Dissertation: Not All That

Inside Higher Ed has Karen Kelsky’s article Dissertation Limits, which is an excellent work for graduate students to read.

Here are some points that I felt especially poignant/relevant/fascinating.

The heart of her argument:

What young scholars don’t realize is that the more they talk about the dissertation, the worse they do on the job market. …

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

Yes, they want to know that you wrote one. …

Beyond that, they don’t want to hear about it.

So what do they mean when they say, tell us about your dissertation?

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.

Fascinating idea.

And, I think, very true. Especially in its reference to the guilt graduate advisors feel while dealing with the stress of the 500 applicants for their single position.

I don’t think I ever talked about my dissertation until after I’d been hired. The reason for that is that it is done, was done, has been done and I’m on to the things that make a colleague. So the dissertation talk isn’t why it took me three years to get a full-time job. But I can see that it might be a problem for newly minted PhDs who have just spent two to six years of their lives on it.

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