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When It Comes to Dissertations, Done Is Best
March 6, 2016 - 9:04pm

Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her writing can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.

 

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As an ABD student bent on finishing up this summer my personal mantra has become

“The best dissertation is a done dissertation.”

While this may rankle some graduate students, I think this is some of the best advice that an ABD can take to heart.

Yes, it may be a tired cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason! It’s really easy to get lost in the details and to focus on all the minutiae of your project. After a couple of years in grad school this is how your brain works. There is definitely a sense of pride in producing our best work, but the struggle of best vs. done is important to recognize as you near completion.

Finishing graduate school and the time that you take to do so is very much a risk vs. reward moment as you will need to make decisions that will determine your career trajectory for years after this moment. Don’t prolong graduate school by falling prey to the delusions surrounding the “best dissertation”.

3 Myths that have you pursuing a perfect dissertation at your own peril:

1: If I write a beautiful dissertation I’m guaranteed a good job. I don’t need to focus on my professional identity.

This is entitlement thinking and you’d better stop it. Right. Now. Don’t be naïve in assuming that the academic labor system will reward you financially or professionally for a beautiful dissertation. Hiring managers and search committees will not read it. They will however, read your publications, have seen your talks at conferences, and review grants that you apply for; all of which are all items that end up on your CV. Do good work on your dissertation, but remember that in completing your dissertation you should be consistently publishing, presenting, and applying for funding for your work. A beautiful dissertation is nothing without a productive track record to support it.

2: My perfect dissertation will revolutionize the field!

It is great to be proud of your work and to create something that is a valuable contribution to your field. That is one of the greatest parts of a graduate education. Remember to keep things in perspective here though: How many other dissertations have revolutionized their fields? How about published, peer-reviewed articles? How many people are going to read your dissertation versus read your published articles?

Ask yourself these questions and think long and hard as to whether you’ve inflated the importance of your work to stratospheric proportions in order to justify what you are doing (and giving up!) in order to achieve this academic credential. It’s a common mental trick that happens to a lot of us late in the game so don’t feel embarrassed if this has happened to you; finishing is tough!

While I cannot speak for the humanities, in STEM fields only your published papers get read. The dissertation is simply a formal mark showing that you can do research and contribute to the field. Nobody outside of your committee will read it (and you will be lucky if they read the whole thing with focused attention for that matter). So get over being a perfectionist, publish your research in to advance your field, slap that work into your dissertation, and move on. If you really want to revolutionize your field, you need to be working in it, not just completing a dissertation on the subject.

3: My advisor/committee wants it to be perfect!

Do they want a perfect document, or do they want a student that finishes in a timely manner and goes on to a productive career (whatever that means for you)? Which looks better from the university’s perspective?

Productive career.

Yes, your committee should be pushing you to do good work (it’s why you have one after all), but once you’ve met your graduation requirements it’s time to dive in and finish your dissertation. Meet the requirements, even exceed them, but under no circumstances pursue perfection at the expense of meeting your graduation timeline. Your best work is good enough, and good enough is done. Dissertations don’t count if they are not done and your committee wants you to finish on time much, much more than they want a “perfect” document.

Don’t get lost in the labor- and time-intensive process of preparing this “perfect dissertation” at the expense of getting on with your future career. Finishing graduate school is a difficult time for many students; the structure that we have come to take for granted inside the academic system will no longer be there for many of us after we finish and move on to different careers. This uncertainty about our futures makes it all too tempting to spend just a little more time, more effort on our dissertations to prolong having to enter the job market.

Prolonging the process won’t help; leaving academia is going to be a decision that most of us have to make at some point in our careers as tenure-track positions dwindle and research funding continues to remain scarce. Careers where nobody will ever read your dissertation, or even care that much about your research topic. The working world outside the Ivory Tower cares about what you can do, what you have learned, and how well you manage yourself; not that you spent years lovingly curating a document that does not pertain to your current work.

For those determined individuals pursuing academic work, finishing up is even more paramount since it’s the entry point to your future career. To avoid a slipping into perfectionist habits and downward productivity spiral set concrete milestones for your writing. Know what the standards are and hit them, but don’t waste time going above them.

Get past the idea of a perfect dissertation because it will never exist. It is a reviewer’s job to find fault, and there will always be something that someone, somewhere, somehow disagrees with no matter how much effort you put into writing. Finish your dissertation and start building your life post-PhD, whatever that may mean for you.

[Image by Flickr user SweetOnVeg and used under a Creative Commons License]

 

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