Tag Archives: dissertation

Chiseling out a dissertation topic

John Fea poses a question well worth considering: “Must an applicant to a Ph.D program have a fully-formed dissertation idea in mind when they apply for admission?  I am not referring to a general field of study or even a particular topic within that field of study, I am referring to an actual dissertation topic.”

Never having served on any graduate admission committees, I can’t say whether a locked-in dissertation idea is a credit or a debit on an application.  But in terms of going through the process once you’ve been admitted to a program, I can share my experience, for whatever it’s worth.

As I’ve said before, I think the hiatus I took between finishing my master’s and starting a doctoral program has made my Ph.D. experience a lot more enjoyable.  Now that I’m in the dissertation stage, I’m even more glad to have had the benefit of that extra time reading and sharpening my research interests.

But I also think a certain malleability is necessary.  Your graduate coursework is all about initiation into a guild.  You’re learning what historians do, and how other historians have framed questions and figured out ways to answer them.  If that doesn’t have an impact on how you frame and answer your questions, then what’s the point of doing coursework?

When I started my doctoral work, I knew I wanted to study Appalachian settlers’ involvement in the American Revolution.  I was interested in the centripetal forces that pulled them into the Revolution and the centrifugal forces that pushed them to its margins.  I had a topic, and I had some questions I wanted to answer.  But I wasn’t yet framing those questions precisely, and I didn’t have a clear plan of attack for finding answers to them.  That came later, with a lot of guidance from my adviser, conversations with other professors, and engaging with a lot of historiography in seminars.

You know that movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo?  There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where these guys are dragging a massive block of marble into Rome.  When Michelangelo sees it, he says, “Look!  Moses…here in the marble.  Moses down from Sinai.  God’s anger in his eyes.”

I think one of the things that makes a good doctoral adviser is the ability to look at a student’s interests the way Michelangelo looked at that block of marble.  Somewhere in there is a viable research project that can contribute something to the field.  You might not be able to see it yet.  But a good adviser (and the other members of your committee) will be able to discern its outlines, and will help you figure out where to apply the chisel.

By Jörg Bittner Unna [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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Two lessons I’ve learned about writing a dissertation

In the past few days I’ve learned two things about writing a dissertation.  The first lesson is something I had to stumble across on my own; the second I got from somebody else.

By Marco Verch (Notizblock mit Stiften) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I always had this notion that research and writing were two distinct stages in any project like this, with the writing coming after most of the research was finished.  I’d spend a long time accumulating evidence, and then I’d sit down, sort it all out, and turn it into finished prose.  I’d still have some material to consult while working on early drafts, of course, but I thought I’d have the bulk of it done by the time I started stringing words together.

It hasn’t played out that way.  Writing itself—at least when you’re dealing with a project of this sort—is a process of discovery.  You can’t finish your research before starting to write, because your sense of what material you need will develop as you write.

Right now, for instance, I’m writing a foundational chapter on the meanings of eighteenth-century manhood, both in the English colonies in general and on the Appalachian frontier in particular.  Manhood was closely bound up with ownership of land.  I knew this when I started writing, and I’d acquired some good material on the links between land and manliness.  But once the writing commenced, it became apparent that I needed to explore these ties in more depth, and to do more digging into the historiography of land ownership.

Being OCD, I don’t like the idea of trying to compose text around ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.  It feels a bit like trying to put a puzzle together while looking through a keyhole.  But finding out that I have no choice in the matter—that I can’t have the ideas fully fleshed out until I start assembling them—has been liberating.  It’s eased some of my anxieties about doing historical research and writing.  Since I can’t plan out the whole route ahead of time, I might as well go ahead and start putting one foot in front of the other.

The other lesson is something Christina Snyder told a group of us grad students yesterday during her visit to campus: “A page a day is a dissertation in a year.”  That came as a revelation.  Another assumption I had about a substantial writing project is that you should do it in big chunks.  When I sit down at the keyboard and can’t produce anything more than a couple hundred words, it’s discouraging.  But sometimes productivity means something less like an avalanche and more like the steady drip-drip-drip of mineral-rich water that creates stalagmites.

One step at a time, and if you can’t see the whole route, you can at least see where to plant your foot next.  That’s what it boils down to.

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