Give It a Rest

Finished your dissertation and ready to write your book? Not so fast, warns Laura Portwood-Stacer.

August 6, 2019
 
 
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Finishing your dissertation is a huge milestone. It’s the moment when you truly have no more revisions to make and are really, finally done. You’ve been granted a Ph.D., and whatever else happens on the job market or in your writing career, no one can take those three letters away from you.

I’m sure you’ve been receiving a lot of well-meaning advice, such as “Take some time to relax” and “Don’t think about work for a while!” Yet when you’ve been working on something for a long time and so intensely, it’s easy to feel a little lost when it suddenly ends and there’s nothing left to do.

If you simply can’t bring yourself to take an extended vacation (which you should try to do, because, seriously, you’ve earned it), you might be tempted to just plunge into revising your dissertation and sending out book proposals. There are good reasons not to do so yet. Besides the fact that you probably do need some rest, getting some distance from your material is necessary if you want to understand what it all means.

As I’ve observed elsewhere (“Getting Into Arguments”), one of the most common issues I encounter when reading book manuscripts that have been revised from dissertations is a lack of clarity about the driving thesis of the project. Acquisitions editors notice this, too, believe me. Sometimes you need to pull way back from the trees of the dissertation in order to see the forest: the big thing you really want to communicate with your research. Various techniques will help you do that, but one of the best is just putting the project away for a while so you can return to your research question with fresh perspective.

So what should you do if you find yourself flailing about, looking for a way to feel “productive” while giving yourself a necessary vacation from your dissertation research? I’ve got six suggestions.

Start a totally new research project. Maybe there’s a topic or question that’s been bugging you for a while, but you didn’t have time to pursue it while you were finishing the dissertation. Or you’ve had a seminar paper that you were encouraged to publish but has been languishing on the back burner for a few years, waiting for you to collect more data. Turning your attention to new research can help you stay active while giving the dissertation some breathing room.

Between finishing my dissertation and landing a contract for my book on the political lifestyle practices of anarchist activists, I started conducting interviews for my article on people who abstain from Facebook. While I didn’t consider them to be overlapping projects at the time, I eventually was able to reflect on the common threads between them to construct a narrative about the research questions that interested me.

Those kinds of narratives are helpful when you’re on the job market, whether you stay in academe or not. If you do stick around the academy, such narratives can also help you extrapolate about your research trajectory over the next five to 10 years, which might come up in interviews, annual reviews and ultimately when you go up for tenure and promotion.

Read recently published books related to your dissertation topic. At some point during the dissertation-writing process, you probably had to cut yourself off and say, “No more reading!” This could be your opportunity to check out the stuff you couldn’t incorporate into the dissertation but might want to integrate into your book. I particularly recommend looking at monographs and anthologies related to your topic or methodology that have been published in the last year or two. They’ll give you a sense of the scholarly publishing landscape you’ll be stepping into in the near future.

When you write your book proposal, you’ll need to list some recent comparable works that your project is in conversation with; this could be your chance to get familiar with some that you might mention. Even if you read books outside your primary research area, you can still approach them with one eye on their structure and style, making note of what works and what doesn’t. Bonus points if you take some time to read published reviews of these books, as well.

Research scholarly presses. Take a look at that stack of recently published books you’ve just assembled. What press logos do you see on the spines? They will be good targets when it comes time to think about sending out your book proposal, since you’ll want to pitch your project to presses that are building lists in your area.

You can also start talking about presses with friends and colleagues who have recently come out with books or have manuscripts under contract. Ask them whether they had a good experience with their editor and press. Were they kept informed about the review process? Did they feel supported by the acquiring editor, production staff and marketing team? Were they happy with the finished object? Could they put in a good word for you with their editor? (Don’t be shy about this last one. Editors appreciate leads on promising authors and projects!)

Read books about writing and publishing. If you’re burned out on research books, read something a little more light and advicey. Many books about academic writing are out there; William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book is a popular one for people who’ve recently completed a Ph.D. I also highly recommend Melody Herr’s lesser-known Writing and Publishing Your Book: A Guide for Experts in Every Field for its nuts-and-bolts discussions of exactly what has to happen for a scholarly manuscript to become a book. When it comes time to write your proposal and contact editors, you’ll feel much less mystified about the whole process.

Present or teach your research. If you’ve taught academic material before, you know how much your understanding of a topic can crystallize when you’re forced to explain it to others. It wasn’t until I taught a senior seminar on subcultures and social movements that I figured out how to articulate a key theoretical insight that came out of my book. Unfortunately, the book was already published at that point. Avoid my mistake by teaching your work before you finish the book.

Talks and conference presentations can be similarly helpful for gaining new insight into your dissertation research as you prepare to write the book. Furthermore, sharing your work publicly can build awareness of you and your project among series editors, acquiring editors and others who are in a position to help you meet your publishing goals down the road.

Get feedback about your project from objective sources. One of the most helpful things I did before revising my dissertation was to publish a small piece of it in an academic journal. It was a chance to get specific feedback from peer reviewers on something that only my dissertation committee had previously reviewed. One of the reviewers summarized my argument back to me in a way that made me see the significance of my findings from a new perspective. I ended up adapting that article into the first body chapter of my book, and it shaped the rest of the manuscript as well. (Just don’t give away your project’s entire thesis in one article. You don’t want to have undercut the market for your book when you’re trying to convince publishers that your manuscript is a good investment.)

Even if your peer reviews don’t come back positive the first time around, you’ll still receive valuable information about how your work is landing, which you can use when it’s time to reframe it as a book. Think of it as a lower-stakes trial run for having your full book manuscript reviewed.

However you spend your time after finishing your dissertation, I hope you’ll congratulate yourself on what you’ve already accomplished. While it’s easy to dwell on your dissertation’s shortcomings and the mistakes you might have made on your way to earning the Ph.D., know that the book will be your chance at a do-over. Just remember to give the dissertation, and yourself, a much-needed and much-deserved break first.

Bio

Laura Portwood-Stacer earned a Ph.D. in communication at the University of Southern California and published her first book, Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism, with Bloomsbury in 2013. She is a developmental editor for academic authors and is currently working on her second book, a how-to guide on scholarly book proposals.

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