The Best Advice I Have to Give About Writing Dissertations

Reading other people’s dissertations as an adviser and committee member has familiarized me with some common oversights that writers make, which basically fall into two camps: being too ambitious and overlooking the obvious. Now, this might all seem a little straightforward, but, honestly, that’s what a dissertation should be, and yet they often aren’t. These are recommendations based on cultural anthropology dissertations, but they probably translate to a lot of the more humanistic social sciences and humanities — and there are always exceptions to be made. So these are recommendations to get people started on conceptualizing what they’re doing when they tackle writing up a dissertation project. As usual, what your specific committee, adviser, and institution expects may be different from what I lay out here — but this might still be a decent place to start a conversation.

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That’s R. Crumb’s Kafka struggling with something akin to a dissertation…

1) Start with a chapter that lays out the people, places, and things that you’re going to be talking about for the rest of the dissertation. This is not your introduction, which is much more conceptual (see below) — this is really just what it sounds like: who are these people, where do they live and work, and why are you writing a dissertation about them? These are all questions you should have answers for, and their obviousness might lead you to not write this chapter (I’ll admit: I didn’t) because you’ve been working on the project for so long that these things are just assumed. But they aren’t for your dissertation committee, nor will they be for any potential future reader of the dissertation and the eventual book. It doesn’t need to be high concept — in fact, it should be the opposite in the sense that all you’re doing is giving your reader a deep sense of context so that as you discuss these people, places, things, and events later in the dissertation, your reader has this background information in mind.

Now, you might have some reservations — say, you don’t have a specific place, because the project is multi-sited — but, let me assure you, there is a chapter to write that gives your reader context for the rest of the dissertation, whether it’s about individual people, a set of institutions, or a concept, thing, or event that the rest of the dissertation is tracking. If you think you covered this in your dissertation’s introduction, your introduction might be too long or you might be doing too much in your introduction. A solid contextual chapter can go a long way to making sure your dissertation is legible to your committee.

2) Pick a set of theory to work with. One of the nice things about graduate school can be that it introduces you to a wide variety of theorists and theoretical approaches — but when it comes time to write a dissertation, you really have to pick what you want to work with. One of the problems a lot of students seem to have is that their conceptual tool kit becomes overfull when it comes time to write a dissertation — there are so many possible conceptual explanations that it can be difficult to choose just one. But, choosing one explanation is at least pragmatically necessary: a chapter needs to come to some kind of conclusion. Knowing that Marxism is on the table, and psychoanalysis is not means that you can focus on one set of possibilities and ignore others.

A former adviser, Hai Ren, once recommended that you need three theorists to write a dissertation, and over time I’ve really come to see the wisdom in that approach. As I advise students, I’ve come to realize that limiting your conceptual concerns in this way provides you with a strong body of language to draw from and a delimited set of ideas to explore. This combination of theorists and ideas can be complementary or antagonistic — that is, you can draw from three staunch Marxists, or pit Lacanism versus Latourianism — but the most important thing is identifying what’s on and off the table for the purpose of theoretical explanation. And you might commit to this physically: box up all the books you won’t be using and put them out of sight for the duration of dissertation writing.

When I was writing my dissertation, one of my committee members, Bruce Braun, suggested that I come up with a list of terms I didn’t want to use as well as a corresponding list of replacement concepts derived from the theoretical interests I have. So, I drew up a list of problematic Cartesian concepts and a list of Spinozist replacements. Just doing that — coming up with the list — profoundly shaped my vocabulary and meant that I wasn’t inadvertently wading into troublesome terrain or mixing terms that didn’t fit together. Once you know who your pet theorists are and what theories you’re working with, coming up with such a list can be very helpful in identifying key ideas to explain and how to structure what you’re doing.

3) Structure chapters around an idea. It was once the case that anthropologists could legitimately write a chapter each about kinship, economy, religion, political structure, subsistence patterns, etc., but the discrete nature of these distinctions has been largely abandoned — as least as comprehensive rubrics for chapter-length description and analysis. That said, there should be a set of key ideas that you’re working with and that you can arrange your evidence to support. These might be ideas that arise from the project itself — i.e. you might structure chapters around ideas that the people in your field site find important — or they might be ideas that derive from the theoretical questions that you’re concerned with. In either case, structuring a chapter around an idea helps to delimit what goes into that chapter.

Alternatively, you might think about structuring chapters around specific cases — whether they be people, places, or events — and even when that’s the case, it’s important to identify what the case is a case of. Having some kind of identified structure can lead you to ask whether or not any particular set of evidence needs to be in the chapter (which is to say that it’s absolutely okay to leave evidence out of a chapter when it doesn’t fit — better to be short and persuasive than long and unmoored).

The other vital thing here is that when it comes time to write articles based on your dissertation, they too will need to be organized around an idea (or maybe two coming into contact with one another), and starting with this kind of framework can lead you to have a more modular dissertation that you can mix and match to produce articles, and, later, more complex book chapters (but they needn’t!).

4) Make sure all those chapter ideas and pet theories appear in the introduction. Dissertation writers are sometimes motivated to write their introduction before they write the chapters of the dissertation, but it’s usually best to start with the chapters and work back to the introduction, if for no other reason that there tends to be a lot of drift when people work the other way (which is to say that what you think your dissertation is going to be about before you start writing it is probably not what it will actually be about). Once you have the ideas in place for each of the chapters, and you’ve written most of those chapters, it’s worth sketching out the introduction to see how all the ideas fit together as some kind of conceptual package. And then you have to explain why they fit together for the sake of your committee…

Again, if you have a delimited set of theories that you’re working with, writing an introduction around a set of ideas can be pretty straightforward: you can explain the ideas, where they come from, and what your contributions will be. That way as you work through the ideas in the dissertation itself, your committee has something to fall back on as to why your interests are as they are.

Introductions also benefit from a taste of the empirical content of the dissertation — which is different than the contextual chapter mentioned above. Give your readers a sense of the kinds of situations, quandaries, or events that are of interest throughout the dissertation, and use an example or two to motivate your engagement with the set of theory and ideas you’re employing. This helps stop an introduction from being too abstract and can compel your committee to engage with your readings of a set of shared theoretical texts in a new way.

5) Go easy on yourself. Dissertation writers often get hung up on identifying the ‘big idea’ of the dissertation before they actually write it — but, it took me three years after submitting my dissertation to really have a sense of what the big idea behind it was (and that had a lot to do with teaching and realizing where what I was doing fit into the field more generally). I had a passable big idea — sleep and its relationship to industrial capitalism — but as far as how that idea could travel, it took a long time to flesh that out.

And, no dissertation is perfect: it won’t feel that way when you turn it in, and it won’t feel that way years later. The best that a dissertation can be is an archive of evidence, ideas, and experiments that you can use for years to come — for conference presentations, articles, and eventually a book. If it’s also coherent and persuasive, consider it a victory.

 

The 5-Page Dissertation

Starting to write a dissertation is a daunting project. I’m all about formal conceits, though, and find that they can be very helpful in making dissertation writing a much more agreeable process. With my own dissertation, I used a method that relied on 5-page, case-oriented sections (which I’ll describe a bit below, and which you can still see the remnants of in the structure and content of The Slumbering Masses; if you feel really daring, you could also look at my actual dissertation). Each chapter of my dissertation was comprised of 5 or more of these 5-page sections, as well as an introduction and conclusion. All in all, my dissertation ended up being comprised of more than 50 of these 5-page sections, which included evidence assembled from fieldnotes, interview transcripts, and archival and textual content.

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Not every section adhered to a strict 5 pages, but my general rule was that if it was less than 5 pages long, then it wasn’t enough to count as a section — so it either needed to be paired with other data, or it needed to be expanded with more data or analysis. If it is longer than 5 pages by more than a couple of pages — i.e. it was closer to 10 pages than 5 — then it would need to be broken into two smaller sections that were clearly argued.

My general writing philosophy is that no one wants to read  about any one thing for more than 5 pages, and even if they do, they forget why they’re reading about it after page 5. So, both for the purpose of keeping people interested in your dissertation, and making sure they know what they’re reading what they’re reading, 5 page sections make sense.

Sections like I’m describing can also be fairly easy and stress-free to write. If, at the beginning of your dissertation writing, you can set aside theoretical concerns and structural conceits, writing up evidence in this 5-page case fashion can go fairly quickly. Yes, you’re deferring the heavy lifting, but it means that by the time you get to the analytic work, you have a significant amount of data, and a clear sense of what’s going into the dissertation (evidence-wise).

There’s also inherent modularity to 5-page sections. That is, if you need to move content from one chapter to another, if it’s in 5-page chunks, it’s relatively easy to relocate, and usually only requires a little rewriting in the section’s introductory and concluding paragraphs (and maybe in some of the analytic sections).

So, how did I (and how might you) structure 5-page sections?

I always tell people who are writing their dissertations to start with the evidence: just start writing up fieldnotes and transcribing interviews, beginning with the stuff that really stands out, and working from there. Don’t worry about why you’re writing this stuff up, just focus on assembling evidence. These nuggets of evidence provide the basis for your 5-page sections. These initial evidence-focused drafts can be quite short, anywhere from 1 page to 3 or 4. If they get longer than that, think about where it might be broken into 2 sections for the purpose of later development.

As you write these small sections, it’s worth marking them with keywords — these can be very straightforward descriptors or theoretical terms — which you can then use to move to the next stage. If you compile all of your sections into one document, it also makes it easy to keyword search for sections that might be associated with one another.

Once you have a significant number of these 5-page sections written (say 20 to begin with), you can start to arrange them into the skeletal framework of chapters based on similarities in themes or content. On first pass, each chapter probably needs 3-4 sections; as you move ahead, you might write new sections to complement the ones you already have, or move sections from one chapter to another. It will also become increasingly clear what other evidence you need to type up, so although you might only start with 20 or so sections written, by the end of the process you’ll have significantly more.

After assembling skeletal chapters, you can begin to write the analytic content for each of the sections and work on tying them together. This is the real difficult part of the process, and nothing makes it easier. But having solid evidence-based sections will ensure that there’s a firm foundation for each of the chapters.

You might also find that you end up with a number of sections that don’t ultimately fit into the dissertation. This isn’t cause for alarm, but instead might provide the basis for future articles or book chapters. Dissertation writing is about creating an archive of content that you can mine over the next five or more years (when the likelihood of new research opportunities is low), so the more you have by the time you finish your dissertation, the better. It doesn’t all need to be in the dissertation though, so don’t worry about producing too much since you’ll inevitably find uses for it.

Any questions about the process? Other suggestions for how to tackle dissertation writing? Desire to read a whole How-To book about the idea of dissertation writing this way and possible strategies? Post everything in the comments.

For another approach, check this out.