Think of Your Dissertation as Your Longest Work, Not Your Best Work

You* know how to write a decent seminar paper. You've done it at least a dozen times. So why is it so hard to get going on that dissertation?

[* for values of "you" of approximately 3rd-5th year in a philosophy PhD program]

Your advisor might stink. That's rough. It can definitely slow you down. But that's probably not the main reason.

You've got to teach or TA. Yes, that consumes oodles of time if you're conscientious about it. But I doubt that's the main reason either.

I suspect that the main reason, for most students, is excessive expectations. You want your dissertation to be the best thing you've ever written. You want to finally address a big, ambitious topic. You want work that will wow your advisor and everyone else.

Sure, of course you do! Those are good things to want. The problem is that the wanting interferes with the getting.

It interferes in two ways: by leading you to take responsibility for a larger literature than you can digest in the time allotted, and by encouraging perfectionism.

Against taking on too big a literature:

How do you write a seminar paper? You read the ten or thirty things assigned for the seminar, plus maybe a few other things. You especially master one or two of them, and then you develop your critique or alternative position. Now you've got a fine little criticism, say, of Gendler's view of "alief" in light of a couple of recent review papers on implicit bias. Seminar grade: A. Lovely!

But now you're on your dissertation. Time for a big, ambitious topic. Time to throw yourself deep into something important. You want to defend the existence of moral facts. Or you want to show how it's possible to have infallible introspective knowledge of your own experience. Great! To do this responsibly, what do you need to read? Um...

... the whole entire literature on moral facts or introspection?

That might take a while. Could you possibly do it in a semester or a year (while teaching, with life happening, etc.)? How do you even get started? Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. You feel like you've got to start writing. You can't not write for two and a half years while you read every book and article that has been written about these topics. But neither can you really write in an informed way without having read all of that stuff. So are you supposed to write in an uninformed way? If you're like most of us and you think in part by writing, how are you going to even organize it all in your mind and remember it if you aren't writing?

That's a nasty little pickle.

Here's the way to duck the pickle: Choose a much smaller topic that you really can master in a dedicated couple of months. Not just any topic, of course. One relevant to the big picture you have in mind.

Suppose your big topic is the (in-)fallibility of introspection of conscious experience. You might read everything pro and con in the recent literature on "containment" models of introspection, according to which the judgment I am in conscious state S literally contains conscious state S within it as a part (and is arguably thus infallibly correct). This topic is small enough to master and write about in a semester, if you are already a well-trained graduate student in philosophy of mind who has given it some preliminary thought. Though it's a small literature, really getting it right is an ample task for a big, long chapter. And the topic is centrally related to the big-picture issue of introspective infallibility in the recent literature.

Then, for the next chapter, find something nearby that is similarly small and tractable, to which you can bring some of the insights and tools from your previous chapter. Continuing the example, maybe neo-expressivist views of the nature of introspection.

Repeat a few times, and you'll find you've actually covered a fairly large territory in sum. In the process, you'll have mastered much of the literature that seemed so impossibly large at the start.

Find the tiniest thing you can find that is relevant to your topic while also being of significant interest to specialists in the area, and become the absolute bleeding world expert on it. Then bore your advisor with sixty-plus pages of a tediously thorough treatment. This is how to duck the pickle.

Against perfectionism:

If I said, "Michelangelo, next month create the best art you've ever made" could he do it? Not likely!

Don't think of your dissertation as your best work ever. Don't hold your writing to that difficult a standard. Maybe at some point down the road, after a bunch of revision, some favorite piece of it will turn out to be your best work ever. (More on this below.) But having that kind of expectation is not the way to start writing. Reconcile yourself to the likely fact that you're not going to produce the best work of your life in the next few months.

Here's a better way to think of it: Your dissertation will be the longest and most thorough thing you've ever written. That's all. Instead of aiming for brilliant prose, aim for length. Choose that little thing and cover it so exhaustively that no one who reads your chapter on the topic could doubt that you know that tiny corner of academia as well as anyone else in the world.

Send your advisor something long and hairy. It's okay. You're not being graded on prose style. Get it out to your advisor for feedback, and to others you trust, even though it's not the most beautiful of things. You can revise it later! That's the point of getting feedback, right?

Settle. Your target should be: rough, covers the bases (except for that one thing you forgot which you'll put in later), good enough to move on to the next chapter.

After the feedback, you'll see some things that definitely need changing. But unless some radical rethinking is required, don't make those changes yet! Instead, move on. Write the next chapter. Set the feedback aside to return to later, after you've rough drafted your other chapters. In the course of writing those other chapters, you'll probably have insights that influence your thinking about the earlier chapters, so they'll need significant revising for that reason anyway.

Do this several times and you'll find that you have a few hundred pages of long, ugly chapters that take you from the beginning to the end. Then revise. Rewrite the whole thing top to bottom. Now, at the end -- not in the early drafting stage -- is the time to make it... well I won't say perfect, but better. Polished. This is the last thing you do, simultaneously with hitting the job market.

Likely you will find, at the end, once you're done polishing, that your dissertation, or at least your favorite piece of it, is the best thing you've ever written. That's not because any chapter was fantastic in its initial draft, but rather because you've never before in your life spent a few years thinking about a single topic, and as a result you now have that topic down so well that you really see to the core of it. You know everyone else's views, and you can lay out the strengths and weaknesses of those views, and your great command of the material will show in the final, polished version of your work.

Start today:

So if you're sitting there stalled out on your dissertation, take Doctor Eric's three-step remedy:

(1.) Let go of the thought that you are about to produce the best work you've ever written. Lower your ambitions.

(2.) Choose a topic so narrow that you can read everything relevant in short order, and then read that stuff.

(3.) Write out that narrow thing, long and boring and ugly, blow by blow.

At the end, you'll have several dozen long, ugly, boring, thorough pages -- exactly the kind of material from which excellent dissertations are eventually built.

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