The other day, it occurred to me that I have a goodly number of friends who have been in Ph.D. programs (and may still be “in” the program in some more or less official way), and who have more or less finished their graduate research, but who haven’t managed to get their dissertations written. (I’m not going to name names; you know who you are.)
In this post, I want to offer these friends (and others in this situation) encouragement to get that dissertation written!
Yes, I know, you have your reasons for not finishing. Yes, I know writing a dissertation can feel like the hardest thing ever — I wrote two of them, so I have a bit of experience here. Believe me, I know that the writing of a dissertation often takes place against the backdrop of intense psychological obstacles and insane demands on your time; I wrote my first one while experiencing a major crisis about what I wanted to be when I grew up, while the second only had to compete with the care of an infant, a full teaching load, and an exhausting daily commute.
You don’t need me to give you reasons not to write that dissertation, else it would be written. So, from the other side of that dark tunnel, let me give you some reasons to do it:
- It’s not really knowledge until you’ve communicated it to others in your field. While a dissertation isn’t usually viewed as “published” in the same way as peer reviewed journal articles, other researchers can (and do) make use of dissertations from the library stacks or from microfilm. Finishing and filing your dissertation means that you’re contributing your findings to the common body of knowledge for your discipline, sharing what you know and making it available as a building block with which others in your field can create more knowledge.
- Other grad students may directly benefit from the existence of your dissertation. A completed dissertation can be a valuable resource for other students, describing experimental set-ups in more detail than journal articles ever do, offering an important review of relevant literature, flagging dead-ends and approaches that didn’t work as well as had been hoped, and serving as a model of what a successful dissertation looks like. It could even serve as an inspiration for future dissertation writers to finish up.
- You ought to appreciate the tree you contribute to the forest. Writing up your research gives you an opportunity to appreciate how the work you’ve done hangs together as a cohesive project, and how it fits into and advances the existing body of knowledge in your field. When you’re still thrashing through the particular details, it’s easy to miss this — and to underestimate just what you’ve accomplished.
- You shouldn’t lose sight of the forest for the tree over which you’ve been laboring. Even though it’s your biggest project to date, a dissertation is not your life’s work. Graduate school gives you the opportunity to learn how to do good research and to develop your research interests. Neither grad school nor your dissertation topic is a cage that need contain you for your whole professional life. Whether you love this project so much that you don’t want to let it go, or you can’t move beyond it fast enough, there will be other projects. Finishing your dissertation can clear the decks for these other projects.
- Finishing this step may help you find your way forward. A completed dissertation can suggest the next logical project — maybe an extension of this one, maybe a very different direction informed by what you liked and what you didn’t like about this one. (Of course, the dissertation may also lend itself to being carved up into distinct papers to submit for publication, or to being edited and published in book form.) A finished dissertation isn’t just the culmination of one stage of your research — it can provide forward momentum for the next stage.
- Finishing the dissertation lets you hone your written communication skills. It can be especially instructive as far as working out how to write for an intelligent audience that knows a good bit about your discipline but that may not have the same detailed grasp of particular approaches, techniques, and pieces of the literature as you do. Written communication skills are pretty darn portable, and they are valuable in many circumstances. Since you can only get them by actually writing, why not work on them while you’re working on that dissertation?
- Finishing the dissertation lets you defend the dissertation. This is an opportunity to seriously engage with “grown-ups” in your field, at length, about a project you know better than anyone else. Despite how nervous the circumstances of this engagement may make you, it is a really cool experience to have a group of smart people who share your disciplinary interests ask you good questions about what you’ve been working on.
- You may avoid some awkwardness at job interviews. Explaining why you haven’t finished, how close to completion your project really is, can be complicated. Done is pretty unambiguous. (If you finish the dissertation, you also make it easier for the people writing your letters of recommendation for further positions — they can focus on the awesome qualities you bring to the table rather than having to explain why you never completed a significant requirement for your degree program.)
- You’ll help clear the decks for your advisor. In some graduate programs, faculty advising Ph.D. students may be explicitly evaluated in terms of their ability to move Ph.D. students through to completion. Even where this is not a locus of evaluation, lots of advisors will spend time and energy worrying about their students who could write up but haven’t. Have a little empathy.
- Finishing brings you closer to the day you won’t have to deal with the university registrar ever again. Some programs keep you registering as a student (and paying the attendant student fees) until you finish your degree. Others make you register (and pay fees) for the term in which you defend and file your dissertation, and frequently there’s paperwork you need to fill out if a significant interval passes between your last registered term and the one that preceded it. Aren’t you tired of administrative paperwork and student fees?
- It won’t be hanging over you anymore. People won’t keep pestering you about when you’re going to be done. You won’t keep pestering yourself, or wondering if you’re ever going to do it. If you get this big task out of the way, there will be less to dread when you get out of bed in the morning.
- It feels good to be done. Once you’ve written up and defended your dissertation, you can really say you’re done — all but nothing! It’s a good excuse for a party.
Recent disserters are invited to chime in with other motivating reasons to finish.