Dissertation Limits

September 12, 2011

In this occasional column I will address common myths that are widespread in academe, particularly among its not-yet-completely-enculturated junior faculty members. Using my training as a cultural anthropologist, as well as my experiences as a former R1 tenured faculty member and department head, I will take up a myth, briefly explore its origins, consider its impact on believers, and then evaluate its value. It is my hope that in doing so, I will pull away the veil of mystification that seems to obscure so many aspects of the academic career, and assist graduate students and junior faculty in distinguishing the realities of life in the rapidly downsizing academic industry from the myths and half-truths often inculcated, oftentimes with the best of intentions, by their usually well-meaning dissertation advisers. The fact is, junior members of the academic tribe are particularly susceptible to these myths, and yet as the academic world financially implodes, these myths, if not countered, can destroy their already slim chances for viable academic careers.

Today's myth is: "People care about your dissertation."

One of the most deeply entrenched myths of the academic enterprise is that the dissertation is the sine qua non of scholarly achievement and the ultimate proof of the value of a young scholar. Graduate students spend years slaving over its minutiae, and struggling over fine distinctions in citations, argumentations, organization, and shades of meaning. It looms over their lives spreading a pervasive cloud of inadequacy, anxiety, and fear, and its completion offers the shining vision of legitimacy and validation.

Dissertation in hand, the young scholar heads out on to the job market trusting that it will impress the search committee masses and lead to fame and fortune, or at least, a paying job.

Dissertation advisers, of course, are at the root of this myth. It is their primary duty, they believe, to dedicate themselves to their students' scholarly projects and to focus with laser-like intensity on the finest distinctions of meaning in the writing process. Details matter. The difference between “they are” and “they do,” between “it is” and “it might be” and “it can be argued” and “it is well understood” can spell the gap between a valid and an invalid argument, and a legitimate and illegitimate scholarly reputation. Months and years pass in the struggle over chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and words. When fretful and anxious students tremulously inquire about what comes next, their advisers reassure them, “Just focus on the dissertation, and the job will take care of itself.” And not knowing any better, and deeply wanting to believe because they don't want to have One. More. Thing. to worry about, the students accept this, and keep writing.

And eventually they finish and defend, and go on the market.

And then they find out. That jobs do not take care of themselves. At all. Even remotely.

They find out that the finished dissertation does not bring fame or fortune or shortlists. They discover that the finished dissertation does very little at all beyond serving as the bare minimum qualification for simply applying to an academic job. Sure, Ph.D. is better than A.B.D. But Ph.D. alone is not a sign of competitiveness for any particular job. Indeed, in the ever more desperate and embattled academic job market, the dissertation barely registers as a line on a C.V.

The reality behind this myth is: after you've passed your defense, nobody cares about your dissertation.

What young scholars don't realize is that the more they talk about the dissertation, the worse they do on the job market. The worst job letter is the one that spends more than one succinct paragraph on the dissertation. The worst interview is the one in which the candidate talks about the dissertation for longer than 5 minutes. The worst campus visit is the one in which the candidate tells everyone they meet about the dissertation.

The fact is, nobody wants to hear about your dissertation.

Yes, they want to know that you wrote one. Yes, they want to know that you defended and submitted it. Yes, they want to know that it was in the appropriate discipline, subdiscipline and topical area for the advertised position.

Beyond that, they don't want to hear about it. This is, paradoxically, true even when they say to you, in the interview, "Tell us about your dissertation."

How can this be true?

Because the dissertation is what a graduate student writes. And they are not hiring a graduate student. They are hiring a faculty colleague. Let me repeat: they are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

And I can assure you, faculty members do not walk through the hallways and hang around the main office talking about their dissertations.

So what do faculty members talk about? Here is a partial list: They talk about journal articles and the frustrations of long journal response times. They talk about conferences and the frustrations of getting the paper done in time. They talk about grants and the frustrations of institutional review boards. They talk about teaching and the frustrations of apathetic students. They talk about graduate students and the frustrations of inadequate TA funding. They talk about their large courses and the frustrations of dealing with the dean. They talk about parking and the frustrations of the football program.

When a search committee interviews you, the last -- the very last -- thing they want to hear about, frankly, is your dissertation. Because hearing about your dissertation just reminds them of the milling throngs of irritating graduate students in their own department, all of whom drone on and on at excruciating length about their dissertations at every possible opportunity.

Indeed, the members of the search committee are already feeling anxious, stressed, and guilty. Why? Because they're shocked that their one position drew 500 applications. They're horrified at what this indicates for their own hapless graduate students in the program. And they're stressed because they've just had their own course loads increased by 30 percent without warning and their teaching assistant funding cut in half.

So when a search committee reviews you and your material, they want to relax, and feel like they're dealing with a peer. And a peer is someone who "gets it," and who presses forward as a professional in the midst of overwhelming frustration, and whose trajectory points to a brighter future. In short, search committee members want have their faith in the future of the academic enterprise restored.

The dissertation, young scholar, is about the past -- even if you're A.B.D. and still writing it! Your job search is about the future.

So what role does the dissertation play in this future? None at all? Far from it. The dissertation is critical to this future. But it is not what the dissertation is that is critical to your future. Rather, it is what the dissertation does.

What a dissertation does is bring about tangible and visible results in the world. What are these results, you ask? Here is a partial list:

  • It intervenes in major debates in the field.
  • It generates important peer-reviewed publications
  • It qualifies for large and prestigious grants and awards.
  • It provokes dynamic discussion at symposiums and conferences.
  • It transforms efficiently into a book, preferably at an influential press.
  • It inspires interesting and unconventional classroom teaching.
  • It catalyzes an original second major project.

The dissertation does the very things that faculty like to talk about — publications, grants, contracts, teaching, and new research.

Until you transform your dissertation bladdedy-blah into short, pithy, punchy statements about refereed journal articles, book plans, conference papers, prestigious grants and fellowships, innovative teaching and new research, and learn how to express all of these in a dynamic (not static), dialogic (not monologic), symmetrical (not hierarchical) manner to your would-be future colleagues, you are dooming yourself to fail, forever, on the academic job market.

So in short: you spent years slaving over this dissertation, and now you must stop talking about it.

Sorry. Go ahead, cry, it's O.K. And then get to work. Write out some short and punchy spiels about pubs, grants, conferences, etc. Practice them in writing and aloud. Do this until they're second nature. Get some decent clothes and a good haircut, and start gesturing widely and confidently as you talk. Re-learn the art of the dialogue, which you may have forgotten in graduate school, and try and dig out your sense of humor.

And then, young scholars, forget about your dissertation and go out into the world as the professional you were destined to be. Good luck.

Bio

Karen Kelsky is a former tenured faculty member and department head who taught at the University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the departments of Anthropology and East Asian Languages and Cultures. She left the academy to open an academic careers consulting service, The Professor Is In.

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