Like many other people I know, I got seriously hung up in grad school at the dissertation stage. Writing term papers was one thing. I knew how to do that. But writing a dissertation? I felt more or less completely lost for about 2-3 years. Because I've seen so many grad students get stuck at roughly the same stage, I thought I'd make a multi-post tutorial on how to write a dissertation. Please be forewarned: the tips I will give are purely lessons/suggestions that I believe may be helpful. I have little doubt some of you out there will disagree with some, or even much, of what I have to say. Hopefully, those who do disagree will post comments. My hope is that, if anything, my posts on the subject will generate some discussion.
On the Importance of Dissertations
I'm going to begin my discussion by getting on my soap-box for a minute. I've heard that many departments -- including my alma mater (Arizona) -- are moving away from requiring actual dissertations, and are instead accepting a handful of papers (so-called "star papers") as sufficient for the PhD. I think this is a mistake for at least two reasons.
First, as I've written elsewhere and others have remarked as well, our entire discipline is arguably becoming overly specialized. There seems an ever-growing trend in the direction of "smaller", nuts-and-bolts-type thinking, and away from grand, systematic ideas. I don't think this is a good trend, and I think the "star paper" approach only feeds into it. Learning how to put together and develop a Big Idea is an important thing to learn, and I think it needs to be learned early on (i.e. before one becomes a prof). If you don't learn how to develop a Big Idea in grad school, when will you learn? Your first several years after grad school you're trying to publish standalone papers, so you won't learn it then. What about after you get tenure? Will you suddenly learn how to develop Big Ideas then, after you've spent your entire time in grad school and your professional life before tenure developing Small Ideas? Again, probably not. Our discipline should try to generate Big Thinkers, and there's just no better time to begin developing Big Thinking skills than in grad school, through writing a dissertation.
Second -- and I'm sure I'll take some heat for this -- I think dissertations build character and are important as a test of will. Writing small papers involves a certain amount of discipline, stress, and risk. It's very hard to write a good paper, as we all know, but if a single paper "goes down the tubes" one can always write another one. Not so for dissertations. There are times during a dissertation when it looks like the whole thing will crash and burn, and when this happens one must find a way. Or sometimes one must scrap the whole thing a begin again. Writing good "star papers" is hard. Writing a halfway decent dissertation is very, very, very hard. It is a surpreme test of will, and a test that I think benefits us in the end. Because if you think grad school is hard, you have no idea. Being a professor is far more difficult. One needs to know how to really push oneself to the brink. This is no joke. You never have enough time as a professor. You need to learn how to do more than you think you can. And I think writing a dissertation helps one learn this. I can't tell you how many times during my dissertation I thought to myself, or even said out loud, "I don't think I can do this." I've never said this about single papers. I've always thought I could do those. And it's because of this difference that I think dissertations are important. It's because, next to a dissertation, the only thing that's ever led me to say, "I don't think I can do this", is being a professor. It's better to learn that one can do what appears "impossible" as a grad student than to try to learn it as a professor. Because if you didn't learn how to do the "impossible" as a grad student you may well sink instead of swim as a prof. Those, anyway, are my thoughts. Dissertations are horrible to suffer through...but I think they enable one to swim later on.
How Not to Find a Good Topic
Finding a good dissertation topic is probably the single most difficult part of getting a PhD in philosophy. It took me about three years to find a good topic -- three years of completely spinning my wheels -- and the vast majority of students I've seen have trouble finishing the PhD got hung up at this very stage. Why is it so difficult?
Prior to writing a dissertation, grad school taught you how to write individual papers. Finding a topic for a single paper is hard enough. Now, all of a sudden, you need to find a single, great book-length topic. Nothing you've done so far in grad school prepares you for it...and yet, somehow, you have to figure it out. Actually, things are much worse than this -- for in my experience writing graduate level term-papers positively mis-prerares you to find a good dissertation topic. Let me explain why.
Let's reflect for a moment on how one typically arrives at a term-paper topic. I'm probably oversimplifying, but if I remember right the process goes something like this: You read some papers in Field X. You find an argument/position in Field X that you don't think works very well, but which you think you can improve on. What you do then is write a term paper laying out that argument/position, criticizing it, and finally, having your say. This is no way to go about trying to formulate a dissertation topic. I'll use my own case to illustrate.
When I started out trying to formulate a dissertation topic, I decided I wanted to defend normative reasons internalism -- the view that all genuine normative reasons depend on the subjective states of the agent to whom those reasons apply. This view, obviously, stands opposed to normative reasons externalism, which is the view that there are normative reasons that in no way depend upon said internal states. Okay, now think for a moment about what a dissertation on this topic would entail. I would have to learn, think through, and try to refute every argument out there -- arguments already published by super-duper-smart people -- in favor of normative reasons externalism. What a mountain to try to climb!
I've rarely seen a dissertation of this sort succeed. This isn't to say it can't be done...but I will say I've never seen it done. Here, then, is my first piece of advice:
Suggestion #1 -- Don't Focus in on a Big Issue or Big Position Prematurely: you'll never get your dissertation started, let alone done, if you task yourself with having to refute everything that's ever been written on a particular side of a well-established issue. That is too tall, and too steep, of a mountain to climb.
How to Find a Good Topic
Suggestion #2 -- You have to find a Big Idea: Every successful dissertation that I've come across is based upon a Big Idea. My dissertation's Big Idea was to systematically apply John Rawls' original position to the domain of nonideal theory. Other Big Ideas I've come across include: viewing moral theories as *advice*-giving, understanding and evaluating political theories on the basis of cutting-edge empirical psychology, etc.
There's a simple reason why it's important to find that Big Idea: once you find it, the dissertation more or less writes itself. After all, once you find your Big Idea, you don't need to "refute" every existing argument in the literature on your topic. All you have to do is show how your Big Idea illuminates the topic in ways that the existing arguments in the literature generally miss. In other words, the Big Idea makes things easy for you. Instead of attempting the near-impossible (refuting every other smart person out there), your dissertation aims to change the conversation (or at least show a different way of looking at the conversation).
Suggestion #3 -- To Find a Big Idea, Read...and Read Widely: "Okay," you say, "I realize I should try to find my Big Idea...but that's easier said than done! How am I supposed to find it?" In my experience, one primary reason grad students have trouble finding their Big idea is that they ran afoul of Suggestion #1 above ("Don't pick a Big Issue or Big Position"). After all, here's what happens after you fix in on a Big Issue or Big Position. You read that literature, and try to come up with your Idea. The problem with this is: you might not have a Big Idea on your favorite Big Issue! I had this problem myself. As I said, early on I had my mind made up: I wanted to defend normative reasons internalism. So what did I do? I read everything I could on the subject and tried to come up with my Idea. And I failed. Much later on, after a rejected disseration topic, one of my profs at Arizona, Mark Timmons, told me, "Just read." I took Mark to mean: don't just read on your favorite issues. Read other things. And so I did. I set aside normative reasons internalism and started reading political philosophy. I read a bunch of stuff on legitimacy. Then I read, and re-read, Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and The Law of Peoples...and at last my Big Idea came to me.
The lesson I took from this is that you never know where your Big Idea will come from. If you have your mind made up about the Big Issue you want your dissertation to be about early on, you're dramatically narrowing your chances of finding a good Big Idea. If you read, and read widely, about many different topics, the greater your chances of finding your Idea. The larger the net, the more likely you'll catch a fish.
I hope you all found this discussion interesting, and I'm curious to see what y'all have to say. More later.