Alexandra (AJ) Gold recently completed her PhD in English at Boston University. She currently teaches as a Preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program. Follow her on Twitter @agold258 or check out her website.
In July, I defended my dissertation. The defense itself went well, but almost immediately I felt a strange mixture of relief, elation, and trepidation. I’ll admit, the whole thing didn’t quite feel real: after all that work, how could it possibly just be over, so quickly and unceremoniously? In some ways, even a few months out, it still doesn’t feel real. Though I’ve quickly (and very very fortunately) had to direct my attention to the distinct set of challenges that attend to starting a new job and adjusting to a new school, I’ve often had to remind myself that the dissertation has, indeed, been signed, sealed, and delivered.
For years I’d imagined the pure glee I would feel after hitting “send” for the last time and hearing “Dr. Gold” for the first. That didn’t pan out in exactly the way I’d envisioned; however, it did not take away from the abiding sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Perhaps some of you have experienced that feeling: the unsettling or disappointing gap between expectation and reality that comes with reaching the next milestone in your graduate career. (Side note: Is it too cynical to suggest that perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson of graduate school, if not academia, writ large?) I was certainly surprised to feel so many complex emotions. But it turns out I was even more surprised to find that the defense itself wasn’t quite the last step. In the words of the legendary Yogi Berra, it truly “ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
Enter the great embargo debate.
For some, the question of whether or not to embargo one’s dissertation is a readymade or long- planned-for decision. But, truth be told, I didn’t even know the whole embargo question was “a thing” until a few weeks before my defense. I’m not sure where or how I missed that memo, but somehow I did. (Side Note 2: I hope, at least, that this admission is reassuring to others who might be in the same boat.) And so I was left to do what any rational graduate student would do: copious amounts of research. It’s not a skill, it’s a lifestyle.
I’m here to let you in on a not very well-kept secret about internet research on academia-related topics: it is often mind-blowingly unhelpful. If you do decide to Google the question “Should you embargo your dissertation?” you will be met with scores of advice from the likes of former grad students (hello!), university press editors, and successful book contract signees. Allow me to spare you that exercise. For every few posts you will read in favor of embargoing the dissertation, and you will read others that are staunchly opposed to doing so. Some posts will even offer a case for both sides, leaving you more confused than before you began. You will also learn that some disciplines, especially in the sciences, tend to favor embargoes, while the humanities tend to be more mixed in their opinions.
With my internet search proving ever more futile, I turned to Twitter: that bastion of excellent academic advice. I got several responses, including from fellow GradHacker Megan who had also recently defended her dissertation. Most respondents agreed that embargoing was the way to go. As Dr. Megan (an engineer) reasoned, she wanted to give herself time to publish her research and so chose to embargo for two years. (Side Note 3: GradHacker Patrick also weighed in, noting the all too prescient overlap between academia and the Trump administration’s trade wars, but that is certainly another conversation for another time).
Armed with all of this advice and the opinions of a few peers, I finally turned to the wellspring of knowledge that is my dissertation advisor and a few other trusted department mentors. I was still very much on the fence about the impending decision and wanted to exhaust all possible advice avenues—my research methods are nothing if not thorough. Ultimately, they advised me to embargo for the maximum amount of time possible, which I did.
I’m not here to tell you to make the same decision. All jokes aside, I do encourage you to speak with trusted advisors, peers, and even consult the internet to educate yourself about the topic, if that’s helpful. Hopefully, unlike me, you’ll be able to do that sooner rather than later. Whether or not you choose to embargo the dissertation is both a personal and professional decision, and one you shouldn’t take lightly. And even after all my research, I’m still not convinced that one decision is better than another. But choosing to embargo finally felt most right for me and here are my top reasons why:
- Work from my dissertation is or will be published elsewhere. The “tipping point” advice I received, which I thought was sound, was that I could let publications from the dissertation stand in for my academic work while the embargo was in effect. That made sense to me, since I do think the published works are more polished, tighter pieces of writing anyway.
- I hope to use other parts of my dissertation in a future book. The same logic applies: while I’m quite proud of the work I did for my dissertation, I know that the revisions I undertake for the book project will make the writing and thinking much stronger than it is now. I hope to use the two years that the embargo is in effect to make headway on those revisions. Ultimately, I’d rather have attention drawn to the book (if and ideally when that time comes) than to the earlier drafts in my dissertation. If, in the meantime, I’m not “discovered” by a university press as some proponents of open access claim is possible—and I’m skeptical that this is routine practice—then so be it.
- I’m a bit wary of the general promise and premise of open-access. I know this makes me sound like a bad or ungenerous academic, but hear me out. It’s not that I’m against open-access or the circulation of ideas and work wholesale; however, I do think that academics already engage in a lot of “free” and/or unpaid labor. While sharing knowledge is obviously an important part of the job, I also think that our work and labor at least sometimes deserves to be proprietary. Plus, access to ProQuest—the company that serves as a repository for most dissertations—usually requires some kind of library/resource access, something that many academics, especially independent researchers or contingent faculty, might not always have. In that case: is access truly open?
Have you considered the “embargo question”? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
[Image by Flickr user Edward Lim and used under a Creative Commons license.]