’t cave under the pressure. Even if they did, the external examiners will catch you and you will fail, which puts you right back in the research stage. You need to write something that is ‘good enough’ and that is where the comments about saving it for the book come into play. Once you start to hear this comment, you are starting to get to a point where your dissertation could probably be defended successfully. Everyone, including yourself, will recognize that more work is needed for the project to be truly compelling, but once you hear the comment accept what it means: a dissertation is written under a lot of constraints and you only need to produce something that is defensible not something that is discipline shaking or worthy of a Noble Prize.

These are my thoughts. What I had originally intended to be a few paragraphs has morphed into 6 pages. Perhaps that is another peril of writing a dissertation; everything I write is now a large project. My final parting thought is a disclaimer. These are my thoughts on the process and experience of going from a prospectus to a dissertation. I am sure that everyone experience will vary considerably. The things I wrote about here have shaped my motives, actions, and experiences over the last few years. Ultimately, they got me to the point where I am going to defend in May. They worked for me (hopefully), so I hope they can work for others too.

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